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Snapshots of Mortality

May 20th, 2008

At first glance, death and art seem an unlikely combination.

But the match makes perfect sense in the case of an exhibition that toured recently on the topic of death, which the National Portrait Gallery curated.

Showing until recently at the Mornington Peninsula Regional Gallery, Reveries: photography and mortality presented images inspired by the cycle of life and death. Some of the photographs explored the idea from an abstract angle. Others, like the self-portraits of iconic 1970s photographer Carol Jerrems, who died aged just 31, presented the stark reality of physical decline.

The Palliative Care Research Team at Monash University and the Peninsula Hospice Service hosted a morning tea in mid May to discuss some of the ideas conjured by this unique exhibition. The photographs date back only as far as the 1970s, and Professor Margaret O'Connor, Vivian Bullwinkel Chair in Nursing, Palliative Care, at Monash, said that the modern-day nature of the images strongly resonated with viewers.

"Dying should be everybody's business, and these images make us face our own mortality," she said, pointing out that many people, even health professionals, refer to death using euphemistic language.

"Through the experience of an exhibition like this, you're actually putting images of death and dying among the ordinary experiences of life. It isn't something out of the ordinary, it isn't something unexpected."

The exhibition also included photographs by Olive Cotton, Max Dupain, Rod McNicol, David Moore, Anne Noble, Jack Picone, Michael Riley and William Yang. The structured conversation run by Monash and the Peninsula Hospice Service gave guests an opportunity to reflect on the collection.

"The contemporary nature of the photographs is extremely powerful; the fact that you can relate to them. One of the pictures is of the shoes that your mother might have worn. There's a much more ready point of identification," said Professor O'Connor.

"We have many examples of death and dying depicted in art, because it's long been a subject of art. What's different about this exhibition is that it's very contemporary. And because it's in a regional art gallery, it is being offered in a way that makes it accessible to the community."

See pictures from Reveries: photography and mortality at

Ruth Maddison, The beginning of absence, 1996, printed 2006, 11 inkjet prints from Polaroid originals, © Ruth Maddison 1996/2006

Ruth Maddison
The beginning of absence 1996
printed 2006
11 inkjet prints from Polaroid originals
© Ruth Maddison 1996/2006