This series began in 2003, after I heard about the Southern Baptist tradition of elaborately dressing corpses for burial in a gorgeous preparation ritual for greeting life after death. I began to wonder what would happen if the beautifully coiffed and adorned bodies were abstracted from the context of a funeral and the trappings of a memorial service. Would it be possible to create a moving and emotional portrait of an individual after death? Would the portrait be true, or an idealized one, in much the same way that the Egyptians generated embellished images for the afterlife? Given an abstract context, could a photographic memento mori explore the complexities of character of the person being photographed as a traditional portrait often does?
With the permission of a Harlem funeral director, and written permission from the individual families involved I embarked on a year-long project to try and create formal portraits of the dead, using the poses and lighting techniques usually reserved only for the living. I used an 8 x 10 Deardorff camera, photographing each of my subjects against a black cloth to obliterate any extraneous details. Shooting with 8-minute exposures from 10 feet above my subjects, with my tripod straddling a huge coffin, the process was quite difficult, both practically and emotionally. I never knew when I would be given permission to photograph someone, so I was perpetually on call, and then had only a few hours to shoot, often working until moments before a memorial service began. In spite of the time constraints, I tried to learn as much as I could about each person I photographed, as I would with a living subject. I came to feel that these portraits are not about death, but about people’s lives. Each of the people photographed came from different places and they all made a journey, not only from the American South but also often from great oppression to Harlem, where they had more chance to be who they wanted to be. I hope this series shows that this is the way they were. This was the 20th century journey.
In Conversation: Elizabeth Heyert and Stacey D’Erasmo
How did this project begin?
I saw an article in the paper about a funeral director in Harlem named Isaiah Owens who did this old-style, Southern Baptist, traditional burial in which people were dressed up to be prepared to enter paradise. So I went up to Harlem. There was a woman named Betty Edwards in an elaborate coffin lined with white satin. She was in a big white hat, a white suit and she looked amazingly beautiful. She had a round face, a sweet expression. I was so moved by the idea of death being an occasion for which you’d put on your finest. I took a black and white picture, but it was simply a record of somebody in a coffin. It was a façade, and I had thought I was interested in that after doing my last project, The Sleepers, which was so much about the interior. But I kept looking and looking at the image; it was as if she was surrounded by all this stuff that shouldn’t be there: the elaborate coffin, the quilted satin pillow, the flower arrangements. I thought it would be so wonderful to stand her up, light her well. I lived with the image for three weeks, working on the Polaroid with a magic marker, thinking that there must be a way I could do this.
What happened with the second person you photographed?
I phoned Owens and told him about my idea. He told me about someone, Margaret Forrest, who had just died at 101. I went up to the funeral parlor. She was so beautiful you can’t imagine, all in pink with a fabulous purple hat. I asked as much as I could about her, tried to learn her story. Then we tried propping up the coffin on the platform where people deliver eulogies and it actually worked. I brought a large dark cloth to place under the body, then kind of taped up the cloth on the furniture and stacked hymnals on top to hold it down. I didn’t understand yet exactly what I would need to do to make a real portrait. But once I took her away from the elaborate trappings, it was as if I knew her. I could see who she was.
As I looked through the ground glass, I got completely choked up. It stopped being about death and became about her whole life. A portrait is always about the coming together of two people, and that’s what happened with her. It didn’t seem like she wasn’t there anymore, or as if I was looking at a facade. I could feel her humanity. I was just shaking and filled with excitement. I decided then that I wanted to photograph a whole community, a community of the dead.
How long did the project take?
From February 9, 2003 to March 14, 2004.
What was the actual process?
