The Taste for Taboo

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Oct. 19 1997 3:30 AM

The Taste for Taboo

(Continued from Page 1)

At the level of mass information, we readily grant ourselves permission to look at such images. Terrible scenes of massacres, bombings, and the like are displayed almost daily. (rotten dot com provides constant updates on such atrocities.) To the degree that we regard them as goads to compassion and involvement (as in Bosnia or the Middle East), showing them is a purported moral good. But it is easy to take this idea of death imagery as important evidence and to expand it into an excuse that legitimizes the sort of voyeurism we have just seen in the Diana case.

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That is just what has happened with a number of shocking images involving famous and beloved persons. The view of Robert Kennedy lying in a pool of his own blood has been reproduced regularly for almost 30 years with minimal objection or concern about his family's feelings. It is regarded as a valid news image, but what does it really tell us?

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Worse, autopsy photographs of John F. Kennedy have been published in many books, including some that have been best sellers. (If you really want to see the so-called "death stare," click.) The conceit, of course, is that careful scrutiny of these images may reveal something important about JFK's assassination. For that matter, the dreadful Frame 313 of the Zapruder film with its cranial explosion may be one of the most-reproduced images in recent decades.

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There is by now a whole gallery of such images, many of them reproduced to illustrate conspiracy narratives. Internet sites featuring Diana pictures frequently link to Diana conspiracy sites. For some, Diana's pictures are also "evidence" of a deeper plot. Even a Marilyn Monroe autopsy picture has been published under the same guise. (Those willing to confront a startlingly changed Marilyn can click.) People find the excuse they need to see a photo. Even the wrong excuse.

It's easy to interpret this as popular depravity, but the matter is not so simple. Autopsy pictures, common enough on the Internet, are not a popular genre; nor are the death photos of just any famous people. Crime-scene photos of Nicole Brown Simpson, notorious as her death was, caused little stir. The death images that have received the greatest attention have something important in common: All of them are of people who have been subject to popular hagiography, people who are the public's most beloved figures. The biggest-selling American tabloid of all time was the National Enquirer issue that published pictures of a dead Elvis. Now we have Diana.

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The emotional relationship between grief and photography dates to the very birth of the camera in the Victorian period. Americans of the last century surrounded themselves with photographs of dead family members posed in their coffins, a practice so widespread as to be an important source of income for photographers. Such photos--compiled in Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip and elsewhere--now appear macabre. (If you want to see one, click.) But we are looking at them with detachment, the emotionally "cool" state that Americans developed after World War I.

American Victorians weren't cool: They subscribed to a veritable cult of grief. "No home ever reaches its highest blessedness and sweetness of love and its richest fullness of joy till sorrow enters its life in some way," wrote one minister quite typically in an 1882 family advice manual.

Their attitude applied to beloved public figures as well as to family members--which is precisely why death photographs of Abraham Lincoln were forbidden in the wake of his murder. Secretary of State Edwin Stanton, apparently concerned that a trade in such images would develop, refused to allow any to be taken. Given the intensity of the Lincoln hysteria, Stanton surely was right.

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The proof is that, over the years, several Lincoln "death portraits" surfaced after all. They are, of course, all spurious. One can see four of them in Twenty Days, by Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt and Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. (You can see an enlargement of the two images below by clicking.) These images have various origins, and it is unclear whether they were posed, misrepresented, or innocently misidentified. But the result is the same in any event: At some point, they were accepted as authentic by people who esteemed the dead president, and they were treasured as such.

People find the value they seek in an image. Even the wrong image. That may be a pseudo-Diana in the notorious Internet picture, but there's nothing new about such spurious images and nothing false about the emotions that have led so many people to look at them.

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