The Taste for Taboo

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Oct. 19 1997 3:30 AM

The Taste for Taboo

NOTE: This article contains links to images that many will find distasteful.

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By Charles Paul Freund

(1,427 words; posted Saturday, Oct. 18)

At the height of the pop misery following Princess Diana's death, one of America's eminent historians appeared on a PBS panel to discuss the meaning of it all. Asked if the intense grief would have any lasting results, she suggested that it might affect the public approach to celebrity and predicted that the paparazzi accident photos then known to exist would "never see the light of day." She'd barely finished her prediction when the other panel members broke in. Those pictures had already been published, they noted glumly: The German tabloid Bild had printed them that morning. (If you want to see the crash photo that appeared in Bild, click here and scroll down.)

The printing of such a photo was news in its own right. Because Diana allegedly was hounded to her death by photographers, displaying or even looking at pictures of this kind was interpreted by commentators as venal: an assault on Diana's memory, if not an endorsement of the crime. But tabloids like Bild are an old media model now; the Internet soon kicked in with even more pictures, overwhelming the new photomoralism. (For a sampling of distasteful Internet offerings, click.)

The Diana pictorial taboo and its underlying moralism turned out to be remarkably evanescent, and a secondary morality tale has arisen to explain why: It's the Internet's fault. The new technology, according to this view, is a tool of cheap voyeurism, capable of smashing public decency with unprecedented speed and efficiency. But even if one assumes a degree of voyeurism in the Diana case, the charge misses the point. Such imagery has long been a tool of popular grief in American culture.

The fact is that the very intensity of the reaction to Diana's death made the viewing of such photos more likely, not less so. Photography's relationship with grief is an intimate one. In the case of Diana, that relationship seems to have played itself out in familiar ways: People sought out photos of her in death--including spurious ones--because she was important to them.

We have always found ways--excuses, if you like--to look at documentary images of violence and death. Whatever our level of acknowledgment--tabloid exploitation or elite refinement--we categorize such images intellectually and emotionally, transforming appalling scenes into objects of sentiment, pieces of evidence, and even works of art. Indeed, the cathartic opportunities presented by such images, whether sentimental or aesthetic, have a long history of overwhelming any questions of documentary value.

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At the high end of culture, death imagery commonly becomes art, especially in the case of war photography. Generations have pondered Alexander Gardner and Timothy O'Sullivan's justly famous photos of the dead at Gettysburg. The battle ended, these men lie hauntingly in fields of stillness, a "harvest of death," in Gardner's own phrase. (Click to see A Harvest.) Yet students of these photos noticed some time ago that the same corpses seem to show up in different places on the battlefield, and they concluded that the photographer had "arranged" the dead in order to achieve pleasing tableaux.

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One of the most famous of all photographs is Robert Capa's 1936 Moment of Death, taken during the Spanish Civil War. (Click to see Moment.) It presents a Republican soldier as he is shot, capturing what usually is interpreted as an instant of noble sacrifice. In his 1975 book, The First Casualty, Phillip Knightley examines this picture and its history at length. Paying homage to the great war photographer's courage and talent, he nonetheless notes the conflicting stories of the photo's origins, Capa's own silence about the image in his writings, and other writers' questions. Knightley carefully concludes only that the photograph "turns out not to be the clear and simple statement of fact that it otherwise appears." Yet, assume that this famous still was not portraying an act of slaughter: Would it be a relief or a disappointment? People see what they want in pictures. Even in pictures of death.