When I think about death two images come to mind - the static corpse of my late father in his funeral casket and Lucien Clergue’s photograph of a dead cat washed up on a beach. Both affirmed an absence of life and both were equally disturbing. At 16, I wasn’t prepared for the impact of seeing the husk of my father laid bare, yet it was a ritual I forced upon myself to confront a troubled past.
Two years later, in a beautiful collection published by the New York Graphic Society, I came across Lucien’s image of the deceased feline 'Grounded Cat'. His cat, mannequins and gypsies all added weight to the experience of Clergue’s collection. I bought the book and spent hours absorbing his work - portraits of Picasso, Cocteau, the contest between matador and bull, rocks, reeds and nudes. Although the subjects were diverse, viewed as a whole I began to see the death of my father in a new light.
Over time I saw the transcendence of it, that the fear of death was nothing more than the fear of transition and perhaps my perception of the pain associated with it. Lucien's image seemed to capture the moment before and after. For me it wasn't a moment frozen in time but an image that captured two states of being. It was anguished and still, eternal and transient. The space between life and death became abruptly clear, as it had when I saw my father in his casket. At the time I was unable to reconcile it but here it was - the context of life framed by beauty, tragedy, sanctity and simplicity. Through the specificity of Clergue's photograph my own experience became less personal and more universal.
On reflection I realise Clergies' photograph is as much about life as it is about death and I now see the memory of my father’s corpse in the same light. I half expect it was the eternal circle that Lucien was seeing all along. Or perhaps he was grappling with life or death in his own way. Who's to really know except Lucien himself, and to a degree it’s irrelevant. For me the experience strengthened the importance of photography, the communal act of seeing and the transformative power of the image.
Some of Lucien's photographs still hold magic when i look at them. They reveal an insistent curiosity and a compassion for the breadth of life. Like a good piece of writing, the grace is expressed through what is observed, composed and withheld. My own subjectivity, conscious and unconscious completes the exchange and with that I am left to dream what I will.