The Postmortem Gaze and Contested Ways of Seeing: Death, Race, and Photography in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century

Chelsey Patterson

Abstract


Scopic regimes, or ways of seeing through different time periods, cultures, and locations, play a pivotal role in how different subject positions are viewed through dominant ideologies. Situated within the framework of visual rhetoric, this essay analyzes white viewing practices of the postmortem African American body during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Specifically, the photographic representation of lynching and medical school portraiture are used as examples of how a particular practice of looking, the postmortem gaze, can function as a means to trivialize the corpse on display based upon a particular heuristic of perception,  including sensory modalities. The postmortem gaze as a practice of looking is also contested by early twentieth century photographers such as James Van Der Zee, who sought to provide sites of resistance through the medium of postmortem photography.


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