Sunday, 12 August 2012

Assignment four

Assignment four

A sense of place.

I was driving south on the road towards Oxford when the idea struck me. I was on my way to complete a commission to take three pictures; two portraits and a “staged” shot. The twin portraits were of the proprietor of a funeral directors and his manager; the staged managed shot was of a “bereavement interview”. The down-select of that session is here.

I had been to a funeral directors twice before, the first was on the occasion of the death of my father, the second when my brother-in-law died at the unseemly age of 40 - an altogether sadder affair. On both occasions the same firm of undertakers took the job. Crawford, who ran the business, was amongst the most spiritually calm people I have ever met and if joy is not a word that naturally springs to mind at times like these, he managed to remove any sense of dread associated with the “process” of bereavement. I had Crawford’s sense of calm, the peace that I felt he imbued his premises with when I was there under his care as I went to work on this assignment. The professional care that he provided which left me and my fellow bereaved the space to mourn; to not overly concern ourselves with the mundane and banal leading up to the decisions and practicalities of organising a funeral. 

The Undertakers that I was travelling to had had the responsibility to take care of one of our dearest and closest friends and I thought that they were “in the same league” as Crawford. The idea I had had whilst travelling towards Oxford was to develop a series of photographs to depict a “sense of place” at a funeral directors. I broached the subject, which was agreed, whilst I was with the owner during the taking of the portraits and I was subsequently asked for and was given a tour of the premises. This recce’ gave me some food for thought before coming back to explore how I felt about the place, and whether I could translate that into a coherent set of images. The following thoughts and photographs stem from those subsequent visits.

I very quickly became aware of the notion of the ‘public’, the “performance” areas of the premises and their concomitant “backstage” areas. The sense that there was a metaphoric curtain between the one space and the other became very strong to me, though curiously I perceived no sanctity behind the “curtain”. Strangely there was a physical curtain that covered the doorway between the “chapel of rest” and the “laying out area” – whether though that fed the thought, I’m not sure. The staff though didn’t display any great sanctity in the backstage area, a great deal of respect it has to be said, but the reverence they demonstrated confirmed my theories that this was equivalence on the “Crawford scale”.

I was quite surprised how small these premises were; about 40% of the total area was taken up by the “front-of-house”, which included the office area and a reception/meeting area. There was a door to the “chapel-of-rest” area which was about ten feet square, this is where the coffins were laid out if they were to be viewed. The “backstage” area consisted of a “laying-out” room, which contained the fridge for the dead, the store of coffins and paraphernalia associated with the process of “laying-out”, a small kitchen area, a small store area where they also had an engraving machine for plaques etc and a toilet. Coffins came in and out through back door to a parking area where hearses would come and go, the hearses were contracted in, along with bearers as required. That essentially is the business, it’s function, it’s capability, it’s role and service. Situated in a small shopping precinct in what has become known as the largest village in Europe, or to be more accurate a small town on the periphery of Oxford.

Serenity, which for me suggests a spiritual calmness as opposed to plain quietude was something I wanted to find and record. I wanted to portray the professionalism of the enterprise; a feeling that trust was implicit in the way the business undertook its function.

What I found were two areas, one being the “performance area” which presented a very formal front to the clients, the ones left to deal with the loss. I have presented two pictures of the “performance areas”, one in the interview area and the other in the “chapel of rest”.

 This “interview area” I think depicts a solid/reliable/professional/intimate space for interviews to take place. The balance of the room is very measured/placid, the cards present topical thank yous for services rendered.
Where I could have done better was to have a slightly lower crop to pull in the foreground chair legs better. I wonder though who takes the sofa and who takes the individual chairs – maybe it’s different for different clients. Behind the sofa is the door to the “chapel of rest”.

The “chapel of rest” is a colloquial term used in the facility. It is a secular estblishment, though the majority of the clients are either non-believers or Christians and because of that it was decided to put a simple cross on the wall above where the coffins are displayed when viewed. I noticed the cross and the support weren’t exactly in line with each other and I felt it fitting to leave it that way, as if as a comment on the secularity of the establishment. There were a string of halogen lights that could be positioned at will, I left them as they were almost as a memory of the previous incumbent to have been laid out. Apparently the staff occasionally apply a red gel to the lamp facing downwards on the corpse to “lift their colour” if they are especially pallid. The light was very low in this room and I had to brace myself against the back wall to get the shot of both carrier and cross. I did take some shots with a coffin on the support as a stage managed shot but the wide angle lens I used still wasn’t sufficient to establish a coherent image so I left them out.

