The photograph is a farewell. It belongs to
the afterlife of the photographed.
How do we kneel before a corpse? If the body still gives off heat, is it still a human being? If the skin is already cold, does that make it an object? If the dead are objects, does it matter what their names used to be? What happens to the bodies tossed into the road that weren’t even carrying a wallet? What might their favorite ice cream flavor have been? When exactly does the dead person become an object instead of a human being with tastes and preferences? The very moment of her death? The moment she becomes a photograph?
Every photograph of a cadaver contains a wound that weeps, a seeping pustule. The mark of death accompanies the photographed corpse into its new life as flat, two-dimensional matter. In a post-mortem portrait, we don’t witness someone’s death, but rather the very fact that she isn’t someone anymore. She is no longer a being. She is something new.
The faces of the dead possess the candor of neutrality. They have no other choice than to be what they are: a mass of flesh that used to breathe. They have an unforeseen stillness. Sometimes they frighten us. Still more unsettling, though, is the calm that inhabits some of them. There is one particular dead woman whose serenity endures; her name was Evelyn McHale.
At 10:40 one morning in the mid-twentieth century, a policeman named John Morrissey noticed a white scarf floating downward from the heights of the Empire State Building. A few seconds later, he heard a thud.
If you leap into the void, it’s possible to fall elegantly and land with your feet crossed. But that isn’t common. If you jump from the eighty-sixth floor from the Empire State Building, you run the risk of losing your shoes. They’re always the first to go. The same thing happens in car crashes: people inexplicably end up barefoot. The muscles contract so intensely, it is said, and the movement of the body is so unnatural on impact, that shoes just slip off – laces, buckles and all.
When someone jumps off a building, shoes will be lost, stockings will be torn, but gloves can be left immaculate. She can fall over three hundred meters, reach the ground, fall onto a limousine, and destroy it, but her hand can continue clutching the pearl necklace she had so carefully adjusted around her neck that same morning. Shoes are lost – and life, of course, without a doubt, is lost.
On May 2, 1947, the New York Times published a brief article stating that Evelyn McHale, after paying a visit to her boyfriend, went up to the observation deck on the eighty-sixth floor of the Empire State Building and became the twelfth person to have jumped from that height. Those who decide to launch themselves into the air don’t generally reach their end as a tolerable sight to other eyes. Their bodies are usually destroyed, their bones wrenched apart, ending up in places where they don’t belong. But not Evelyn. Evelyn just lost her shoes.
Robert Wiles, a photography student, heard her embed herself into the United Nations limousine. He ran over and assessed the scene. He immediately produced the only photo he would publish in his entire life. The resulting image is popularly known as “the most beautiful suicide.” In the photograph, Evelyn McHale’s face and body are portrayed in absolute repose. There is nothing in her composure to indicate that she has jumped from a fatal height – except for her lack of shoes and the fact that she is nestled into the corrugated metal of a destroyed limousine’s roof.
Six thousand five hundred windows up, on the observation deck, the police would find a note that read: “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me […] Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.” Crossed out with a line of ink, in the same note, were the words: “
He is much better off without me…I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody.”
Every action performed on the body of a dead person is, by definition, involuntary. The living argue that the treatment applied to deceased bodies coincides with their instructions in life, but the dead’s wishes are always hijacked by the emotional impulse of the living. I haven’t been able to determine whether Evelyn’s wish to be cremated was ultimately respected. Her wish that no one would see any part of her, in any case, was not. The action of Robert Wiles’s camera, in photographing her, took care of that. The dead can’t know what they’re getting themselves into when they ask for this or that to be done with their bodies. As the living, we impose our will – almost irreparably, sometimes involuntarily – on the only thing the dead leave behind when they leave us: the mass of their own bodies.
Our impulse is almost always to cover up the remains that are no longer the responsibility of the person who was once alive. This is part of the death’s social protocol: covering up the corpse, impeding its view of the world, even when its eyes are still open. The physicality of definitive departure forces the living to begin a new relationship with finitude on a material level. Observing a cadaver, rather than a living body, is the first step toward reconstructing the dead person as an object.
We try to resist death; we do whatever we can to present the dead as if they were still alive. We close their eyes out of an urge to imagine them sleeping. But death soon gets the best of us, and rigor mortis opens their eyes, their mouths become distorted holes, their limbs stiffen. And so we have no choice but to cling to something other than the body, other forms that will come to represent the being, now a corpse, that has embarked on the very deepest solitude: death.
We all witnessed the drama of the body in the air, evoking Evelyn McHale’s suicide, on September 11th of a year I’d rather not remember. We were moved by that final act of desperation, the leap into the void, which Frédéric Beigbeder so accurately described in his book Windows on the World. There were people who had to choose between death by fire and death by air. But they weren’t suicides. The figures that plummeted along the vertical lines of the World Trade Center weren’t suicides. They were desperate humans, but they weren’t seeking death. Evelyn McHale was seeking death. They sought to escape the flames and preferred the solitude of the fall. The images of people falling from the Twin Towers affect us deeply because they leapt to their deaths out of a desire to live.
In the United States, a long debate arose over the morality or immorality of publishing the photographs. No one wanted to accept that these people had preferred suicide. There is a profound moral conflict involved in visually representing that moment of desperation. Is it correct to document the instant when the body isn’t yet a cadaver, but gives itself over to death? It is the absolute record of dying as a process, but it isn’t death itself. This is the photography of agony.
If portraying the moment before death is questionable, then portraying the body in death would be, too. Astonishment before a portrait of a corpse is possibly universal. But what predominates is the astonishment of the living. Few question what the dead themselves would have thought of their photographs. Do corpses’ wishes matter, then? What is the hub around which the morality or immorality of photographing a body in the moment of its greatest vulnerability turns – the moment when it can no longer defend itself and never will again? What is the lesson corpses possess in becoming symbols?
One second prior, there was Evelyn at the edge, staring out at the horizon like all the other tourists. But suddenly she wasn’t. No one, nothing, not the railing, not the several barriers, held her back. She’s no longer there. She has disappeared. She has leaped. I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. The desire to simply vanish: this is the fundamental impulse of the suicidal person. To evaporate. Disappear into thin air, as the saying goes. And not just any air: thin air, wind. Could you destroy my body by cremation? And nevertheless, her final image stole her final wish.
All she wanted was to disappear, but McHale’s body became a new body, which is the photograph. She became part of the collective imagination as soon as Wiles sold his photo to Life magazine, and within two weeks it was printed as a full-page image. Fifteen years later, the photo of Evelyn’s corpse was added to the series Death and Disaster by Andy Warhol. The project involved the alteration of photographs portraying car accidents, the atomic bomb, the electric chair, race riots, poisonings, and earthquakes. A silkscreen entitled Suicide (Fallen Body) mechanically reproduced the epicenter of her fall. The same fall with which Evelyn sought to disappear from the world affixed her forever to posterity.
The end of life is, by nature, something frozen. The camera is able to expand and perpetuate, with devastating accuracy, the precise instant of death. The freezing of a life’s end is reproduced in a nearly alchemical way through the silver of a photograph: it records every detail, preserves every wrinkle and stain. Sometimes it even preserves and contradicts the truth of those final moments, the final wish.