For years, photographers have been bringing Photographic Center Northwest executive director Michelle Dunn Marsh pictures of dead bodies—people, mostly, but some animals, too. The photographers felt the need to document their experiences with death (if they didn't, they wouldn't be very good photographers) and they needed someone else to see the pictures, to complete the cycle and give them meaning. Dunn Marsh says they usually apologize as they prepare the photos for her viewing, prefacing the whole ritual of presentation with a disclaimer, such as "of course these will never be shown" at a gallery.
No one at the preview for Terminal: On Mortality and Beauty bothered to ask why the artists thought the work was unpresentable. It seemed self-evident: People don't like to look at dead things. It's easier, almost, to stare at the sun than at a corpse, especially a familiar one. But here Terminal is anyway, including 16 artists and more than 40 photographs originating from the 1970s to today. Walking around the gallery, you get the sense this is a labor of love; Dunn Marsh admits fundraising to support the exhibition was "not very particularly successful."
It's obvious from the variety of images on display that "death," even the idea of beauty in death, is too broad a topic for a show—would you ever anthologize a collection of images under the banner of "life"? The photos do weird things to each other. On seeing a face in a photograph, your eyes immediately dart around, searching for sparks of consciousness. Is that person dead? Alive? Dying? Mourning? The state of uncertainty lasts for barely a second before you're able to process the information and come to a conclusion, but it's an unsettling moment to experience over and over again.
Some of the images in Terminal are famous. David Wojnarowicz's Untitled (Buffaloes), with its portrait of three buffaloes in various stages of tumbling off a cliff, became a symbol of the AIDS epidemic when U2 used it for the cover of the single release of "One." In the early 2000s, Catherine Chalmers's Hanging, featuring two lines of lynched cockroaches, was a sensation in New York as people raged at the thought that cockroach lives were sacrificed in the name of art. (The roaches, it turns out, died of natural causes. Chalmers assured the St. Petersburg Times in May of 2003 that she "bent over backwards not to hurt anything" in the making of the series of photographs. Why are you relieved to hear that, when the sight of a cockroach in a restaurant inspires angry demands for insect genocide?)
Other images are new. Hank Willis Thomas's In Loving Memory Of is a pair of portraits of young African American people, a man and a woman. They're wearing T-shirts with photographs on the front—made at a flea-market stall in Miami—commemorating deceased loved ones. You'd think a handmade T-shirt memorial would seem gaudy, but it feels apt; anyone who's lived through that kind of loss knows you already wear it like a shroud in public. The shirts give the defiance on the faces of the subjects a different flavor, a daring quality: Ask me about my dead loved one.
The best photos here have eyes staring out at you. Eugene Richards's portrait of Dorothea Lynch in the throes of chemotherapy is astonishing. Lynch's eyes, turned sideways as she lies in bed, implore the viewer to take their time, to absorb every detail. Terminal also displays, for the first time anywhere, Lynch's moody Polaroid self-portraits taken when she first received her cancer diagnosis. Her eyes are so different in that series—looking just over the camera, or off to the right, like a friend in a coffee shop with something serious to tell you. Columns of light illuminate parts of her body, but the rest is gradually absorbed by darkness, recasting her as an ingenue in a different kind of noir.
The absence of an eye is the most striking part of Dead Animals #79, a photograph by Richard Misrach taken at a small town's dumping ground for dead farm animals. Two spooning horse corpses lie in sawdust. They look as though they're in the middle of a race, their front legs raised mid-gallop. From afar, it's a whirlpool of tans and browns, with one pitch-black ovoid shape in the center—the horse's eye socket. Presumably, the eye was plucked out by a scavenger, and the rich blacks of Misrach's photograph don't quite reveal what's inside. Even standing right next to the photo and peering inside the socket doesn't feel like enough. You want to grab the eyelids and wrest them open further so you can climb through into the inky depths, to find out what's on the other side.