Paul Koudounaris: Memento Mori – Photographer of Death
by Frank Forte
The La Luz De Jesus Gallery in Los Angeles hosts an exhibit of deathly macabre photographs by Paul Koudounaris. This exhibit coincides with the work of Scott Hove.
Paul Koudounaris is an author and photographer from Los Angeles. He has a PhD in Art History and his publications in the field of charnel house and ossuary research have made him a well-known figure in the field of macabre art and art history. He is a member of The Order of the Good Death.
For the past decade, photographer and art historian Paul Koudounaris has been traveling the world to document macabre funerary culture and artwork created with human bones. In the process, he produced two prior books, The Empire of Death and Heavenly Bodies. But his third and final book on the topic, Memento Mori, is intended as the magnum opus, and includes material from a vast array of cultures and historical periods in order to show, in stunning visual terms, mankind’s universal desire to cross the threshold of death and continue a meaningful relationship with those who have departed. This photo show held in conjunction with the release of the book will include the finest of his images, somber yet beautiful testaments from around the world that affirm the unbreakable bond between the living and the dead.
In 2006, Paul started extensively studying the use of human remains in religious ritual and as a decorative element in sacred spaces. He began writing about and photographing them for European newspapers, and became an important contributor to magazines which specialize in the paranormal, such as the Fortean Times, covering unusual and spiritual phenomenon surrounding sacred remains throughout the world. In the process, Paul also compiled material for the first ever history of bone-decorated religious structures, visiting over 70 sites on four continents, some of which had never before been photographed or open to the public.
La Luz De Jesus Gallery
4633 Hollywood Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA. 90027
April 3 – 26, 2015
Opening Reception: Friday, April 3rd, 8:00-11:00 PM
Book Signings TBA
To coincide with the exhibit and book release, Heavy Metal caught up with Paul to discuss the works.
HM: You’re getting ready for an exhibit at la Luz De Jesus gallery in Los Angeles and releasing a new book entitled Memento Mori, congratulations. Let me start with the obvious, where did your fascination with death come from?
Paul Koudounaris: I think on some level everyone is fascinated by death. There are theories of psychology that purport that a latent obsession with death is at the root of all human behavior, and while that might be a bit of an extreme viewpoint, I think we all carry an awareness of it with us, it’s just that in some cases, like mine, it’s a little more obvious. When I was a kid I was always fixated on the idea of mortality, I used to design tombstones for myself. But whether you are a spiritual person or not, it’s still the final frontier, you can try to ignore it, but we all carry the awareness of death’s eventuality with us in everything we do.
HM: Is there a central theme throughout Memento Mori?
PK: I have two other books out, they are photo books but with lengthier, more academic texts, and in their cases the central theme is more obvious. Memento Mori does have a central theme also, which is the cultural and historical universality of keeping tangible remains of the human body around, and allowing the dead to maintain a role in society. This seems foreign to us, because as a cultural we have pushed the dead away over the last century and a half. But the book provides a journey though all the societies that have held a very opposite point of view, and without the heavy text it becomes an open-ended journey, but the whole point is allow the reader to come out at the other side with the realization that there is nothing freakish or strange about these kinds of practices—we’re the weird ones for ghettoizing the dead, because quite clearly the book demonstrates that the bulk of history handled their memory and social role in a very different way.
HM: Do you have any work lined up for any of the major comic book companies? Covers or short stories?
HM: Please, tell us how did you find the artist inside you?
PK: Well, I can tell you a little about my process. I want these photos to be expressive, even if the expressive content is not immediately obvious. I have been photographing these places for 12 years and already put out two books. I learned very quickly how to take a great-looking photo of a room full of bones. But that’s not what I am after. I don’t necessarily want technically beautiful photos — I am not opposed to that, of course, but more important is that they express something, something inside of me. Something I started doing a long time ago is whenever I photograph a new site, I try to completely clear my head of any previous associations, try desperately to find a naïve mindset, and then come up with some particular word that might summarize my reaction if this were the first place like this I had ever walked into, the first time I had ever had an encounter like this. It might be pride, or humility, or salvation or damnation. Some kind of innate or intuitive response from within myself. And that’s the photo I try to take, the photo that expresses that on a latent level. The viewer will never be aware of that, of course, but I think it makes the photo richer because it places me in it. Am I just some sappy nut, and does that actually work? Well, all I know is this: when the last book was being laid out, there was a particular photo that I was very attached to. It was the one where I had the strongest reaction, and felt I best captured it. When the first layouts arrived, that photo was not in the book and I was furious. I demanded that they add it. The designer said no, it was too dark. I told her I didn’t care if it was pitch black, I needed that photo. So they acquiesced and put it in, even though technically it was flawed. Well, it turned out that 95 percent of the reviews on the book used that particular photo. Of all the photos they could have chosen, they all went for that one, consistently, even though yeah, technically it was flawed. But like I said, there was more of me in it than any other photo, it was simply more expressive of my own reaction, even though the viewer could not possibly understand that.
