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April 11, 2011

Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery Presents Sleeping Beauties: Memorial Photographs from the Burns Collection

April 14 - May 31, 2011

Contact: Thomas Moore
Director of Arts Management

Note: This release is available as a pdf file.

The Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery presents Sleeping Beauties: Memorial Photographs from the Burns Collection, on display from April 14th through May 31st. On Thursday, April 14th at 4 p.m., Stanley Burns, author of three books on memorial photographs, will give a public lecture, "Photographing the Dead: A Process of Love, Remembrance, and Grieving."

Since the invention of photography, people have taken and used photographs of the deceased to celebrate memories of loved ones and to mitigate the finality of death. Such images, known as memorial photographs, are special mementos with deep meaning for mourners.

From early daguerreotypes to contemporary images, Sleeping Beauties showcases over one hundred examples of memorial photography, revealing the diversity within this photographic practice. Considered individually or together, the images on display in this exhibition encourage contemplation of the ways in which individuals and cultures respond to death.

Remarks by Tom Beck, Chief Curator, Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery
One of the defining images in this exhibition is the tintype of a father lovingly holding an uncomfortable looking child. The father is well-dressed and has an air of invincibility that is undermined only by outsized, swollen fingers. His one hand rests demonstratively on his knee and the other in a claw-like position distended beyond his son's clothing rather than affectionately clasping the child. The image does not cry out that either father or son is deceased, but the father's fingers are so unnatural that one soon realizes that he is dead. This portrait, likely the only one ever made of the two together, emphasizes familial relationship and love as motivations behind the image. In varying degrees, love, relationships, and grieving more than death, are the central characteristics of this exhibition.

Another characteristic of the show, also as represented by the portrait of the father and son, is the changing technology of photography. The portrait is a tintype, a relatively affordable process in 1875 when the image was made. Represented in the exhibition are various tintypes, but also a whole spectrum of photographic processes from the 1840s to the 2000s, including daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, albumen prints, cartes de visite, cabinet cards, silver gelatin prints, and digitally generated permanent pigment prints. The exhibition is a veritable history of photography as seen through memorial photographs. Revealed is that the look of death has not changed over time, only the way that it is represented.

The show is organized by themes, including "Adults," "Children," "Sleep," "Family and Rituals," "Remembrances," "Images with Images," "Eyes Open," and "Decorative Displays." Each section is sequenced historically to tell a story about the topic from the earliest to the latest images. The father and son portrait, for example, is in the section labeled "Adults," because it is the father who is deceased. The section on "Children" tugs at one's heartstrings so much perhaps because the images show cute, vulnerable little ones full of human potential not to be realized. The "Sleep" section shows attempts to make the dead look like they just happen to be napping. (In the nineteenth century, death was frequently described as "the long last sleep.") Images of the spent bodies of children with their eyes closed promote the illusion of sleep as the children are laid out so naturally in carriages or on beds.

Additional sequences include the "Family and Rituals" section which shows immediate and extended family members posed with the deceased, usually in their coffins. These images, of course, would be the last photographs of the family all together. The "Remembrances" section includes memorial poem cabinet cards (sometimes with photographs on them) and memorial ceramic photographs often used on memorial markers. The Images with Images" section shows photographs with images of a deceased one in them, or photographs with images associated with someone who is deceased. This section will fascinate iconologist's, because the images surrounding those of the dead often comment on and have especially telling relationships to the dead. The "Eyes Open" section highlights images that attempt to make the dead look natural and somewhat as they did in life. Finally, there is the "Decorative Displays" section which shows photographs of memorial centerpieces that represent a way of setting off an image or expressing a reverence for the deceased. Some decorative displays images are commercial, such as the one for Abraham Lincoln. The imagery was intended for public consumption for viewing in one's parlor. Others, such as "Tower of Silence," were intended to be sold to tourists as they visited monuments to the dead. Finally there were those with the words "Pater," or "Sister" which were for personal and family purposes.

Photographs have three lives. The first life is the immediate purpose for which the image was made. In the case of memorial photographs, the image provides a record of the deceased, a way to express love and relationship for that person, and to serve as part of the grieving process. The second life of a photograph is as recent past nostalgia. Friends and family can look back over time and remember the deceased as well as good times that were had together. The third (and perhaps the most important life) is as a communication over the generations. Long after there is no one alive who remembers the deceased, memorial images communicate to viewers that the person lived and was regarded highly enough in life that people wished to remember them after death. Also memorial images teach succeeding generations that all humanity is related to each other and are the same in death. Perhaps most of all, memorial photographs confer upon the dead a kind of immortality. Long after they are gone, the deceased continue to live on in images. This exhibition is about all of these things.

Gallery Information
The Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery serves as one of the principal art galleries in the Baltimore region. Objects from the Special Collections Department, as well as art and artifacts from all over the world, are displayed in challenging and informative exhibitions for the University community and the public. Moreover, traveling exhibitions are occasionally presented, and the Gallery sends some exhibits on tour to other institutions nationwide. Admission to the Gallery and its programs is free.

The presentation of this exhibition is supported by an arts program grant from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the State of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support comes from the Baltimore County Commission on the Arts & Sciences, the Friends of the Library & Gallery, the Libby Kuhn Foundation, and individual contributions.

Mon/Tue/Wed/Fri: 12 pm - 4:30 pm
Thursday: 12 pm - 8 pm
Sat/Sun: 1 pm - 5 pm

General Gallery information: 410-455-2270

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Posted by tmoore at April 11, 2011 11:53 PM