I used an 8 x 10 Deardorff, and shot three different kinds of 8 x 10 inch sheet film: color slides, color negatives, and black and white. With each person I knew I wouldn’t have a second chance. I felt that I was recording history. I wanted to make sure I had whatever I might need to print the photograph. We brought one studio light, and then used a 60’s arc light that we found there, and some fill cards to try to overpower the weird mixture of ambient light. It was difficult to do the sort of beautiful portrait lighting I wanted to do, because the funeral parlor had fluorescent lights and pinkish spotlights. Each shoot took about three hours, and the exposures were up to eight minutes long. Usually it was in the very early morning, because the family would gather the night before to see what their loved one looked like after the body was prepared by Owens, and approve. We’d get permission, get the release signed, and I’d get a phone call to be in Harlem in a few hours. The service would usually be at 10 a.m., so I’d go there at 5 or 6 a.m. and we’d work as fast as we could. In other words, we worked after the body was prepared for the service, but before being buried. There was a lot of time pressure. During the shoots, once someone was placed in the coffin over the black cloth I’d spend a lot of time manipulating the big camera. I was hanging over the body, high up on a ladder, always straddling a coffin with a big heavy lid. Then just before I took the photo, Owens would come in and I would direct him to delicately move the hands or head to create the most natural pose, do manually what I would usually explain to a living person who was sitting for a portrait. I never touched the bodies.
For a year I was perpetually on call. I never wanted to turn anyone down. I shot 33 portraits; there are 31 portraits in the project.
Were there any elements that recurred in these photos?
People here are dressed up for the journey to paradise. Owens called it “going to the party.” The women wore these incredible hats and a number of them wore burial gowns which were satin, sequined, like prom gowns. In a number of cases, different women were in the same style dresses, but in different colors. Women sometimes wore the Eastern Star. Men often wore white suits. The men also wore hats; the men who were Masons wore fezzes. Jewelry was common; people would be buried in all their jewelry, like the Egyptians. Often, people would be prepared by Owens, the service would be held in Harlem, and then the dead would be flown back to the South, usually to one of the Carolinas.
Who is Isaiah Owens?
He’s a very skillful funeral director who’s been doing this since the ‘60s. He comes from Branchville, South Carolina, where he also has a funeral parlor. The parlor here in New York is a gorgeous brownstone on Lenox Avenue with a slogan on the awning: “Where Beauty Softens Your Grief.” Outside the parlor are two stone benches. Engraved in one is “Sunrise” with the date of Owens’ birth, and in the other is “Sunset” without a date. He has a stock of burial gowns, pearls, lace gloves, hats; he wears white tie and tails and a top hat for the more elaborate funerals. He works all the time. He told me that undertaking has been one of the professions that African Americans could enter freely, because white people didn’t want to bury black people.
We had endless conversations. We discussed religion constantly, values, hypocrisy, race relations. He told me many stories about the various people who died. Here are some of my notes:
“died of AIDS, 60 lbs.”
“married for the first time in 2002”
“food on sleeve—apparently he was known for spilling”
“of an elegant church lady: loved to gamble”
“3 or 4 buses came from prison for her, because her whole family was in jail” “splendidly dressed woman—had been in a coma for a long time, and her kids were fighting and fighting over her money. She woke up, called her lawyer, disinherited all the kids, and died the next day.”
“woman in amazing big white hat (played the numbers). also: hair had to have a rinse before she was buried”
“friend of Owens‚ would always tell him, before she died, that when she died, someone was going to have to beat her wig the night before she was buried, meaning to sleep in it. As a very little girl, the daughter of a sharecropper, didn’t have any shoes until she was six—church ladies bought her a pair of shoes so that she could be in the choir, because she had a wonderful singing voice—shoes were too small, but she was afraid to say anything. She had to walk to church, she finally got there, collapsed in tears from the pain, and they all said ‘Hallelujah! She’s seen the light.’ Had her first child at 13.”
In just the year that you were working there, did you see any changes in Harlem?
Yes, absolutely. It’s changing so unbelievably fast. Now there’s a Starbucks, MAC, Sports Authority, all the downtown chains. I saw a quintessential sign of the new Harlem on a restaurant blackboard: ham hocks and arugula salad. Four to five years ago when I went up to Harlem, it was all African American, and now it’s many different types of people. Building is going on constantly, fancy condos and hotels.
How do you think your race influenced the way you took these pictures?
I was always an outsider, for so many different reasons. I’m white, born and raised in the North, not a Christian or a believer in any god. I didn’t believe in the afterlife and I still don’t, but I wish I did. It’s a tremendously appealing belief. Owens would tease me, saying, “Elizabeth Heyert. She’s not going to the party.” I wasn’t part of the Harlem community, not even slightly. As moved as I was, I was photographing something from a tradition that was foreign to me, and I think my outsider status helped me do this. Owens and I had many conversations about preserving history. He seemed to find it surprising that someone from outside the community would want to preserve this tradition.
