Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America by Jay Ruby
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book has been on my TBR shelf for a very long time In fact, it’s been there so long that it’s gone out of date. When Secure the Shadow was published in 1995, no one carried internet-connected cameras in their pockets. The ability to photograph a deceased loved one — without the intercession of a photographer, funeral director, or photo processing — along with the ability to upload those photos and share them across social media has changed the game. I saw someone sharing photos of her father’s funeral on Facebook just yesterday. (For the record, they were tasteful and beautiful.)
Ruby tries to refute the notion that postmortem photos were rare when photography was new. To support that, he resorts to photographers’ records of the number of times they traveled to take such photos in family homes. Not many of those photographs have survived to come down to us now, probably because intervening generations found them in “bad taste” and disposed of them.
One of the chapters talks about photo plaques on cemetery monuments, including the rare instances of postmortem photos on gravestones. It doesn’t couch those images in the larger context of statues of dead people on their own graves, whether “sleeping” babes or women holding their dead infants while they lay on their deathbeds. That subject remains to be explored.
The part of the book that fascinated me most was the final chapter, which examined the resurgence of artful photos taken of stillborn or infants who die shortly after birth. Many of the psychological justifications for taking those photos — whether the families want them at the time or not — could apply to any postmortem photos. I think there is a market to be explored.
Overall, I found the text of the book repetitive, either because each chapter was designed to stand alone or because the author didn’t read his book from beginning to end as I did. The information is interesting, but the books from the Thanatos Archives have better illustrations.
I sometimes find copies of the book in secondhand bookstores with photography sections (although it is heavier on text than photographs). Amazon has some for sale, but they are pricey: https://amzn.to/2ThSZef.
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