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Exhibitions: David Stewart's Modern Day Memento Mori

By David Schonauer   Tuesday March 10, 2020


The Victorian English had a way to remember the dead.

They photographed them.

To the modern eye, these photographs of deceased loved ones, known as memento mori, can seem macabre. But in the England of the 1850s and 1860s, that wasn’t the case. Victorian life, notes the BBC, was suffused with death — epidemics of diphtheria, typhus and cholera killed children and adults alike, and the average life span was 40. At the same time, the new medium of photography made it possible to commemorate and, in a sense, preserve the lost. Mothers and fathers would pose holding their dead children. Children would be posed with their dead parents. Sometimes eyes would be painted on the photo of a body to make the deceased appear more lifelike.

The photographs echoed with another meaning, as well. Literally, memento mori means “remember you must die.” These images were a reminder that the nature of life is to die.

In that sense, modern-day London-based photographer David Stewart’s portrait series “Geoffrey Valentine” can be seen as part of a long tradition.

When his father died three years ago, Stewart, who is best known for his witty commercial and fine-art work, used a large format 4x5 camera to photograph him as he lay at rest prior to burial. He wasn’t consciously trying to create memento mori images. It just seemed, he says, like something he wanted to do.

“Ten years ago, when my mother died, I went with my father to visit her in a chapel of rest. And as we walked out, I remember thinking what an unusual experience that was. A lot of people nowadays never witness something like that — in fact many avoid that part where you can visit  a loved one after death but before the funeral. I’d photographed my father many times throughout the years, so when he died, I decided to take the opportunity to photograph him one last time.”

But, Stewart notes, like Victorian memento mori photography, his images of his dead father point to the common fate of everyone. “He was 93, and he had a good life,” he says of his father. “And for me, I supposed I was at that stage of life where you start questioning lots of things. You spend you’re life accumulating things, and you go out of the world in a little box.”

Five of the portraits Stewart shot are on view at London’s Wren gallery through April 9.

As we noted in a 2015 profile, Stewart’s commercial and fine-art work is often based on his wry observations of everyday life, drawn the from his own experiences.

In his 2001 book Fogeys, he imagined an alternate view of aging, using cartoonish colors to capture graybeards “growing old disgracefully.”  His 2009 book Thrice Removed is a collection of photographic vignettes featuring re-enacted scenes of strange coincidences and unexpected connections inspired by real-life observations. The brilliant 2013 book Teenage Pre-occupation featured documentary-like images of his own sons and daughter recreating real-life moments that he had witnessed, each illustrating the self-involved world of the young. He won the 2015 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize for a group portrait of his own daughter and her friends.

“Because my photographs often involve staging, quite a lot of people have assumed that the portraits of my father were,” he says. In fact, Stewart spent two-and-half hours with his father’s body. “When I showed up at the chapel of rest with my 4x5 camera, the people there were a little surprised,” he sas.

The images themselves are quiet and painterly — all were shot with natural light. “When people see them,” he says, “most tend to reflect right back on themselves and their own situations with elderly parents. The work just seems to throw up a lot of questions.”

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