I think that race was part of what drew me in. These people, many of whom were from the South, were from such a different background from mine; their stories were profound to me. Many of them must have experienced a vicious racism that I had only read about. I’m a white American and I know how shameful that history is, and how much we still don’t address it. Of course, this was a visual project, not an intellectual one, and if there was a funeral practice in Sicily or Japan that had this visual tradition, I might have gone there. But I wonder if I would have been as moved if it were in a foreign country. When I saw, say, that someone had been born on a plantation in the South in the ‘20s, I could imagine how far that person had traveled, the incredible distance. One man I photographed, for instance, was buried with an American flag. That’s common for a veteran, but when I saw the dates, I knew that he must have been in the segregated army. That’s shocking to me. But he and his family wanted to bury him with the flag. Only with the dead do you know the story from the beginning to the end.
I often thought that if any of these people had been alive, we couldn’t have had this sort of intimacy. Maybe for an instant, if we could tear our guard down, forget centuries of history. But here, when I was looking through the camera, we could be intimate. As with The Sleepers, I felt that it was very important not to take advantage of this. In sleep or death you’re so vulnerable. I knew I could get a lot of it wrong in these photographs, but I tried to get it right. I tried to get the stories and read the clues. I felt that it was a privilege. I hope that this is the opposite of sneaking into the morgue and taking pictures. The thing that struck me continually was the intense sense of a community from the past that didn’t have a place in the new Harlem or really in the 21st century. It was an opportunity to photograph a community of the dead, and that was about culture, about race, about religion. I was always painfully aware that I was white. It was a much bigger factor than I had expected it to be.
During this year, you were always working between night and day, and with people who, in a way, really hadn’t quite crossed over to the other side yet. How did that affect you?
I hesitate to say this for fear of sounding too girlish, but during the year that I was working on The Travelers I felt that, though I was always outside at the glass looking in, I was looking at a wonderful world. It was full of things I don’t have: a big family, faith, traditions. Though there was the pain of not being able to share in it, I got to go into that world regularly. But after I was done working in Harlem, it was like I was haunted. During the year of the project, I was almost unaware that what I was immersed in was about death. But afterwards, it was all about death. It was about everything about death that isn’t beautiful. It was about decay, loss, and people being completely gone. I had nightmares. My creative project was over, but also this family, this community, though I was never a part of it. It reminded me of a Katherine Mansfield story I read when I was about twelve, about an old woman who goes to the park every day and sits on a bench. She sees a young couple who also comes there every day, and she watches them. This goes on for a year, until toward the end they catch her staring at them and the man makes a crack and she realizes that she’s the quintessential outsider. It was similar with this. I was so aware of my outsider status, that I’d never be a part of the world I was photographing and never experience it again.
I see this as part of a trilogy: The Sleepers, The Travelers, and my next project. But I’d never want to photograph the dead again, because after it ended it became not about beauty and community and history, but only about death. I thought about doing more pictures, but I couldn’t bring myself to do them. In fact, every single time after photographing someone, I thought, I can’t go back, I can’t do this. My two fears were that I’d never get to do another one and that I’d have to do another one.
Who was the last person you photographed?
A young man, only 22 years old. The first portrait I did was the oldest person, and the last one I did was the youngest. His name was James Earl Jones—his street name was Jay Moe. It was probably the hardest one emotionally. I had photographed his mother, Daphne Jones, less than a year before, and she was also quite young. He was buried in a brand new Sean John track suit and new Timberland boots. When I got there, he was in a coffin stuffed with CDs, money, his beads, and dozens of notes and photographs from his girlfriends, photos of his kids. It was a strange, modern twist on the idea of what you’ll need in paradise after you die—the CDs, the money. It broke my heart. Even though he had died violently, that’s less and less the norm. The kids who buried him thought they were invulnerable; their notes said “See you soon!” and “I love you, baby.” They were so young themselves that they didn’t have any idea, really. His mother, too, had had such a tough life, but in death all of that fell away.
As you were working on the project, was there anything that you saw, out of the corner of your eye as it were, that you knew you couldn’t get?
