Artist Captures Our Macabre Fascination with the Human Skull in Striking Black-and-White Photographs

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Los Angeles-based artist David Orr photographs human skulls, exploring the idiosyncrasies of the body. In his Perfect Vessels series, which is currently on display at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum — an institution known for its medical and anatomical oddities — Orr uses symmetry “to explore aesthetic and cultural ideals of perfection by photographing a human skull facing his lens, then mirroring half to transform it into a perfectly balanced memento mori.” He was inspired by the museum’s Hyrtl Skull Collection — 139 human skulls that illustrate vast differences in cranial features. Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl studied these skulls in an attempt to prove that these imperfections and traits were not markers of intelligence, personality, or racial differences as phrenologists previously claimed. Some of the skulls are inscribed with comments about the person’s cause of death, which Orr has mimicked with his own striking black-and-white photographs by including personal details. See more of Orr’s work, which we first learned about on BuzzFeed, in our gallery.

Milan Joanovits, male, 30. Robber and murderer; executed in Belgrade. ©David Orr, used with permission

Unknown. Trans-orbital lobotomy. ©David Orr, used with permission

Unknown. Syphilitic necrosis. ©David Orr, used with permission

Geza Uirmeny, male, 80. Attempted suicide at 70; lived until 80 without further melancholy. ©David Orr, used with permission

Girolamo Zini, male, 24. Tightrope walker; died of broken neck. ©David Orr, used with permission

Francisca Seycora, female, 19. Famous Viennese prostitute; died of meningitis. ©David Orr, used with permission

Unknown. Shattered; reconstructed. ©David Orr, used with permission

Unknown. Underbite; metopic suture. ©David Orr, used with permission