Death Becomes Him

Germany #49 (Catatonic Man), 2009Germany #49 (Catatonic Man), 2009

Next month, the Magenta Foundation will publish its third monograph focusing on the work of a single photographer. The Dead, by Jack Burman, will feature 50 colour plates of his challenging and visceral, yet finely observed and striking, images of the preserved remains of men and women dating from the 16th Century to the present day.

Magenta Magazine Online’s Executive Editor, Bill Clarke, visited with Burman at the photographer’s Thornhill home, which he shares with his wife, daughter and son. Here, Clarke and Burman discuss the production of The Dead, the challenges of navigating French and Italian bureaucracy, how painters like Caravaggio and Mantegna inform Burman’s work, and why Burman won’t identify favourites from among his photographs.

Bill Clarke (BC): What was your reaction when Magenta first approached you about producing a monograph of your work?

Jack Burman (JB): Well, a fortuitous thing happened just before Magenta made the offer. I’d gotten my hands on the book of Greg Girard’s Shanghai photographs that Magenta published. I thought that Greg’s photographs, and the book, looked very good. I was interested in what Magenta was doing, and I had wanted to do a book for some time. Through my representative here in Toronto, Clint Roenisch, I met MaryAnn [Camillieri, Magenta’s Founder and Executive Director]. It was the convergence of a number of things at the right time, so I was very happy to take it on. I have a number of people to thank for making the book happen – especially Greg (in this indirect sense), Clint, and MaryAnn.

BC: How is compiling a book the same, or different, than organizing a gallery exhibition?

JB: First, I’ve seen how essential and precious it is to have similar guides in both cases. Clint is gifted in hanging an exhibition on gallery walls, and MaryAnn is gifted in mounting an ‘exhibition’ between book covers. In that sense, I landed in a good place twice. But there are major differences of course. My photographs are on a fairly large scale. That scale is important to me, so there was the unavoidable matter of smaller-scale book images to be overcome, or tolerated, in some way. And, there are technicalities like horizontal images running across the gutter, which is horrifying for an artist. But, for the most part, that’s the nature of books. So you have to alter your expectations a bit…but I have to say, it took me months to accept those limitations (smiles).

Also, there are usually far fewer images in a gallery exhibition than in a book—and books often contain more text. There are a lot more elements to marshal, and that’s where MaryAnn’s skills came into play. Also, working with someone like Robert Enright for the expanded text was excellent.

BC: With a book, there’s the expectation that readers will look at the images from front to back, so you want to orchestrate the rhythm of the book in some way. In an exhibition, though, it’s harder to control which photograph viewers will look at first in a gallery space.

JB: Yes, you’re right, but Clint understands that better than I do. He knows the logic of his space and how to place works in it. Of course, I tend to feel I know the range of the work better than anyone, so when we started looking at prints for the book, I thought the order would come from me, and MaryAnn would just have a few suggestions. But I knew better fairly soon. With 50 images, how could I think I’d be able to sequence with an experienced touch? It couldn’t happen.

BC: With intense, rather visceral, images like yours, which a lot of people find difficult to look at, you definitely want to set a pace with the images; lead people to the most difficult images gradually and then, with the flip of a page, take a bit of a step back.

JB: Definitely. But when I’m working, and years go by, I’m not thinking sequentially, image-to-image, which is why you have to let someone take over, act as an ‘expert’ viewer.

BC: How did you approach selecting the images? Are there any that you hoped would make it into the book, but didn’t?

JB: Here again, the book was leaving me and becoming the partial property of someone else. For example, there’s a series of eight or ten images that, for me, are important. They were done in charnel houses and ossuaries—bone chapels—where there are hundreds, often thousands, of human bone fragments and skulls ornately arranged in a room. I thought the book could move between these and the images of the single beings. It could set up a rhythm: the randomness of thousands of skulls or femurs juxtaposed with photographs of single beings. But we eventually realized that the book had to focus on a single thread of work. At one point we discussed doing the endpapers with ossuary images, but decided against it. We went for unity and continuity, and I’m glad we did.

BC: How do you approach making your photographs?

