by Eugenie Shinkle, from The Precipice, by Tony Chirinos
The penultimate image in The Precipice is of a body in a morgue. Swaddled in white plastic and hoisted, mid-torso, on a hook, you can almost feel the dead weight of it, like a slab of meat in an abattoir. And if this seems a crude way to describe what was once a living human, it’s not wholly inaccurate. After death, the body becomes just so much inanimate matter. For photographer Tony Chirinos, however, the image evokes the Ascension – in Christian theology, the occasion when Jesus was raised from the dead to take up a place in Heaven. Chirinos is not a religious man, but the photograph speaks to him of that moment when the human spirit transcends its mortal form.
Chirinos worked as a biomedical photographer for 16 years, and continued photographing in medical settings after his retirement from the profession in 2001. He’s familiar with the boundary between life and death, and with those whose work takes them back and forth across it every day. As a biomedical photographer, much of his workday was spent in operating rooms. The photographs that he took there had a single purpose – to show clearly the interior of the body and the surgical procedures performed on it. Early on, Chirinos started bringing a second camera with him into surgery, to fill the often-lengthy intervals between one assignment and the next.
He also brought a very different vision – one which reflects on the surgical patient as the stage for some of humanity’s most enduring questions. Is death a spiritual matter, or an earthly one? Does life cease when the soul’s light is extinguished, or, more prosaically, does death unfold slowly, as the body’s functions shut down? Faced with the end of life, should we place our faith in religion, or in the rationality of modern medicine? The Precipice suggests that these are false dichotomies. Both the operating room and the mortuary, as Chirinos’s photographs suggest, are places where questions of life and death are posed on a continuum between science and the sacred.
The operating room is a messy, often violent place. Bodies are cut open and pulled apart, subjected to sometimes brutal interventions, brought to the brink of death in order to preserve life. Surgery is dangerous, and Chirinos is familiar with the risk that accompanies these deliberate assaults on the body’s integrity. He has witnessed events that left him traumatized. None of this is evident in his images. The photographs in The Precipice are neither gory nor graphic. Atmospheric and charged with subtle tension, they withhold more information than they reveal. Their clinical context is evident in the surgical instruments and medical equipment, in the gowned and masked figures huddled around operating tables, in the bright lights illuminating iodine-stained skin. Beneath the surgical drapes are living humans, but they are not the subjects of these photographs. The details of the procedures themselves are mostly shadowed.
Up until the early twentieth century, surgery took place in amphitheatre-style spaces that were open to the public. Spectators gathered, sometimes in their hundreds, to watch surgeons perform miracles – complete with dramatic introductions, theatrical flourishes and suspenseful denouements. Chirinos’s photographs evoke the mix of apprehension and excitement that marked an era for which scientific discovery was often synonymous with public spectacle. The first image in the book suggests a theatre curtain; the glow of surgical lights brings to mind a spotlit stage, or the chiaroscuro of a Renaissance painting. The work also shares Renaissance painting’s religious sensibility, and the eloquence of its gestures. For painters like Caravaggio, Titian, and Gentisleschi, the position of the hands and fingers was as important as the expressions of the face. In Classical sculpture, body language was often rendered with the mannered bearing of mime, and Chirinos’s photos allude to this too. In one image, the surgeon’s gloved hands seem to float in mid-air above an open incision, as still and graceful as a marble sculpture. Chirinos’s images are remarkable not just for their technical skill, but for the fluidity of their visual language. Rooted in an aesthetic that combines the lyrical formality of classical documentary imagery with the flashlit clarity of the crime scene photograph, they speak in multiple, superimposed languages – not just the dialects of photography but those of painting, of sculpture, and of the real itself.
Surgical instruments speak a language all their own. In his 1955 photo essay ‘Beauties of the Common Tool’, Walker Evans celebrated the aesthetics of everyday workshop tools – their appeal to the senses, independent of their function. The tools that Chirinos photographs are anything but everyday, and their appearance hints at their function with a transparency that’s sometimes terrifying. Some are as lumpen as a builder’s hammer, others are as delicately engineered as a Swiss watch. Their suggestive shapes are supplemented by elaborate nomenclature. Some of these names are graphically descriptive, others are enigmatic to the point of poetry: Desmarres Eyelid Retractor … Logan Lip Traction Bow …. Periosteal Elevator … Vice Grip Bone Clamp. Like Evans, Chirinos borrows the formality of the still-life image; here, he marries it with the upbeat allure of jewellery advertisements, designed to seduce the eye. Shot against candy-bright backgrounds, his photographs also share Evans’ fascination with the ‘elegance, candor and purity’ of their subject matter.
The charm of these still lives goes some way towards offsetting the unease – the dynamic of attraction and repulsion – that they evoke in the eye of the layman. Chirinos regards them as bridges spanning the boundary between life and death. ‘When I look at these tools, they’re very formally beautiful’, he remarks, ‘but there’s a duality to their function. You could kill somebody with any of these tools, but you can also save their life.’ Some of the instruments in his photographs are surgical, others are forensic; many are equally at home in both environments. The average viewer is not likely to know which is which.
Nor is it always easy, in Chirinos’s photographs, to tell the difference between a living body and a dead one. Many of the images in the third chapter of the book mirror those in the first – instruments arranged on a tray; light reflecting softly off the top of a head; a hand hanging off the edge of a table, the wrist and fingers limp. Even the most sharply-focused photograph is mute against that moment when life ends, when the body’s physical state is unchanged to the eye, but the indefinable quality that animates it and makes it a person, is no longer there. Neither is there much obvious difference between a surgical drape and a burial shroud.
The morgue is a transitional place, a station point between death and the body’s final destination. Beyond further harm or help, our mortal armour can become the site for a different kind of intervention, without the urgency of the operating room, but motivated by a kindred curiosity, a desire to know the body’s interior, how it works and why it fails. In Chirinos’s images, this change in intensity is registered in the character of the environment itself. Gone is the theatrical lighting, replaced by hard flash reflecting off stainless steel; the huddled figures are nowhere to be seen; the confined darkness of the operating room gives way to a deeper, emptier space. Serene in their white wrappings, bodies have the dignity of monuments.
Death is a drama with the same ending every time – one that is no less mysterious and tragic each time it occurs. Photography, with its insistence on the legibility of surfaces, is unable to tell us much about this mystery. And Chirinos’s images are reminders that the photograph, for all its ability to conjure the uncertainty that marks the precipice between life and death, can only hint at the reality of the passage from one to the other. From the outside, the body persists, but the photograph can never show us the nonexistence of the self.