How do photographers explore this notion through their work?

“Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it”[1].

This concept was drawn from Donna Tarrt’s contemporary novel The Secret History, and was influenced by the third century Greek theory of the Sublime. Although this theory consists of various interpretations, including the general acknowledgement of the Sublime to mean great beauty, this essay will explore a deeper definition of ideas of beauty, in relation to terror. Longinus is one Greek writer whose work on the Sublime seems to address this belief. He refers to this term as the ability to lead listeners into a state of “ecstasy”[2], in which the wonderful is always followed by a sense of dismay. Since the Sublime has the power to go “beyond all possibility of measurement”[3] and human grasp, one could argue that it is most compelling emotion. This is a particularly attractive area for artists to explore, as it enables the creation of the most powerful and emotionally rich images. Aristotle also perceived tragic literature to have a “paradoxical nature”[4], suggesting it was both shocking yet held poetic value. This relationship between beauty and terror is evident in the work of Sally Mann, Francesca Woodman, Richard Learoyd and Arthur Tress, whose images are capable of moving the imagination into a state of awe instilled with a degree of horror. I will explore the terror in the photographer’s work in the forms of: death, fear of the unknown and nightmares.

Sally Mann is known for provoking strong reactions, and asserts “I like pushing buttons”[5]. This is most evident in her series What Remains, in which she photographs decomposing bodies at the University of Tennessee’s Anthropological Facility. As opposed to adopting the general acknowledgement of it as a “body farm”[6], and hence approaching the subject with fear, Mann photographs the place with an alternative incentive. She wanted to draw attention to the fact that death is not an end, as nature carries on its continuous cycle, represented by the title of the work. She also believes that “death makes us sad, but it also makes us feel more alive”[7], suggesting that one’s mortality is re awakened and deeply cherished when exposed to death. This challenges the viewer’s perception of death by making it seem pure and peaceful in a sense. We can see this in the way Mann captures the corpses with such a strong poetic intention, giving an ethereal quality to her images. This includes the stains and marks on the images, as a result of the fragile Collodian Wet Plate process she uses. The imperfections are significant in directing our focus away from the intrusiveness of death, and instead portray it with the likeness of a painting.

The use of light is also symbolic of the idea that from death arises peace. This suggests that Mann’s images could have religious connotations, as they appear to embody the sentiment from the bible: “To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace”[8]. As the light pours through the lens, it almost cleanses the deceased, by leaving subtle white traces on their bodies. These form a type of corolla or halo, hence evoking a heavenly ambience surrounding the photographs. The fact that white is often associated with purity, reinforces this innocence surrounding death. It is as if we have stumbled upon a fantastical world of the supernatural, as staring at death so nakedly is not something we are
familiar with.

Although we may pass the deceased in grave yards everyday, their emotional impact on the passer is lessened, as we often experience death with a veil over it. Therefore, one could argue that this act of hiding and concealing could be more terrifying than actually being directly confronted with it. Perhaps through witnessing death wholly, at its most raw and exposed, we remove this fear in the process. Mann’s series perhaps poses the question that: since humans are instinctively afraid of the unknown, would we be less afraid of death if it was not so unmentionable?

Concealment of the truth is a recurring element found in Gothic literature and the haunting novel The Secret History, in order to build suspense, Mann adopts the idea stated in the novel, that we will never rest until we “rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face”[9]. This belief is evident in her memoir Hold Still, where recalls her thought process of photographing her daughter Jessie, titled Damaged Child. She admits that she “found something comforting about this disturbing picture”[10] as she realised it “inoculated [her] to a possible reality that [she] might not henceforth have to suffer”[11]. Therefore, photography acted as a form of resolution and “escape from the manifold terrors of child rearing, an apotropaic protection; stare them straight in the face but at a remove — on paper, in a photograph”[12]. This act of witnessing terror first hand could be metaphysically considered beautiful, as it puts the mind at rest with mortality and offers an acceptance
to it.

The fact that Mann regarded the colours of the body farm as “really beautiful”[13], and was “unfazed by the maggots and decay”[14], suggests that she has come to terms with and accepted terror, through her photographic journey. This desire to re approach death was provoked by her belief that it has “become unmentionable”[15] with a “new prudency”[16] surrounding it. The camera itself could also be seen as a protective element used to confront terror, as it may be too intimidating to examine with the naked eye. Mann’s relationship with terror, in her case death, comes from various exposures to it. The earliest being the death of her father, and then her greyhound whose bones she later retrieved and photographed. Following this was a shooting of an escaped convict on her farm. Instead of resulting to despondency and passivity, she actively uses photography to explore these events, and in doing so found a sense of resolution.