 The next photograph is a transitional image. I opened the door that links the “laying-out” area with the “chapel of rest” and also the double doors that are used to move the bodies in and out. This first gave the benefit of light and also enabled me to position the mobile trolley/carrier. This mobile unit is used when the terrain is difficult or muddy; it is lightweight and collapses to a very small space. I like the way this photograph offers a connection between the now and after, between what is being dealt with by the bereaved and the journey that will be undertaken by the deceased. The coffin in the shot ties the image together as does the suggestion of mobility of the collapsible carrier. The trolley is the link to both the coffin and the living.

A row of coffins suggests the interminable process of death. The relentless cycle of life. Stock provisioning to ensure the business can cope with demand. Technically a difficult shot, I had to brace myself against the fridge to try and capture the full spread of coffins. On this occasion they had all the same type of coffins (light oak?) on a previous occasion they had a single dark wood (teak?) finish stacked amongst the plebian light oak. I suspect the most popular choice is the “light oak”. The banality of this and the other “backstage” areas was something that struck me as I crossed the divide on my first visit to the premises. These are the functional requirements for laying out bodies, for storing them pre and post cremation if needed, for recording their details and for relieving the bereaved of their concerns.

In the laying out area I had, instinctively, thought to take a photograph of the fridge that contained the bodies, and I did so. On the fridge door where the names of those bodies incarcerated in their penultimate resting place. I was asked, quite rightly, not to reveal any names of any of the deceased in my work so I had planned to “photoshop – out” any details. On this occasion I left one comment, which, whilst it does provide a reveal it does so on a level, which I think is acceptable, and brings the human aspect into perspective. The words I left in are “ring & watch”. These are instructional notes for the premises to remove them prior to cremation. It is probably difficult to read and I did think a close-up, just of those words, might be worth presenting here but I think it would have been lost with no other visual components to situate the words.

I tried a number of different shots of this, with and without the door closed, with and without the curtains drawn. It is perfunctory image, it determines for the viewer all the processes that are undertaken. The plastic sheeting at the back is now largely redundant as the corpses generally come in body-bags now, though I did cover the trolley in the sheeting on another shot to replicate this. The trolley is purposely staged to link the coffins with the fridge and having been pushed from the “chapel of rest”. At the back are boxes with labels, they are the cremated remains of people who have passed through these premises. To the right of the fridge is more paraphernalia of the process of “laying–out”. A complex image – which I think has the potential to be reworked as it is the weakest of them all.

 I wasn’t told about the process of “laying-out” I didn’t think to ask and no-one offered me clues. I’m sure that if I had asked I would have been given the information, but the clues that I found were enough for me for the purpose of gaining some sense in this place. The next photograph is a cropped version of a reasonable close-up of, what I can only guess, are tools and equipment used in the process of “laying-out”.

Now I had heard/read that hair and nails continue to grow after death, that there is residual life even after the heart stops beating and for a moment I thought about that when I saw these tools, the hair on the comb. Of course it doesn’t happen like that, there is sometimes an appearance of growth, but that is due to desiccation as the skin retracts through lack of moisture. Nevertheless there is a job of work to be done, to render the deceased to their best appearance on their final bow on this mortal coil.
The photograph contains all the elements but isn’t composed as well as I would have liked. I should have made a better play of the comb and scissors in the box, maybe have asked if I could have moved them around on the shelf that were situated on. Nevertheless I am pleased that I caught sight of this and how it stopped me short when I first noticed the remnants of the last remains of people passing through this last terminus.

I thought it important to see some of the “bits & pieces” that get used as part of the process. These mundane cardboard boxes contain some of the everyday needs of the undertaker. The brown plastic containers are the empty vessels that have carried the remains of the deceased after they have been cremated. Under the shelf are boxes that still contain the remains of the recently cremated, ready to be delivered to the nearest and dearest. I like the regularity of the photograph; the constructional details of the building counter posed with the relaxed way the boxes are stacked and the slight decomposition of the wall seems to add something to the image. A difficult edit as these details were on the top shelf and so the verticals and horizontals were all out of alignment and I thought it important to get them back in line.

