A Composition of Death

Photograph/François Aubert Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

Photograph/François Aubert
Image Source/Wikimedia Commons

François Aubert was a Frenchman who served as the court photographer to Mexican emperor Maxmilian I. In 1867, he was present at the capture and execution of the emperor. Although Aubert was denied to photograph the execution, he managed to document the scene of the crime afterwards. He photographed the execution squad, the dressed corpse of Maxmilian in his coffin, the place of execution in Mexico and the blood-spattered clothing of the late king. In the wake of growing public interest in photography in 19th century Mexico, Aubert was quick to take advantage of Maxmilian’s untimely death. He photographed the bulletridden shirt with care, as he was well aware of the immense public interest that this image would generate.

Aubert attached the bloodied shirt to a door with two nails, such that it was placed exactly in the centre of his composition. He wanted to make the pleated front of the shirt clearly visible, rather than emphasise on the droopily arranged sleeves. According to sources, his intentions were to highlight the six bullet holes at the chest level.

After the execution, Aubert’s photographs were distributed and sold internationally by a firm called A Pereire. His unique image not only became a piece of Mexican history, but also supported Maxmilian’s physician’s claim that “the death struggle of the emperor must have been extremely short.” In many ways, Aubert’s photograph pioneered modern day photojournalism as a guide to documenting a historical event.

This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Better Photography.

Tags: Story Behind the Picture, history, july 2013, Francois Aubert, Mexico, Maxmilian