Photographer, writer and historian Paul Koudounaris says he always gravitated toward macabre art history, and his most recent photography book, "Memento Mori: The Dead Among Us," is proof of this fascination.
The visually stunning book documents how different cultures around the world from Ethiopia to Rwanda to Nepal honor their dead and allow them to "live on" in memorials and traditions across the globe. The book features the best photos and material from the roughly 70 countries Koudounaris conducted research in over the years.
"After I finished my PhD I kind of fell into photographing and researching old church bone rooms," says Koudounaris, who received his doctorate from the University of California - Los Angeles. "That was 12 years and three books ago, so I guess I made something out of all those distasteful obsessions the faculty used to wonder about."
Koudounaris will present a lecture and slideshow on Friday, May 1 at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, 839 S. 5th St. The presentation is loosely based on the book, which was published earlier this month by Thames and Hudson in London.
The free event starts at 6 p.m. and is open to the public. It is in partnership with Boswell Book Company and Boswell will be on site selling the book during the lecture.
"The slideshow is filled with images of people in different cultures who live with remnants of the dead and maintain a relationship of love and honor with them – and not just exotic cultures, but similar things which were once very common in Western / European culture," says Koudounaris. "Really the talk is more about global attitudes toward death. It's not a talk about dying, and it's not a talk with a heavy, depressing tone to it, in fact exactly the opposite."
Koudounaris also wanted to come to Milwaukee to photograph the Downtown statue of Gertie The Duck and the mummified cat Anubis – the mascot of the Milwaukee Press Club that's inside the Newsroom Pub – for a future project he’s working on about famous animals and their monuments.
Through years of research, Koudounaris says he has come to understand that death is culturally relative. In Western cuture, the line between life and death is very pronounced; however, in other cultures the line is fainter.
"The talk, in short, is about the relationship with death that is possible when we lighten up and allow death to be a soft border," he says.
So what about burial sites and practices does Koudounaris find so appealing?
"I think on some level everyone has a fascination with death. How can you not? It's the great, unknown factor that governs our existence," he says. "However, I was always very interested in macabre visual culture."
He experienced a "eureka" moment when he finished grad school and was traveling in Central Europe. During the trip, he found an old bone room in a church in a small Czech town. He was familiar with other bone rooms, but had never heard of this one.
"It made me wonder, for the few places like this which are famous, how many others are hidden away that no one visits or knows about?" says Koudounaris. "The answer, as it turned out, was a lot, and that was the subject of the first book, ‘Empire of Death,’ and things kind of carried on from there."
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.