Death’s face: Rudolf Schäfer (*images may upset/offend*)

“One does not look at the dead, one lowers one’s eyes before them.”

In 1989 I purchased a copy of Granta 27: Death. Inside was a series of photographs by Rudolf Schäfer, taken from his book Der Ewige Schlaf: Visages de Morts. The photographs – they have to be photographs; only photography can do this – hit me hard, and they haunt me now. Are they portraits? No. They are still lifes, stilled life, each a silent, eloquent memento mori,  reminders that what makes us human is not our awareness that we are, but that we will cease to be.

In Schäfer’s own words:
“There is no direct experience of what death actually looks like…this notion that it must look terrible…”

“These are ordinary poses. We are constantly bombarded with…violent, extreme pictures – but we diffuse one of the implications of these images – our own mortality. With these…you simply do not have that option”.

“These people all died of natural causes…they all look very peaceful…The peace of this moment, this coming to rest…”

“…some people react with moral outrage…but you have to reach beyond it to see…the questions the pictures raise in our own minds about ourselves…”

“To me the pictures have a terrible beauty…[they] show what will surely become of us all one day, and we should therefore take a little bit more care over our lives.”

A “terrible beauty”.

How do these photographs make you feel? I find them inexpressibly poignant in their extraordinary ‘ordinariness’; I also feel as though I’m intruding on something very private, very intimate: we are seeing the dead exactly as their loved ones would have last seen them.  Furthermore, the subjects of these photographs, as far as I know, had no say in the process, there was no ‘prior agreement’; as Schäfer notes: “…sometimes I obtained the consent of the relatives; in other cases that wasn’t necessary.”

Is that enough? I’m not sure, not sure at all. But I do know this: the article tells us nothing about these people, they are anyone and everyone; this is how and why the photographs ‘work’. When I look at them they fill me with an empathy that reaches out beyond the individual, the personal, beyond religion and ‘morality’: it reaches out to all of us.

This is Art.

“We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.”


Rudolf Schäfer’s words taken from an interview conducted and translated from the German by Piers Spence, and published in Granta 27: Death, 1989.

10 thoughts on “Death’s face: Rudolf Schäfer (*images may upset/offend*)

  1. Very moving, and poignant. Difficult to know what to say. I think you’re right, they have to be photographs.

    • Yes, impossible to see how it would work in any other medium. AND it has to be black and white photography, I think, so that one is not distracted by the marks/colours of death, but can focus on the fact of death itself.

  2. It is haunting to look at the face of someone you know is no longer there. The black and white gives it a bit more distance and space, making it easier for the living to rest their eyes on the images. Something hollow, vague but serene about the expressions on their faces…

    • Yes, exactly.. B/W does provide a kind of ‘respectful’ distance; also, we have different expectations of B/W photography than we usually do of colour – that more artful, ‘historicising’ effect, if you know what I mean?
      Thank you for your comment – much appreciated.

  3. I think there’s a healthy amount of death we should all incorporate in our lives. It lends perspective, something we all too often lack in appropriate quantities. I turn to the Pale Blue Dot for the same.

  4. I remember seeing this in a Museum, In Bradford (UK) in around 1996, as part of an exhibition called “The Dead.” Essentially, all sorts of artworks, mainly photos (in fact, almost exclusivly photos) dealing with death, murder, suicide etc. This collection (Schafers) was by far the most unsettling. Hard to say why, it just war.

      • Thanks, David. Wish I’d seen that – I’m actually from Bradford, but wasn’t living there at the time.
        Yes – that unsettling thing – I think maybe because we’re so used to seeing images everywhere of violent death, trauma; plus our own fear of and negative associations with death; both make it difficult for us to see ‘beauty’ in it, and it feels ‘wrong’ when we do. Also that sense of intruding on something intensely private.

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