Apart from her What Remains series, Mann’s exploration of death is also evident in the subtle ‘Memento Mori’, including deer and weasels, hinted at amongst the images of her children. This contrast between the living children and the deceased emphasises the beauty of life, yet simultaneously
its fragility.

Memento Mori is a theme largely focused on in the series Dark Mirror by the photographer Richard Learoyd, curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum. Similar to Mann’s depictions of the Memento Mori, to signify life and death in her photographs, Learoyd’s employment of it creates a similar effect. For instance, the dead rabbit dangling on a thin string, purposely placed amidst his photographs of naked human figures, creates a stark contrast. Although, the Memento Mori may seem morbid, their presence concurrently awakens our senses and draws us to the present. This idea is presented by the V&A’s commentary on his series stating they: “simultaneously attract us with their beauty and repel us with their morbidity”. Therefore, perhaps the animals can be seen as symbols of comfort, in the knowledge that although life moves on it does not end. Nature is forever in a continuous cycle, as one matter passes another continues to live, represented by the humans surrounding the
dying animals.

The relationship between nature and death is also evident in Pieter Bruegel’s painting: The Massacre of the Innocents- 1565–7. The painting displays juxtaposing qualities of both beauty and morbidity. Although the painting’s central focus is the torturous crucifixion, there is still a sense of normality of everyday life surrounding it. Auden the poet referred to this tranquility of life surrounding the ‘Dreadful Martyrdom’ in his poem: ‘Muse De Beaux Arts’ 1938. He referred to the dogs simply “[going] on with their doggy life. This suggests that despite the greatest suffering that occurs, nature’s continuous cycle will never cease to end. Therefore, both Brugel’s and Learoyd’s work seem to share an overall positive message that regardless of the extent of death or suffering, the beauty of nature will always remain. This allows us to understand in a wider sense the notion: beauty is terror, as the knowledge of nature’s immortality offers comfort in situations of suffering.

Learoyd’s photograph of Agnes with Eyes Closed is particularly moving and perhaps one of his most poignant pieces. The reclining woman epitomises an otherworldly beauty, as her composure suggests an alternative state of being. This could be interpreted as both metaphorical, occurring in her mind in a meditative sense, or physical. Perhaps Learoyd’s arrangement of her position to signify a corpse pose was purposeful, suggestive of a complete transcendence from one world to another. This name comes from the Sanskrit word Shava meaning corpse, and Asana meaning posture. Its purpose is to practice death and emptiness, and is used in the ancient practice of Yoga. The process of Corpse pose, to scan “all parts of the body…for muscular tension, which is consciously released as it is found”, seems to manifest itself in Agnes’s posture. Regardless of this transcendent shift being physical or metaphorical, both interpretations ultimately evoke peace. Therefore, in spite of the fact that Agnes’s pose may represent death, it is still beautiful and delicate.

This Sublime experience of pain and sweetness is similarly evoked in the sculpture The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The angel that pierces her heart with a fire-tipped spear seems to send Teresa into a state of spiritual rapture. This is evident in her spiritual autobiography in which she states the pain was “so severe”, but the “sweetness caused by this intense pain is so extreme that one cannot possibly wish it to cease”[17]. Teresa’s stance with her head thrown back and eyes closed seems to echo Agnes. They have both collapsed under the overwhelming force of ecstasy.

Agnes’s facial expression seems to symbolise acceptance of whatever present state she is in, as opposed to society’s generalised terror of the unknown. This seems both shocking and captivating, as she appears to have conquered the fear of death. Her transcendent demeanour also suggests an ability to experience a state of complete emptiness, devoid of futile thoughts. This level of spiritual awareness could present her as a higher entity. The concept of the Sublime has the capacity to explain this complex idea. Agnes does not appear to be confronted by physical nor metaphysical limitations, and thus experiences “spiritual transcendence”[18]. Therefore, Agnes may be deemed to possess a non-human form, such as that of an angel figure; hinted by the chair draped in white cloth. Although it represents purity, the fabric also holds sterile and cold qualities. Therefore, she is not the traditional angel depicted in ancient paintings. These angels are characterised as pure and are ostensibly beautiful. As seen in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting Madonna of the Rocks in the National Gallery, the angel flaunts her conventional long hair whilst immersed by a natural landscape.

