"Looking At Death": A Conversation With Curator and Writer Barbara Norfleet by Cristina Marcelo

Oct 3, 2019

Following is a guest post, originally published on our blog in 2015, in which our good friend and Morbid Anatomy staff member Cristina Marcelo delves deeper into one of her favorite books in the Morbid Anatomy Library:  Barbara Norfleet's fabulous Looking at Death.

In the course of her interview with the author/curator, Norfleet mentioned that she had compiled a tape of death-themed songs to play as accompaniment during the exhibition at Harvard. Inspired by her idea and echoing a couple of her selections, Preda put together a playlist of her own; click here to listen.


Photographer, curator, lecturer, and historian Barbara Norfleet’s 1993 book, Looking at Death, which can be found in the research library at Morbid Anatomy, is a collection of black and white photographs spanning more than a century and depicting a vast spectrum of death along with the attitudes surrounding it, from staged death in theater productions and posed Victorian memento moris to crime scene photos, war reportage, and tribal rituals. She was gracious enough to take the time to speak with me from her home in Massachusetts recently just as an all-­too-­short autumn began giving way to cooler temperatures. 

Can you begin by talking a little bit about the book and what the impetus was to create it?

All my photo projects always tend to be something that is sort of new that other people haven’t thought of doing, so I think that was one motivation. But I think the reason I did it is because I was going through all these negatives to set up the archive of candids by professional photographers at Harvard when I took over the role as curator of photography, and it just happened by chance that this whole wealth of material was there for the asking. Professional photographers were just thrilled to be recognized, and they couldn’t have been happier to let me go through all their negatives and take what I wanted. It was in the process of going through negative files on weddings that I found, particularly with the older photographers or second generation photographers, that their files had more pictures of dead people than they did of weddings. If you really go back to the turn of the century I don’t think there was as horrible a feeling about death. The files just were filled with negatives that people had taken of loved ones who had died, and that was for a couple of reasons. One, they saw no reason not to. There was no barrier. And the second thing is, particularly in the beginnings of photography, they did not have a portrait of their loved one so they would take a picture when the person died just to have a memory of them. 

It doesn’t sound like it was too difficult to collect information.

No, it wasn’t difficult, particularly the memento mori pictures. It was much more difficult to collect all the other pictures. For instance, if you take the anthropological pictures of death and the medical pictures, I had to go through enormous archives to pick the ones I would use. The violent death pictures came from medical schools, and I think they had something like 120 volumes. It was the history of crime for a whole period in time.  

In the violent death chapter you talk about how many of the photos you found were a lot more horrifying than the ones that were printed.

When I was younger I used to go to the Oracle meetings for curators. It’s a group of worldwide photographers that got together once a year for three or four days and had meetings about what was going on in the curatorial world of photography. Before I did the death book I brought it up to them because it was so unusual. Nobody had really done a death book except for the one [Stanely] Burns did, and that was about beauty. It wasn’t really about death in the same way mine was in which I tried to show all kinds of death. [His] was a book that might make you sad, but it wouldn’t upset you in any way. When I brought up what I was doing and showed them some of the images I had, an awful lot of curators said that they were too disturbing and I shouldn’t do it, and the head of my department at Harvard said I couldn’t do it unless I also included life. But I did it anyway. 

How long would you say it took from the inception of this idea to actually compiling and publishing the book?

Well, I have a husband and children, and I was teaching at Harvard, running an archive, and doing shows. So, given that, it took as long as it took me to do each book I’ve ever done. It took me about three years. [For the show] what I did, and it was probably one of the most effective things I've ever done, was I made a tape of death music, everything from Bloody Sunday to Requiem to Strange Fruit and spirituals, and that played throughout the whole show. Everyone who came mentioned how important that was. I spent almost as much time making that tape as I did on the show, and a large number of people who came who had just experienced death said the show helped them tremendously. 

Is there a particular time period or historical moment, with regard to its attitudes about death, that you’d like to see explored more today?

It would be interesting to go through why the attitudes changed. When you get up to the 60s, people were still asking professional photographers to photograph everything. It was before everyone had their own camera and took their own pictures. You don’t find [death photos] after that. Those pictures stopped appearing. If you go back to the 19th century, they were much more common than wedding pictures. Wedding pictures were rare, even formal ones. Were people starting to take their own? I don’t think so. In my archive I collected a lot of family scrapbooks, and I never saw a death picture. 

But I do think that we’re beginning to speak about death openly again as a society.

I think there’s a huge movement for a decent death. My feeling is we think death in America is horrible, but we’re beginning to think people have the right to die just as they have right to free speech. 

Where would you like to see that conversation go?

I’d like to see people who were terminally ill be able to die if they wanted to and be helped just as we do with our dogs. Which brings up something you may know the answer to which really has bothered me. 

What’s that?

I’m a dog person. My dog is sitting beside me. I’ve had dogs all my life. When a dog is put to sleep, they inject it and it dies in your arms. It’s so peaceful, it’s just as if it fell asleep. Why haven’t they adopted this when we execute people? They always act like they don’t have another solution. 

I don’t think the people who are for execution intend for it to be peaceful. There’s a big guise that execution isn’t cruel and unusual, but it is cruel and unusual. People suffer greatly. It’s not a slow process.

We certainly have a way of putting people to sleep in a very peaceful way. It seems silly that we don’t use that knowledge when we’re taking somebody’s life away. You’re saying it’s vindictive. We want them to suffer. You’re probably right because the other solution is so easy.

All images from the fabulous book Looking at Death, which you can visit in the Morbid Anatomy Library!


Cristina Marcelo is a freelance writer and photographer based in Los Angeles. 

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