JB: Most of the arrangements are made well in advance, and my method is downsized in a lot of ways. I need to be efficient and methodical because I’m interrupting people who have complex academic routines, and busy lecture and travel schedules. They can’t give me much of their time. We might have a coffee together when I first arrive, but then they’ll give me the keys to the storage rooms and, maybe, an assistant to help with handling the specimens, but they leave me alone for the most part. I make it clear when I first approach them that I don’t want to take them from their work. I’ve occasionally come across an anatomist-humanist who is very interested in what I’m doing, and he or she might want to have dinner to discuss my work, but this is rare. Usually I’m alone when working.

BC: That probably contributes to the sense of intimacy one gets from your photographs.

JB: Yes. I need to focus my attention on the work. It’s an important reason for keeping the process solitary.

BC: Have you had a particularly positive experience while shooting that you could share?

Hungary #3, 1997Hungary #3, 1997JB: Once, in Budapest, I was at Semmelweis University, which is named for Hungary’s most renowned anatomist and (unsurprisingly) has a fine Institute of Anatomy. The specimens in the front storage room, where I started shooting, were in occasional use by students and instructors, but I noticed a door that led to an adjacent store room. I was welcome to work in it, so the caretaker let me in. The contents of that room were under heavy layers of dust and dirt, in complete disarray. This wasn’t the first such situation I’d entered, and I could see some magnificent specimens that I wanted to work with. The caretaker spoke some English and, at one point, he was muttering away while trying to open some of the jammed, rusted locks on the cases. I heard him say “…not since the Revolution…” and I asked “You mean, since 1956?” These specimens hadn’t been seen or touched in 41 years.

Now, anatomy collections need regular maintenance. The formaldehyde slowly evaporates, the specimens reposition themselves in the jars, unregulated atmospheric conditions alter them…they need to be refurbished and re-preserved, or they will not last. The technician was an older man, and he’d been a life-long employee of the institute, so he knew that these preparations hadn’t been maintained.

I ended up working with a few of these on that day in 1997, but for a while…the room I was in, not just the specimens…I was in 1956. I was in a place that had been sealed, literally, in time; it was a doubling—working with human remains sealed in jars or glass cases in a room that was a bell jar marked 1956. It was an unforgettable experience.

BC: What have been the hardest places to gain access?

JB: (smiles) Well, I have a few thoughts on that…France is a special place when it comes to bureaucracy, and Italy is another. When I seek to work in France, navigating the bureaucracy can be like nowhere else. It’s a marathon at times. And Italy, of course, is 100 city-states, as it’s always been—bless it—so every place, no matter how major or minor, has its own contacts you have to somehow reach. Some have regulations that go back centuries. You have to find your own way, and you have to play by their rules—which I totally respect. It’s intense and passionate in Italy, which I prefer to France’s bureaucratic greyness—but Vive la France!—no matter what.

And then, Italy and France are unlike Germany, which is straightforward and methodical. It’s interesting—it’s great, really—to see national differences emerge in this way.

Speaking of which: gradually, I’ve become aware that there’s a certain thread uniting parts of my work, and that is Catholicism. Much of the work has been done within the Catholic world, from Argentina to Mexico (where I’ve spent extended periods) to Spain, Portugal, the south of Germany, Italy, Poland. What I’m seeking is often part of the Catholic world, and I think this gives the work another level of meaning. The rich, passionate valuation and spiritualizing of the body—and of the body’s display even, or especially, in death: this is the way to the force of Caravaggio, of da Vinci (and the great anatomical drawings)—of so many things that come forward at this point.

Which may help to explain why I don’t often shoot in North America. Here, of course, donating your body to science is enclosed in complex and sensitive legalities and socio-politics. At the risk of oversimplifying terribly, I think this may lead from modern - that is, since the 1600s - North America’s more Protestant pattern. As well, the great age of anatomical preparation and collecting, and of the Wunderkammer, in the 18th and 19th centuries, is a European thing. When I’m there, I’m made to remember how young—in Western terms—and different, North American society is.

BC: What is the reaction of people at these institutions when you first approach them? Are they pretty open or are they wary?

JB: The response varies, but ‘wary’ is the case at times. In their experience, rarely (if ever) has someone come to their institutes for my purpose. Professionally, with a Doctorate, my sense of intellectual discipline is comparable to theirs, which I think they perceive. And when they observe the closeness and care with which I try to work, I think there’s a transference to their own concern with precision in anatomical research. They see and appreciate that in some ways, my intentions and methods have the seriousness of theirs.