Her face, like Agnes’s is lit up from above, intended in Leonardo’s painting as the light of God. This biblical connotation of Leonardo’s painting may appear to hold similar value in Learoyd’s attention to light focused on Agnes. However, Agnes has a more relatable quality, with jet-black hair and a stark white face, whose blemishes are not softened nor attempted to be hidden. The large lens of Learoyd’s camera obscura allows him to achieve “mesmerising detail”[19] of every pour and crevice, which is an element his images are celebrated for by critics. Therefore, Agnes’s angelic qualities may be seen as overly raw and naked. This harsh beauty may evoke discomfort in the viewer, as their preconceptions of traditional angelic depictions of beauty are at an opposition. Therefore, Agnes simultaneously embodies both a likeness to an angel as well as a spectre or dark spirit. Hence, alluding to the idea that beauty and terror are not divided. These passionate definitions are complex, as they are in fact interrelated and often harmonious amongst images of immense power.

Another representation of an angel includes that in Francesca Woodman’s image On Being an Angel. She manifests this notion “hauntingly beautiful” in herself, as she was celebrated after her death and is referred to as a “tragic hero of photography”[20] by Nazrene Hanif. In alignment with Learoyd’s ‘Agnes’, Woodman’s depiction of an angel is equally unconventionally striking and audacious. Woodman uses her naked body to portray this angel, which is controversial and goes beyond the boundaries of that in Leonardo’s The Virgin on the Rocks. However, the fact that her work is not “primarily sexual”[21], imparts Woodman with an innocence. This idea is emphasised by the piercing white light that drenches Woodman’s naked body, similar to that in Mann’s images of corpses. Congruent to Mann’s images, this heavenly light sanctifies all seemingly barbaric and shocking objects in its path, including death and nakedness. Therefore, although the “angel” is provoking, she also represents a certain grace in which empowers her.

The fact that Woodman is perceived by other critics as being “there and also not there”[24] in this image, further alludes to the theme of the angel. Her body seems to be in a state of flux between the human world, represented by the ordinariness of her room, and another. This theme of appearance and disappearance, is similarly manifested in Leroyd’s Agnes with Eyes Closed. Agnes metaphysically drifts into another state, yet her body remains present. However, Woodman displays this in-between state physically, as she evidently conceals and obscures the rest of her body. This purposeful ambiguity of Woodman’s form is to elicit an ostensive response of physical allurement, yet a deeper sense of apprehension. The veiled details of the rest of her body fail to ground her to earth, therefore creating a sense of unease in the viewer as we fear elements that we cannot instinctively recognise.

Woodman’s photographs can be compared to the “virgin whore dichotomy” proposed by Sigmund Freud. This idea is in agreement with other critics including Nazrene Hanif, who suggested that Woodman was “questioning broader concepts of the self, gender, body image and identity”[22]. It is known that in sexual politics the view of women as either Madonnas or whores limits women’s sexual expression, and “[offers] two mutually exclusive ways to construct a sexual identity.”[23] Therefore, Woodman could be arguing through this image, that the “virgin” and “whore” can in fact be unified in their descriptions. This blur of sexual boundaries not only presents Woodman as innovative, but also poses that two seemingly conflicting denominates can
be one.

Similar to Sally Mann’s What Remains series, Arthur Tress explores this experience of electrifying delight in nightmares rather than death. His images can be thought of as scenes from a Tragedy. This genre of drama is based on human suffering, in line with Tress’s nightmares, which invokes in its audience “an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in the viewing”[25].

Although his work is not ostensibly beautiful as such, absent of the ethereal marks and white light that are present in Mann’s images, Tress’s scenes possess a thrilling quality that embody the Sublime concept. The 18th century theorist Burke, a key figure in the Romantic period, also suggests that the sensation of delight taken from confronting the sublime object is more intense than “positive pleasure”[26]. In the same way that God created and battled Satan, as expressed in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the children created and battled disturbing situations in their subconscious mind by recreating it. Through this process of re-awakening, they are able to remove the power it once had over them.

As Burke suggests, the Sublime may “inspire horror, but one receives pleasure in knowing that the perception is a fiction.”[27] This pleasurable experience elicited by the images also applies to the wider audience. They too can relate to and perhaps resolve these nightmares, by coming to terms with personal suppressed childhood fears by, in the words of Mann: “staring them straight in the face”. Therefore, the series is in fact beautiful. Equivalent to Mann’s, they offer a sense of peace with the conflict of the subconscious, as anxieties are less oppressive when directly confronted with them.