Alternate photographs

The first being a more traditional view of a series of similar shapes Рthese coffins from end on looking through the brass-plated handles. Some very slight stage managing was needed to get the handles in line and the use of a shallow depth of field suggesting a greater continuum that might have been supposed. I was reluctant to use this image, it is more pleasing, greater rhythm but overall I felt the cry of clich̩ echoing some thoughts on the subject that have been circulating there for some time recently.

The trolley, an ex John Radcliffe Infirmary model, looked like a post-communist survivor from a gulag in Siberia, it was an extremely solid but overly complex looking piece of engineering. The “Dymo” labels on the end view situate the functionality quite well I think and the apparent high use as signified by the worn enameling also tells a tale. I covered the bed of the trolley with the plastic sheeting that is normally used to wrap the corpses in; this also doubles as a provider of good contrast to the metalwork and simplifies the images somewhat. I was torn between this and the trolley shot with fridge image earlier.

Another office shot, this time looking from the middle of the space to the outside world. I was hoping for more human traffic outside – passing trade – although the staff told me they usually get telephone calls to make appointments rather than have potential clients “just popping in” – which I suppose is quite understandable. The business end of the premises, the ubiquitous computer, the files, the notepad, the copier/fax machine just visible in the right hand side and the outside car park. Whilst this in itself doesn’t suggest a funeral directors it would do as part of the set if situated by the appropriate text. What I like about this image is that it is relatively bright, not a sombre setting nor a joyous one either, but a clean, smart, functional room which doesn’t over power the visitor.

In keeping with the mundanity of the situation “backstage” the following shots are potential includees. The engraver has some text, that I will blur and has an air of finality about it. The words speak of an end, whilst the engravers crib sheet ensures that there is no mistake in the work that is done. Mistakes at this time for the bereaved are hard to accept and the care by which the staff here undertakes to ensure a trouble free experience is worth noting.

Lastly part of an area that is solely the province of banality, the kitchen area that the staff find respite in. The coffee cups washed and readied, the soap and washing up liquid ready for more duty. The splash back needing some attention, the hooks looking for labour.

Overall I feel quite happy with the results of the trips I made; however I do think that my “stage-management” skills could be improved. I had had a few visits to place and whilst I did start moving things around quite considerably I think I could have been bolder, perhaps more assertive about what I needed to do. The photograph with the comb and razor etc. needed to be composed better by placing the objects on the table perhaps to reveal with greater clarity the direct connection they provide to the deceased. The “fridge and trolley” shot is overly complex. Thinking back to Assignment two, about simplifying the image, I think have managed to over complicate it; I wanted to provide a visual link between the two areas and associate them with the deceased and their prospective coffins.

If I were to have been acquiring pictures purely for an article I'm not sure what would have been different, as it would have depended on the nature of the article; I was aware though that to have both landscape and portrait shots would probably be important for a picture editor. To provide pictures for marketing purposes; I would probably have focussed on the "front of house"area. The quietude of both the office/interview area and the "chapel of rest". I would also perhaps taken some photographs of the thank you cards and added a couple of smiley pictures of the staff (I have these in any case). To provide material for an expose of the facilities I could have subverted the appearance quite drastically should I have so wished. There were areas that could have been a little cleaner, a little tidier; but I think it would be possible to paint a picture any number of different ways dependent on the intention at the time. Maybe I looked for Crawford, which is why I perhaps found him, maybe because they looked after our best friend so well that I wasn't fully open to seeing the negative. I'm not sure either way. I think though, I found a sense of place at this establishment that is a reasonable truth. I suppose I went looking for Crawford's presence and in a sense found him in this place.


  1. Lots of aspects came up for me here John - the amount of thought and care you have put into the making of this series; your attention to detail mirroring that of the undertakers; visual reassurance that everything that needs to be done is in safe hands. I suppose there's also potential for expansion of a theme should you wish in terms of all the different ways, even in the UK, in which we say goodbye to our deceased.


  2. Thanks Catherine. I'm not sure what my next move might be; I'm in a bit of a quandary. I certainly felt something with this work, but I am unsure about the expansion of it, where it might lead, however I do sense there might be an option here. I'm playing with a few other ideas at the moment and will hopefully come to a decision sometime soon.

  3. Great words and pics John. An unusual and potentially tricky subject handled well and with sensitivity. I liked the way you contrast the public face of the business with the mundane practicalities of handling the deceased. S

    1. Thanks Si, I got a lot out of this assignment - I'm hoping the people who run the business like the images and words too - they should receive them today. Thanks for looking.