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On the occasion of the exhibition Securing the Shadow: Posthumous Portraiture in America, thinkers from a variety of disciplines will gather to share perspectives on topics related to the art and culture of death in America. Curated by Stacy C. Hollander, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions, Securing the Shadow is the first museum exhibition to consider nineteenth-century self-taught portraiture through the lens of memory and loss. The tradition of preserving the likeness of a loved one as he or she appeared in life, particularly children whose short lives might otherwise be undocumented, reveals a long and complex legacy of iconography and symbols related to death in art and text. Hollander effectively traces the derivation of posthumous portraiture from a shadow traced on a wall to the meaningful shadow secured by the artist, and ultimately the photographer whose postmortem daguerreotypes could no longer mask the face of death.
The morning panel will focus on the posthumous image in early America, discussing the cultural precedents for the tradition, as well as the way in which painted portraits and postmortem photographs cheat death to provide a “living” image of a loved one. The afternoon panel offers a broader perspective on the culture of death in the United States—both past and present. From the evolution of funerary customs to contemporary expressions of memory, the panel explores how Americans grieve(d). Together, the symposium asks us to consider the visual and theoretical implications of the shadow and the role of art in remembrance.
10:00 AM: Registration / Coffee & Pastries
10:30 AM: Welcome Address
10:30 AM–12:15 PM: Panel 1: The Posthumous Image in Nineteenth-Century America
10:30–10:50 AM: A Peculiar Intimacy: Death in Early America, Gary M. Laderman, Professor and Chair, Department of Religion, Emory University
10:55–11:20 AM: “And If Thou Wilt, Remember”: Posthumous Portraiture in America, Stacy C. Hollander, Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions, American Folk Art Museum
11:25–11:45 AM: Photography and Memorialization: Images of Death and Dying in the Nineteenth Century, Dr. Stanley B. Burns, Historian, Founder of the Burns Archive, and Professor of Medical Humanities, New York University
11:50 AM–12:15 PM: Discussion, Moderator: Joanna Ebenstein, Cofounder, Morbid Anatomy Museum
12:15–1:15 PM: Break for Lunch
1:20–3:00 PM: Panel 2: Death and Mourning in American Culture
1:20–1:40 PM: Fashioning Mourning: Dress and Bereavement in Nineteenth-Century America, Jessica Regan, Assistant Curator, the Costume Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1:45–2:05 PM: From Mourning Veils to Veiled Mourning, Kate Sweeney, Journalist and Author of American Afterlife
2:10–2:30 PM: the epitaph project: A Tour, Joyce Burstein, Artist
2:35–3:00 PM: Discussion, Moderator: Joanna Ebenstein, Cofounder, Morbid Anatomy Museum
3:00–3:30 PM: Closing Reception
Stacy C. Hollander is Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Chief Curator, and Director of Exhibitions at the American Folk Art Museum. She has published widely and served as curator and cocurator of numerous exhibitions, including most recently American Made organized for the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art (2016), Mystery and Benevolence: Masonic and Odd Fellows Folk Art from the Kendra and Allan Daniel Collection (2016, with catalog), Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum (2014, with catalog), Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions organized for the South Street Seaport Museum (2012), and The Seduction of Light: Ammi Phillips | Mark Rothko Compositions in Pink, Green, and Red (2008, with catalog). She received her BA from Barnard College and her MA in American Folk Art Studies from New York University.
Dr. Stanley B. Burns began collecting medical, historical, and memorial photography in 1975, and founded the Burns Archive in 1977. Since then, he’s authored dozens of award-winning photo-history books, and has curated and exhibited in major museums and galleries worldwide. A New York City ophthalmologist, Dr. Burns’ keen eye for iconic imagery has helped rewrite inaccuracies in medical history and played a large role in the rediscovery of postmortem photography and nineteenth-century mourning practices. He teaches at New York University’s Lagone Medical Center where he is Clinical Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry. When not collecting, Dr. Burns spends his time consulting, lecturing, creating exhibitions, and writing books on under-appreciated areas of history and photography.
Gary M. Laderman, Goodrich C. White Professor of American Religious History and Cultures at Emory University, is the author of Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead, and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States. He is also the author of two books on death in America: The Sacred Remains: American Attitudes Toward Death, 1799–1883 and Rest in Peace: A Cultural History of Death and the Funeral Home in Twentieth-Century America. Over the last decade, Laderman has been interviewed on topics ranging from death and funerals to horror films and televangelists in a variety of media, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, US News and World Report, Ebony, NBC Evening News, and Today.
Joanna Ebenstein is a Brooklyn-based artist, curator, writer, and graphic designer. She is the creator of the Morbid Anatomy blog, library, and event series, and was cofounder and creative director of the recently shuttered Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. In 2014, she cocurated the award-winning exhibition The Art of Mourning, which exhibited a broad array of arts relating to mourning, from spirit photography to death masks to postmortem photography and portraiture. This show drew on private collections including that of Dr. Stanley Burns. She is the author of The Anatomical Venus, coauthor of Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy, and coeditor of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology. Ebenstein’s writing and photography have been published and exhibited internationally, and she speaks regularly around the world on topics at the intersections of art and medicine, and death and culture.
Jessica Regan is an Assistant Curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute specializing in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fashion. She earned her MA in art history from University College London and her BA in art history from New York University. Since beginning her career in the Costume Institute as an intern in 2001, she has worked on numerous departmental exhibitions and educational initiatives, most recently cocurating Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire (2014) with Harold Koda.
Kate Sweeney is an Atlanta-based writer and public radio storyteller and producer. While pursuing her MFA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, she spent time with obituary writers, funeral directors, and ordinary Americans who found themselves involved with death and memorialization. The result is her book, American Afterlife, which Paste Magazine called “the perfect story for our time, in the best possible way.” Sweeney’s radio stories air regularly on Atlanta’s NPR station and she has won four Edward R. Murrow awards as well as a number of Associated Press awards for her work. Her writing has appeared in Oxford American, Utne Reader, Atlanta Magazine, and New South, among other outlets.
Joyce Burstein is an artist based in New York. Her epitaph project, on view in Securing the Shadow, is an interactive sculpture—a blank-slate-lined tombstone accompanied by chalk and an eraser—that encourages observers to write an original epitaph. The project is permanently installed in cemeteries in California and Ohio, and has had temporary installations at the Socrates Sculpture Park in New York and other venues. The epitaph project challenges the pervasive taboo on confronting death by literally providing a blank slate on which to consider impermanence, selfhood, history, and absurdity with both humor and high seriousness. Joyce Burstein has an MFA in sculpture from the San Francisco Art Institute, and is the recipient of a Pollack-Krasner Foundation grant.
Image credit: The Farwell Children, Deacon Robert Peckham (1785–1877), Fitchburg, Massachusetts, c. 1841, oil on canvas, 53 1/2 x 40 1/2 in.; 62 1/2 x 48 in. (framed), collection American Folk Art Museum, New York, gift of Ralph Esmerian, 2005.8.11. Photo © 2000 John Bigelow Taylor.