BC: They want reassurance that their work isn’t being exploited or made into a creep show…

JB: Exactly. The leading anatomists work in a rather small, tight world. They know each other, and reputation and respect mean a great deal, understandably. I make every effort to demonstrate that what I’m doing will not undermine that in any way.

BC: In your Q&A with Robert Enright in the book, he talks about your photographs in painterly terms. Are there painters that you think of when making your photographs?

Germany #33, 2009Germany #33, 2009JB: (Reaches for a book of paintings by the 15th Century Italian painter Andrea Mantegna.) At times. In general terms, how can I not derive from painting? My book consists of 50 colour portraits of a man or woman’s head or body, or a part of that body, displayed in two dimensions. That has been the way—and perhaps the main subject—of painting for several millennia. I seek to make portraits, to follow on that road.

In regard to the image of the male torso [Germany #33, 2009], which Robert and I discuss in the interview, I refer to Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ. This was a precious painting for Mantegna; he kept it with him until his death. It’s the work of a great painterly hand, but it’s unlike ‘life’ in key ways: the strong tonal values are wilfully unnatural, for one. The tonal values of Germany #33 are forceful as well but also far from life-like. Profound distortions of real bodily tones have occurred in Mantegna’s painting, and during the preservation and lighting of this body section. There’s an intervention by the artist’s hand, and the anatomist’s hand, and the overhead (sky)lighting in the room where I worked, in creating something real…ostensibly real…and viewers are led to see life in a tortured and expressive form.

BC: For me, one of the most unique images in the book is of the remains of the child in the crib-casket [Sicily # 6, 2006]. I'm reminded of a quote by the 17th-Century English bishop, John Hall: "Death borders upon our birth, and our cradle stands in the grave."

Sicily #6, 2006Sicily #6, 2006JB: I see what you’re saying. When I look at that image, I read it twice. First, I read the eyes of the child—as we all do first when we approach a portrait. In that first reading, I know that this child is in death even as something, murkily alive in the eye sockets, looks back at you. Usually the eyes are entirely gone or have been obviously replaced. And then when you move beyond the face you start to read all the elaborate physical texture and detail in the materials…the pillow fabric, the lace, the tassels, the sensitive and costly handwork placed around the child. This image was done in an important Capuchin monastery in Sicily, where only the most influential and wealthy families could obtain the preservation and placement of their dead, and afford the upkeep. The figures in most of my images are clothed in blackness, but here there’s an environment of human, handmade striving—even in death—that you can read.

BC: It’s an attempt to achieve some kind of immortality.

JB: That was certainly part of the function of such displays. The families put their earthly material wealth towards achieving a higher immaterial spirituality. I like the perversity of that.

BC: What is your favourite image in the book?

JB: I’m not sure I want to answer that. Of course I could point to two or three that I particularly like but I feel that doing so abuses viewers. I want to make work that viewers can go to without me. What viewers are drawn to or want to value needs no input from me.

BC: Do you see your photography as giving new life to these objects, setting them on a new path in the world?

JB: No…and let me say why. They are not ‘objects’. They are the remains of men and women; they existed—in death, and in life—long before I arrived, and they’ll continue to exist in death, as I found them. I have no role in that. Yes, I’ve made a portrait-simulacrum of their being-in-the-world, on both sides of Sebald’s “line” — “Physicality is most strongly sculpted, and its ‘nature’ most perceptible, on the indistinct borderline with transcendency.” But, who am I? They achieved the crossing long before I came to them.

The Dead by Jack BurmanThe Dead by Jack Burman

The Dead by Jack Burman
Foreword by Martha Hanna
Interview by Robert Enright
Hardcover, 7 ¼" × 10 ½", 128 pages
52 photographs, full-colour throughout
ISBN 978-1-926856-00-1
Published by The Magenta Foundation
Books are available through The Magenta Foundation and at Clint Roenisch.

There are three ways to collect The Dead:

  1. Signed book inside a hand-crafted wooden box with a signed, limited edition print: Limited to 100 copies @ CAN$300
  2. Book in a hand-crafted wooden box: CAN$125
  3. Hardcover book alone: CAN$50


Clint Roenisch
June 10 – July 10, 2010

Opening reception: 7–9 pm, June 9, 2010