The truth was that it was technically so difficult to do it at all that sometimes I could make a lifelike photo, but sometimes I couldn’t, depending on factors like how someone was embalmed or how sick the person had been. Usually when you take a portrait, it’s not an accurate rendering or a document, it’s a relationship, it’s what’s happening at that moment between us. It’s me bringing all my experience and the other person bringing theirs. I was still bringing my experience and trying to understand the experience of the person in front of me. I was interpreting, making emotional decisions. With any portrait, what you choose to leave out is conscious; it can change everything. But my biggest regret was that I couldn’t show the people the photos afterwards, to say, “Look what we did.” That’s what I could never do. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it always made me miserable three or four days after the shoots, when I’d realize that I couldn’t call up the people and talk about the picture, as you normally would. I came in after the story was over.
How do these photographs fit into the tradition of memorial photography?
Memorial photography really follows the history of photography. Before photography, only rich people could have their portraits done. Photography was more egalitarian; everyone could have portraits. Memorial photography was especially popular in the 19th century, because so many children died. People wanted a record of their short lives. The children were propped up, looking alive. It was a different approach, more sentimental; it was popular to say things of the dead like, “She’s just away.” But it was also an opportunity for African Americans to create a view for themselves into history. Since the African American tradition was to dress up to be buried, it was a great time to do a portrait. With memorial photos, African Americans began a visual record that they hadn’t had before. As medicines got better, though, people stopped taking these pictures. Now, very few people even have open coffins, much less memorial photos.
But, actually, I didn’t think of what I did in Harlem as memorial photography at all. I was doing portraits of a community after death. I don’t think of this as memorial photography, but as a series of portraits. My portraits aren’t about death, but about people’s lives. I’m interested in what makes up the essence of us as human beings and what the person outside sees. We have strong reactions to the people, not to the fact that they’re dead. In a way it’s always a portrait of the viewer: a white person will see something different than an African American person, a religious person will see something different than a non-religious person, and so on. They’re not unlike eulogies: these photos are a visual version of what the living—the families, Owens, I—want to remember, the stories we all want to tell about the dead.
I thought quite a bit about the right size for these photos. They’re 30 x 38 inches (76 x 97 cm), just slightly smaller than life size. I photographed James Patterson in February and in April his portrait was on a wall in a museum in Switzerland. Nothing in his life would have led him to expect that he might end up there. I felt that if I chose to make these images very big, it would sensationalize them. I didn’t want to make them tiny, precious objects, either. These people will be seen—in galleries, in a book, on a wall in Switzerland—at an intimate and vulnerable moment. I felt a great responsibility there, to present these people in the right light for this part of their journey.
What story do you think you were telling with this project?
It’s complicated. In part it was the whole idea of a community that has vanished. They’re gone, but so is the world they came from. These people all came from different places and they’d all made this journey, not only from the South but sometimes from great oppression, to Harlem, where they had more chance to be who they wanted to be. The story I was trying to tell is that this is the way they were. This was the 20th century journey.
ELIZABETH HEYERT has had a passion for photography since she was 16. It led her to the Royal College of Art in London, where she studied with Bill Brandt, and back to New York where she wrote her first photography book, and established a thriving commercial photography business. After shooting around the world for publications such as The New York Times, New York Magazine, American and British Vogue, Elle Décor, and Architectural Digest, and for clients including Ralph Lauren, Cartier, American Express, and Tiffany & Co. her successful career allowed her to close her commercial studio in 1999 to return to a more personal exploration of photography. Since then she has created THE SLEEPERS, THE TRAVELERS, and THE NARCISSISTS, a trilogy of experimental portraits that has been extensively exhibited and published worldwide. She is the author of numerous books of and about photography including three books from her series, THE SLEEPERS, Sei Swann/D.A.P 2003., THE TRAVELERS, Scalo Verlag 2006, and THE NARCISSISTS, Sei Swann/Silvana Editoriale 2009 as well as THE GLASS-HOUSE YEARS, a history of 19th century portrait photography, and METROPOLITAN PLACES, one of the classic anthologies of 20th century interior design, which she wrote and photographed. Her photographs are part of the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as numerous private collections. Currently she is finishing a new project, 24 TRANCES, a series of portraits made while her subjects have been hypnotized and are experiencing a subconscious transformation. Elizabeth lives and works in New York City.