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Bringing Back the Dead; Photographer Captures a Harlem Undertaker's Art
''There's nothing uglier than death,'' Isaiah Owens said as he prepared the corpse to have its picture taken, standing at the coffin to remove a wrinkle from the man's jersey and readjust the angle of his cap. ''Death is cruel.''
Mr. Owens, a Harlem undertaker who works with the deceased as others work with oils, was quick to continue, ''People just aren't elegant when they die.'' He added with a smile: ''They're elegant when they die here.''
He was referring to his funeral home on Lenox Avenue and 121st Street, where James Patterson, 37, recently departed, was laid out in a coffin and dressed like Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers in a bright banana-yellow jersey, as well as a headband, a do-rag and a homeboy cap kicked slightly to one side.
There was a Deardorff camera perched above the coffin on a stepladder. Elizabeth Heyert, the photographer, was poised to click the shutter. Mr. Owens, meanwhile, stood off to the side, a little awestruck by this otherworldly art.
If death was ugly, perhaps a photograph of death was not.
''If it looks like that,'' he said, ''it can't be but so bad.''
Mr. Owens, 53, an ordained Baptist minister, has been beautifying bodies in the neighborhood for more than 30 years. But for the last year, he has branched out to work on another project, having agreed to let Ms. Heyert, an acclaimed photographer, take pictures of his undertaker's art for a book-length glimpse of Harlem's dead.
Taking portraits of a corpse in its coffin might seem macabre, but, in fact, Ms. Heyert's photographs are touching, sensitive and exceedingly respectful of the dead. They do not linger on the cold inertness of the flesh. Instead, they peek below the surface at the vibrant, living face beneath the mask of death.
Of course, it helps when the mask has been fashioned by a mortuary wizard like Mr. Owens, who will correct death's pallor with cosmetics and restore the bosoms of emaciated cancer patients with stuffing made of foam.
He considers it his duty to prepare a body for the afterworld with the same care a Hollywood stylist might use to prepare an actress for the Oscars. His corpses meet their maker dressed in pearls and wedding gowns, in fezzes, top hats and dinner jackets, with pocket squares and white lace gloves.
''The thing that intrigued me most about this project was the whole idea of people going out dressed to the nines,'' said Ms. Heyert, whose work is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
''Owens calls it 'going to the party,' and these people really do look splendid. That's what I'm after. I wanted to capture that panache and sense of style.''
Ms. Heyert learned of Mr. Owens through an article about him last year in The New York Times. So far, she has photographed about 30 of his corpses. She hopes to photograph another 10 or 20 and exhibit her work in public, perhaps at a museum.
For now, Ms. Heyert is immersed in the process of her work, which depends in no small part upon the fickleness of death. Typically, when Mr. Owens receives a body, he will inquire of the survivors whether they would mind if a photograph is made. He will then call Ms. Heyert, who will shoot the body in the narrow window between arrival and interment.
''I always call my assistant and say hi,'' Ms. Heyert said. ''Every time, he asks, 'Who died?'''
To her great relief, she has discovered that taking portraits of Mr. Owens's bodies is not unlike taking photographs of living human beings. ''When I'm up there taking pictures,'' she said, ''I'm not that conscious that they're dead.''
Despair arrives in the lab the next day, when, from a bath of photographic solvents, the ghostly face appears. ''I just feel terrible,'' Ms. Heyert said. ''It's when I realize that I've been photographing somebody who isn't really there.''
Ms. Heyert has a nuanced view of the portrait maker's art. Her last project, which resulted in a book called ''Sleepers,'' had her taking photographs of models as they slept in the nude.
She tends to fall in love with her subjects, even subjects who cannot return the love. ''I did fall in love with them,'' she said of those featured in her current project, ''but then I remembered...'' She fell silent and began to shake her head.
Ms. Heyert is a thin, crisp, elegant woman, 53 years old, who has traveled widely in the Tuscan countryside and does not believe in God. She lives the New York artist's life, with its concomitant real estate. She has shown her work at the Edwynn Houk Gallery on Fifth Avenue. She has a studio in Chelsea and an apartment in Greenwich Village.
Ms. Heyert admits to having known little of Harlem before she started taking pictures of its corpses. But through the pictures, she has come to know the neighborhood, or at least the portion that is dead.
''Harlem has already changed so much,'' she said, ''that, in a sense, I'm taking pictures of the past. All these people, with their links to the South, and the church and the style of dressing up, are vanishing. They won't be here in another 20 years.''
Their relatives, however, will be, and to inoculate herself against lawsuits, she asks the families of her subjects to sign a standardized release. There is no reason there should be problems. Most families, Ms. Heyert says, are happy to receive a portrait -- free -- of their loved one's corpse.
''It helps in the process of bereavement,'' said the Rev. Renee F. Washington, whose husband, the Rev. Dr. Preston R. Washington, posed last summer for Ms. Heyert, if one can use that term.
As for Mr. Owens, the photographic project is the culmination of a life spent among the dead. He is an artist, and like every artist, he sees his own reflection in the work.
Take the case of Mr. Patterson, an ailing man who released himself from the hospital this month and was discovered two days later in a puddle in Mount Morris Park.
At the funeral home, he was dressed, as his family had requested, in a Lakers jersey, but the smile, the innocence, the deep serenity was all Isaiah Owens, Mr. Owens said. ''When you look at him,'' he said, ''you're seeing what I look like on the inside.''
Now the shutter clicked. Another portrait done.
''That right there is me,'' Mr. Owens said. ''It's me, all me.''