‘ALIVE: In the Face of Death’ By Rankin – Review

Christian Watts

“Death; we can deny it and medicine can delay it, but it remains life’s only certainty.” Rankin


As part of the Liverpool international photography festival LOOK/13, the Walker Art Gallery has put on an exhibition by internationally renowned photographer Rankin. Unlike the festival which closes next Sunday, this exhibition is on till September 15th, and if you’re interested in photography this is an exhibition you must see if you get the chance.

In association with the BBC, ‘ALIVE: In the Face of Death’ concerns itself with the (mainly British) taboo of death. As it suggests in the exhibition, British culture seems to be uncomfortable with the subject of death. We don’t seem to talk about the topic that much, even though, as Rankin says, it is ‘life’s only certainty’. In other cultures death is a celebrated as a natural course of life; you only need to take the Mexican Day of the Dead as an example. Maybe it’s all the atheists that insist there is no life after death and that scares a lot of people, I don’t know. Even with such an uncomfortable topic for many people however, the exhibition has been a huge success and in my view is emotional, poignant and at the same time a little bit heartbreaking. It might even melt a few stone cold hearts whilst it’s at it.

As expected, Rankin’s portraits are well executed and he has a beautiful ability to capture emotion in his photographs. There are various collections in the exhibition such as his series of self portraits, death masks, i.e. casts of celebrities which he has photographs of, and a series dedicated to people who work with death such as embalmers and funeral directors. Another series however struck me the most. The final room in the show contains photographs of people with terminal conditions. They live in the face and fear of death on a daily basis, yet the portraits were of strong, happy individuals who looked like they had their whole lives to live.

Each was personal to the model and each discussed their role with Rankin and self directed. One girl requested she be photographed with butterflies, whilst another wanted to embrace her inner glamour model. In doing this Rankin has managed to not only focus on the concept of death, but celebrates life in doing so. It is a reminder of the sanctity of life. From writing this here I made it sound like it was a sad, dark exhibition. However, it was strangely uplifting. I felt there was more about life than death itself.

rankin alive

Standing there, taking it all in was a powerful moment. Wandering through the rooms you are forced to consider what death means to you and those around you. However, in doing so it dispelled the fear that death seems to cast over people. I was thoroughly impressed by the diversity of this exhibition, and as the first exhibition I have seen of Rankin’s, was impressed by what he has set out to do.

It wasn’t until I approached the final piece that the whole premise of the exhibition truly struck home. Louise Page was diagnosed with bone cancer and has been fighting it for the best part of ten years. However it has recently returned and she was diagnosed as terminal. Reading this, as every portrait has a back-story of each model, I was once again struck by her story. It stated at the bottom of the piece that she had passed away three days after the private view of the exhibition. I could throw too many clichés in here now, but I will leave it blank and just say that this is an exhibition well worth seeing.

With the depressing bit over, I highly recommend at least taking a look at the project. For those with an interest in photography, or those with an interest in life, the exhibition invites viewers to share each subject’s journey, which is as much one of life as the ever present certainty of death.  ‘ALIVE x RANKIN‘ is a website that has been created solely for this BBC funded project where people have submitted their own stories of how they have, or are facing, death. Take a look. 

About Christian Watts

Christian is a soon-to-be design student at Goldsmiths, London. Originally from (near) Liverpool, he can usually be found with a camera or sketchbook. Works at art galleries pretending he knows what he's talking about. Follow on twitter @cjfwatts