Tress’s images also seem to evoke an element of reassurance. Through acknowledgement of others fears, one’s own appear universal, resulting in dispersion of the burden it had over the individual.

The sublime objects in Tress’s Dream Collector series include vastness, infinity and magnificence, represented by the often desolate, wide-open spaces. These elements are evident in Flood Dream, as the barren coast alludes to the idea of endlessness, never ceasing to stop. This sublime image has the capacity to both overwhelm the viewer, yet fill them with ecstasy, as heightened emotions involve both pleasure and pain.

Tress’s purpose of the dream series was to explore the child’s “transforming of existence into magical symbols for unexpressed states of feeling or being”[28], which represents a type of beauty in itself. Not only does Tress’s work provide a freedom of expression for the children, it simultaneously unchains them from the fear of the nightmare. The children would have experienced control; therefore lessening the power it had over them.

Tress’s images seem to mirror the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s sentiment that “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”[29] Therefore, Tress’s series encourages the viewer to accept that terror and beauty are in fact symbiotic. Tress approaches subjects that are generally associated with fear, with another intention: to reveal the helpless and child-like beauty found in terror. Therefore, Tress’s choice of children for models is significant, as they represent the naïve and harmlessness in terror.

Perhaps Tress also intended to allude to the belief shared by Rilke that “no feeling is final”[30]. Although we may call a fear a fear, it is in fact just a label or negative “feeling” associated with a thought. When given precedence and attention it transforms into what we recognise as a fear. Therefore, through confronting the fear it becomes irrational, and as a result even settling. Mann also acknowledges this process of resolve through confrontation, as she found something comforting in the cathartic process of taking a disturbing picture.

In essence, I believe that the photographers I have explored share a fundamental belief that no feeling is final. Instead, they challenge the scenes and ideas that generally elicit feelings of fear, by approaching the subject with another intention: to reveal the compelling beauty found within it. Therefore, the photographers encourage the emotions passion and fear to be viewed as one, as they are ultimately symbiotic.

Terror is beauty.


[1] ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tarrt 1992 — Penguin edition July 1st 1993

[2] ‘The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant’ by Robert Doran (p.130) 1.4 ‪- Cambridge University Press, 16 Jul 2015

[3] Ancient philosophy from The Baghavad Gita, written c.1200 BCE (on the sublime mystery in the ninth teaching of Krishna)

[4] Beardsley, Monroe C. ‘History of Aesthetics’. Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 1, p. 20, Macmillan, 1973.

[5] Article from The Guardian: ‘Sally Mann: The naked and the dead’ written by Blake Morrison Saturday 29 May 2010 (Last modified on Tuesday 27 January 2015 12.28 GMT)

[6] “ “

[7] “ “

[8] Luke 1:79 — The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

[9] ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tarrt 1992 — Penguin edition July 1st 1993

[10] ‘Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs’ by Sally Mann, published by Little, Brown, 12th May 2015

[11] “ “

[12] “ “

[13] Article from The Guardian: ‘Sally Mann: The naked and the dead’ written by Blake Morrison Saturday 29 May 2010 (Last modified on Tuesday 27 January 2015 12.28 GMT)

[14] “ “

[15] “ “

[16] “ “

[17]The Life of Saint Teresa of Ávila by herself’, Chapter 29

[18] Vanessa L. Ryan ‘The Physiological Sublime: Burke’s Critique of Reason’ Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 62, №1, April 2001.

[19] Article from The Guardian: ‘Shots in the dark: Richard Learoyd and his supersized camera obscura’ by Sean O’Hagan Friday 23 October 2015 18.30 BST (Last modified on Friday 13 November 2015 15.04 GMT)

[20] Article from The British Journal of Photography: ‘On Being an Angel: finding Francesca Woodman in the otherness of her self-portraits’ by Nazrene Hanif (Published on 13 January 2016)

[21] “ “

[22] “ “

[23] “ “

[24] Article from The British Journal of Photography: ‘On Being an Angel: finding Francesca Woodman in the otherness of her self-portraits’ by Nazrene Hanif (Published on 13 January 2016)

[25] “ “

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[29] ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ by Rainer Rilke — Published May 8th 2002 by Dover Publications (first published 1929)

[30] “ “

Third year student at Falmouth University studying BA(Hons) Graphic Design. The key areas within my work include photography, editorial design and branding.

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