HM: In your first book, The Empire of Death, you visited The Catacombs of Death in Paris, The Sedlec Ossuary and the Crypt of Santa Maria, what were those experiences like?
PK: Those are awesome, amazing places . . . but they all are. Big or small, all the places I photographed were awe-inspiring. Judging by the photos it may seem like there is a hierarchy, but when you’re in them there really isn’t, the little, humble charnel houses can be just as powerful. Because death itself is utterly democratic.
HM: Who are your influences as photographers?
PK: There are some obvious answers, since I like creepy things I love people like Joel-Peter Witkin, and although I never aped his style, I spent a lot of time studying the early photos of the Paris Catacombs by Nadar. But if you go back to the previous, rather lengthy exegesis about my process, really photographing these places was never so much about style as it was about expression, so I don’t think any of those influences are germain to the work I produce.
HM: What types of cameras do you use? Do you still work with film?
PK: Over the past decade I have used a lot of different equipment, both digital and film. Most of what has been published was taken with a Canon 5D2 and 5D3, although recently I abandoned Canon and went over to Nikon. I very much like the process of shooting with film, however, and I was always carrying around an old film camera with me and shooting black and white at the same time — some of those pictures did wind up in the books, but not a lot. Basically, I don’t convert digital to black and white, so if you see a black and white photo, it was shot on film. My film cameras kept getting more and more archaic as my digital cameras were getting more sophisticated, maybe it’s a counter-balance thing, but at the end I was using an old Nikon F2. I tried shooting medium format film too for awhile. This was at the outset, while I was working on Empire of Death. Medium format is great, but for traveling and walking into situations with huge numbers of potential variables, medium format is a waste of time. The systems are big and heavy, and not that flexible. When I turned in the first book, I looked at the photos I was submitting and I counted them up — about 75 percent were digital, about 25 percent 35mm black and white, and almost nothing, seriously maybe 2 photos, that were medium format. I decided then and there to not bother carrying a medium format system around anymore.
HM: Any chance of doing a documentary film about your experiences?
PK: Oh God. I get contacted all the time. Constantly, probably once a week I get a TV or production company emailing me. From what I can gather, these guys specialize in one thing: wasting people’s time. If someone were serious had a plan and clue to start with, I would talk to them and see what we can work out. But I don’t even bother responding to most of the emails anymore, a lot of these companies don’t bother doing any homework, they look at your website for three minutes and then send you an email in which they pretend they have been following you for a decade and have a project ready and waiting. Then you go to a meeting and find out they’re just fishing, and it’s all a façade.
HM: Do you have a personal collection of death artifacts?
PK: I just typed, “I don’t,” and then erased it. Because I don’t have any of the standard Victorian-era mourning stuff, but actually I have a huge collection of skulls and taxidermy animals and so forth. They’re all dead, so I guess they count as death artifacts?
HM: What is / was the most strange thing hiding in your studio?
PK: Hmm, wow, I have some strange things. Like I said, I have a huge collection of taxidermy and skulls and so forth. One thing I have is Bullwinkle’s hoof. You remember Bullwinkle, the moose from the cartoon? I have an old moose hoof that used to belong to Jay Ward, who created the character, apparently it used to sit on his desk and he referred to it as Bullwinkle’s hoof.
HM: What toughest challenges have you faced as an artist during your art career?
PK: With the stuff that I do, I am as much of an anthropologist and archeologist as an artist, so that adds a whole different level of problems. Travel to exotic places, access to places, etc. Some of these places I have photographed, I have had to get permission from the Vatican. No one in art school teaches you how to address the College of Cardinals or whatever. So all this work is a constant learning curve, there is always some new and unexpected challenge that has to be surmounted.
HM: What’s the best and worst advice you ever received in your art career?
