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PUBLIC LECTURE BY LOUIS KAPLAN: Photography + Death = Laughter. Reflections on Photography’s Morbid Sense of Humor

Louis Kaplan

Pschemp, ‘Dead End’ sign in cemetery in LaGrange, Georgia, 2005, digital colour photograph.

While one might think that the combining of photography and death leads to mourning and melancholy (as in Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes), this presentation explores the flip side of this somber state of affairs and the return of the (humorously) repressed in the comic equation "Photography + Death = Laughter."  Beginning with Hippolyte Bayard’s prankish performance Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man (1840), photographers have “played dead” and turned to a morbid sense of humor as a mode of comic relief.  This presentation will review a range of genres and fascinating case studies that typify this sensibility whether these images stage macabre stereographic ghosts and skeletons, the poses of Surrealist humour noir, headless photographic cut-ups, or Conceptual art pratfalls.

Louis Kaplan is Professor of History and Theory of Photography and New Media at the University of Toronto.  He is recognized internationally for his innovative historical and theoretical contributions to the field of photography studies in such areas as spirit photography, photography and community, photographic humour, the New Vision, and photography theory.  His new book on Photography and Humour is published by Reaktion Books (London) and distributed by the University of Chicago Press.  He is also the author of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy: Biographical Writings (Duke, 1995), American Exposures: Photography and Community in the Twentieth Century (Minnesota, 2005), and The Strange Case of William Mumler: Spirit Photographer (Minnesota, 2008).  Professor Kaplan has collaborated with the artist Melissa Shiff on two highly acclaimed research-creation projects in the digital humanities that utilize augmented and virtual reality -- Mapping Ararat: An Imaginary Jewish Homelands Project (2011-2014) and The Imaginary Jewish Homelands of I.N. Steinberg (2015-2020) supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.  Professor Kaplan serves on the editorial boards of History of Photography and Journal of Photography and Culture.

The lecture is co-sponsored by the Center for Creative Photography and the University of Arizona Art History Graduate Student Association as part of their symposium titled, Magic and Mechanic: Exploring the Interior Mysteries of Art and Its Histories.


Photography and Humour will be available for purchase, and a book-signing with Dr. Kaplan will follow the Keynote Presentation.