Necrology

Necrology
Lawrence Levi
2021
Printed by Conveyor Studio

5 × 7 in. closed
48 pages
Perfect-bound softcover
Digital offset
Edition of 100

Front cover of necrology. The title text is set across the forehead of an older, bespectacled man in a suit. The photo is black and white and framed in a black border. The text is black.

There really isn’t much to say about death. Each metaphor for it feels imprecise; each explanation of its mechanics or significance says too little or too much. Where consciousness ends, so too do art and science or any other way we have of making meaning.

Of course, we can’t stop talking about it anyway. That final experience is perhaps the only one we can truly term “universal,” and the fact none of us among the living can crack the mystery makes it all the more compelling.

Lawrence Levi’s Necrology manages to say a lot about death — and about the variety, beauty, and absurdity of the life that precedes it — by not saying much at all.

The book’s premise is deceptively simple: Levi, an editor at The New York Times as well as a photographer, sequences decades of photographs from that paper’s obituaries, presenting one or two images per page. The pictures themselves are cropped tightly and primarily feature neutral backgrounds and facial expressions, clearly taken for documentary more than sentimental or aesthetic purposes. While they are good photographs, surprisingly if subtly expressive, it is their arrangement rather than their content that makes this an artists’ book.

Necrology inside spread pp. 12-13 with 2 obit photos each on the verso and recto. On the verso are Wallace D. Hayes and Sripati Chandrasekhar; on the recto are Ruth D. Turner and W. Glenn Campbell.

Contextual information for each image consists of its original caption, usually providing only the name of the deceased. The few longer descriptions provoke more questions than they answer: “Walter S. Taylor in 1978, before the accident that crippled him” or “Anthony J. Giacalone, who was said to be in organized crime.”

Nothing further about the subjects is shared until Necrology’s last few pages, allowing (or requiring) the viewer to make their own interpretations regarding meaning and sequencing. The fact that these subjects are all but anonymous, unless the reader happens to recognize a name or two among them, incites a desire to study them more closely.

After spending a bit of time with an image, getting lost in the little idiosyncrasies of a given face, I come to feel as if I know the subject. At first, this sentiment is sweet, a bit of connection between the viewer and the rest of humanity.

Necrology inside spread pp. 24-25. Verso has a clipping of Jacques Fauvet's obit photo; recto has a clipping of Gaetano Badalamenti's obit photo.

However, the knowledge that all these people are dead and the association of their photographs with death adds a different resonance to the images. Every picture of a model on a gallery wall is motionless, but here Levi correlates the stillness of the medium with the stillness of death. The subject I felt I knew intimately becomes alien, separated by an impenetrable barrier.

This is not to say Necrology is solely a dreary, ruminative work. As the crush of images grows, the reader begins to consider the universality of the human face, the amazing similarity of shape between any one and another. Differences of appearance that play outsize and oppressive roles in the land of the living — ethnicity, gender, visible disability[1] — begin to feel less significant. As the faces themselves become generalized, the viewer begins to differentiate individuals by other means: the shape of a tie knot or hairstyle, the thickness of eyeglass frames. This often has a humorous, softening effect: after my first viewing, I couldn’t remember every face in Necrology, but I clearly recalled the two cowboy hats on display.

Necrology inside spread pp. 18-19. Verso has a clipping of Alonso Pettie's obit photo; recto has a clipping of Robert R. Nathan's obit photo.

The text that fills the last few pages of Necrology, while minimal, opens up additional meanings and methods of grappling with the photographs. A short — usually one sentence — biography is provided for each individual pictured. The biographies and the photographs are not presented in the same sequence, making the viewer put in a bit of work to match a name to a face. This almost game-like quality further emphasizes the book’s subtle humor, highlighting the laughter in many of the faces and the absurdity of many of the facts.

Levi further underscores this humor with some of the biographies themselves: “Alan Dugan was a writer of stinging poems who won the National Book Award twice and worked for several years in a plastic-vagina factory”; “Rodman Rockefeller was a Rockefeller.”

The endnotes also provoke consideration of the potential for a disconnect between a face or other aspects of a person’s appearance and the facts of that person’s life, in ways ranging from amusing to upsetting. Theodore McCarty’s mild, aged appearance is a stark contrast to the hard living and frequent early deaths of the blues and metal musicians who made his Flying V and Les Paul guitar designs into icons. The jovial, grandfatherly man smiling broadly on Necrology’s cover was a French politician who came to associate with that country’s far-right National Front.

Necrology inside spread pp. 44-45: verso and recto both feature short obit texts set in 2 columns.

Sometimes, this effect is reversed: Arthur “Spud” Melin, with his broad smile, tanned face, and comparatively long hair, does look the most likely of all these people to have headed up the company that popularized the Frisbee.

Even taken in isolation from the pictures, the simple biographies say something about the universality of death and the near-infinite variety of life. While all of these people were notable in some way, the breadth of that notability is vast. Some were at the center of sweeping changes, such as the first democratically elected president of Azerbaijan or a psychiatrist who worked to end the American Psychological Association’s classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder. Most, however, were a bit more ordinary: poets, cowboys, scientists, gangsters, and priests who in one moment or another did something truly wonderful, terrible, or strange.

Lawrence Levi does not tell us what death is in Necrology, nor what to do with our brief lives. What he does is give death a face — or more accurately, forty-six faces — to express just a bit of its mystery, its power, and its grim humor. Even to the last page, Levi invites us to play with and explore death rather than dreading or ignoring it, ending with an author photo formatted identically to the obituary images and a poem excerpt from one of Necrology’s subjects:

as if the mouse’s fingers…
could grasp our grasping lives, and in
their drowning movement pull us under too,
into the common death beyond the mousetrap

Alan Dugan, “Funeral Oration for a Mouse”

[1] Because the individuals pictured are selected from a pool a major US newspaper deemed ‘notable’ upon their deaths, many of them some years ago, white men are quite overrepresented. Perhaps an assemblage featuring the many people eulogized in the Times’ ongoing Overlooked project would broaden this universalizing effect.