If someone asked you what photography’s big deal was, all you’d have to say is that it has something to do with “the gaze,” and then show this photograph. Of course, photography is not just this image. There is a lot more – or, if you’re a curmudgeon (there seem to be many these days) a lot less. But there is a lot to be said for talking about the most outstanding examples of any art form to get an idea of their power – instead of focusing on the detritus. Thus, when talking about photography we’d probably want to talk about photographs of the human form, and out of all those we might want to talk about this particular photograph. Its title is “A woman sits for a final photograph with her dying mother,” and it was taken by Eduard Méhomé (the photograph can be found on page 41 of Life & Afterlife in Benin – make sure to view the slightly larger version of this photograph first by clicking on the icon on the side before reading the rest of this article). (more)
I have no idea whether the title of the photograph given in the book is its original title. I doubt it. The photograph is a studio portrait, and I yet have to learn of anyone who’d give a studio portrait a title like that. This is a conjecture, but the younger woman in the photograph probably treated the image the way we all treat out personal photographs: “This is me, and this is my mother.” That’s what we do: We take photographs for what they show us – a small, but important distinction. What the photographer did we can try to guess. The book talks about the difficulty of even finding negatives for many of those portrait studios in Benin. But even if we assume there was an archive, the title of this photograph is unlikely to have been “A woman sits for a final photograph with her dying mother.” That’s an unusable title for an archive.
So we needn’t take the title too seriously, even though, of course, it’s a great title. What makes the title so great, in terms of the writing, is that it’s nothing but completely descriptive. It’s almost the greatest possible title and the most terrible possible title at the same time. “A woman sits for a final photograph with her dying mother.” It makes us shudder: We cannot imagine being in that situation. Or actually we don’t want to imagine being in that situation. If we just had the title and if someone told us it was the title of an actual photograph what would be going through our heads? Would we imagine it being just that: utterly descriptive?