PK: I think they’re both related. Most people don’t like criticism, but you need it, you need it to be honest, and you have to be willing to accept it and learn from it. When I was just starting out with the death stuff, everyone looked at the photos and said, “this is great, just keep doing this, it’s going to be great.” Because very few people want to be critical. Except for one girl. She came to my house one day, looked at all these photos I had been taking, and said, “this just isn’t good enough.” I asked her why, and she laid it out for me, very candidly. At first I was really stung, but I knew she was right and I remembered everything she said and worked over the next year to correct it. I never told that girl this, but she did more for me than anyone. And when the first book came out, she was at the show, bought a copy and had me sign it. I didn’t say a word about the conversation from a few years before, but in my head I was ecstatic—I had passed the test of my one honest critic.
HM: What is the hardest thing on being a photographer?
PK: In some ways honestly it’s the easiest medium to get into. It’s also a dreadfully expensive medium if you are getting into high end gear. But mostly I would say the hardest thing is finding a way to put yourself, some kind of personal expression into your photos. I go to a lot of galleries and see amazingly slick photos, but they leave me totally cold, because when it comes to expressing something about the person who took them, they seem vapid.
HM: Do you have any tips or inspiring words for others?
PK: Hmmmmmmm . . . nothing that wouldn’t sound cliché. Honestly, you have to inspire yourself, if you can’t inspire yourself, go out and get a job.
HM: Your favorite art or life quote is …
PK: I tend to listen and learn more than speak, so how about Shakespeare, “Listen to many, speak to few.”
HM: What are you doing when you’re not shooting corpses?
PK: I set a goal at the beginning of last year, and it was one of the greatest decisions I could have made. I challenged myself to find a museum or similar type of cultural institution in the Southern California area that I had never before visited, and visit it. Once a week, find a new one and check it out. I not only kept it up for an entire year, I am still doing it. We are so culturally rich with amazing and obscure things, and most people aren’t even aware of it. So that’s the kick I am still on, find the most obscure local places I possibly can.
HM: What does the future hold for Paul Koudounaris? What type of macabre remains will you be bringing to light in your next excursion?
PK: I am done with dead people—pet cemeteries now. I am completely obsessed with pet cemeteries and animal memorials. The thing about writing books is that you’re always two years ahead of where people think you are. So for the past two years I have actually been traveling around the world photographing pet cemeteries and tracking down famous animals graves. This could take a lot longer, but I promise you, in the end there will be a book about animal graves. And the stories in that back will alternately be beautiful and heart-braking.
HM: And finally, do you believe in ghosts?
PK: Oh boy, that’s a long story. Well, I even do lectures on ghosts (I have a special lecture I do on sexualized ghosts in Sicily). And I have had some encounters doing all this work that people would definitely count as ghost stories. That being said . . . I don’t know that I believe in ghosts in a pop culture way, as these dead people who refuse to go away. I definitely believe in something, I believe there are spiritual or spectral forces that can manifest themselves into what we claim to be “ghosts,” but I don’t know that they are necessarily the residual life forces of dead people, and definitely they are not Casper.
Frank Forte Bio
Frank Forte is an accomplished designer, storyboard artist and comic book artist. He has worked in animation for feature films, TV and gaming. Some of the shows Frank has worked on include: Bob’s Burgers, Despicable Me 2, Lego Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Out, The Super Hero Squad Show, Marvel Heroes 4D, Lego Hero Factory, Lego Bionicle: The Legend Reborn, Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi, Re-Animated Pilot (Out of Jimmy’s Head), The Mr. Men Show, Bionicle: The Legend Reborn (DVD-2009), Lego Clutch Powers 4D ride at Legoland and Lego Atlantis. He co-created The Cletus and Floyd Show with Gene McGuckin, a tribute to animation directors Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones. Robert S. Rhine and Frank Forte created the pilot episode of Sickcom the Animated Series, which was sold to Spike and Mike’s Sick and Twisted Festival Of Animation in 2003.
In Frank’s spare time he paints. Recent shows include Laluzapalooza 2015 and Laluzapalooza Jury Winners Group Show 2015 at La Luz De Jesus Gallery (Los Angeles, CA), Villains of Animation at Van Eaton Galleries (Sherman Oaks, CA). Past shows include the CATZ Group Show at LTD. Gallery in Seattle, WA and the 6×6 group Show at The Phone Booth Gallery in Long Beach, CA. His art has been exhibited at Cannibal Flower (Los Angeles) and the Animation Guild Gallery 839 (North Hollywood).
Frank is also the publisher at Asylum Press, a publishing company that produces premium comic books and graphic novels within the horror, science fiction, and action genres.