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THERE IS the photography of life - of the living, breathing, split- second moment; and there is the photography of stillness - of the arrested, meditative image. The work of photographers as diverse as Henri Cartier- Bresson and Weegee takes as its unpremeditated subject the quicksilver instant when an image is almost literally snatched out of the torrential flow of time: the photographer is a hunter, a stalker, a transcendent species of predator, reacting to instinct, genius in motion. By contrast, the work of photographers as diverse as EJ Bellocq, Eugene Atget, Edward Weston and Diane Arbus takes as its subject the calculated, deliberated image: the photographer is supremely in control, the camera is not in motion, accidental illumination is not the goal. Such photographs are more likely to be compositions; portraits of a kind, whether of living people, or "still lives", or - as in the case of these haunting "graces" of the American photographer David Robinson - existing works of art. As individual compositions, Robinson's studies of 19th-century European cemetery statuary (published on Thursday by Norton in a book called Saving Graces) are striking and provocative, but only as a sequence, as a narrative of a kind, do they yield their most powerful symbolic meanings.

Most cemetery sculpture, whether of grieving female figures, Jesus Christ in His various incarnations, angels and cherubs, heraldic crosses, obelisks, icons, urns, is a testament to mankind's obsession with mortality. These statues which Robinson's contemplative eye has isolated for us constitute an especially poignant revelation of such fantasies: the sculptures depicted are, as the photographer has noted, not standardised figures but ones representative of serious artistic expression. In these pictures we see with contemporary eyes the love objects of the previous century; icons of a church in which we no longer believe - compelling images of idealised, etherealised, and in some cases eroticised embodiments of ritual mourning.

David Robinson's study of these "graces" in European cemeteries is like a mystery in which the photographer is a kind of detective. Who are these beautiful women? Whom are they mourning? What is their symbolic significance? Classically austere and occasionally featureless, at one extreme; at the other, romantically voluptuous, barely clothed, in some cases starkly nude; lying, like the figure from Staglieno, in Genoa, in a pose of swooned, vulnerable abandon, as if grief were a form of erotic surrender. What the figures have in common, of course, is that they are female, and that they belong to another era, indeed an entirely other dimension of mythologised experience.

Though these sculptures belong to the 19th century, and the graves they adorn are, for the most part, those of European bourgeois men, we see no 19th-century Europeans depicted here. There are no grieving widows of any recognisable type, no middle-aged or older women; no mothers, or children. There are no hefty, or emaciated, or plain-faced, let alone unattractive mourners. No sons, brothers, fathers - no masculine figures at all. (The masculine, or androgynous, stone figures of representative Christian cemeteries are, of course, angels, who do not collapse in unseemly "womanly" grief. Their allegiance is to Heaven, where grief is irrelevant.) Women presumably died in as great numbers as men, yet the "saving graces" rarely mourned them; and when so publicly mourned, it would hardly have been in the eroticised images of comely young men.

These images tell us much of our collective desire that death be not mere deadness - cellular decomposition, the extinction of the human personality - but Death: mysterious, ethereal and therefore celebrated by the most attractive among us. Contemplating them, we realise how human anxiety, human vanity, human terror of the unknown, whether male or female, may well be the unacknowledged origin of our greatest artworks. !