Posted by: emmajem | November 29, 2012

Ghost Mothers and Other Ghosts

I have question to pose to all of you, and it stems from this image:

Tomorrow we are going to be talking about ghost mothers in Victorian photography, a strange phenomenon for which the above photograph seems to be a perfect example.  The darling baby is staged in angelic white, and some creeping specter looms in black behind it.  It is a creepy image, similar to the “ghost of death” image mahoganycloud brought to our attention.  But its real creepiness, to me, stems from the context in which I was first introduced to it, for the context was not that of the ghost mother, but the ghost subject.

I was doing some research for a blog post I was thinking about doing on post-mortem photography, and it was on one of the websites or blog posts dedicated to this practice that I found this image.  Post-mortem photography was very common in the Victorian period, especially with recently deceased children, because often there was no picture of the deceased, and an after-death photo was the only chance the family would get to create a physical likeness to memorialize their loved one.  In many of these images children (and adults) are often posed as if they were alive, sometimes merely “sleeping” but sometimes with their eyes propped open or with pupils painted on closed eyelids.  In such images the child is often bedecked with flowers.  Although some of the pictured corpses seem peaceful and truly vital, in many there is a certain stiffness or something that just is not quite right, and it is this that betrays the true state of the pictured body.  The image above I find fascinating because it presents us with conflicting codes.  Here we have a baby with a ghost mother lingering behind him/her, ostensibly to keep the child still in order to have its picture taken.  However, the child is not being held by the mother, as is the case in many of the ghost mother images we have looked at, nor can I see the mother’s hands wrapped around the child to keep him/her still.  The baby is then still (for there is no blurring indicative of movement) of its own accord.  There are other oddities about the baby’s pose.  It seems amazing to me that such a young child could keep its legs crossed and fingers clasped (in an angelic position common in post-mortem photographs) for the length it took to take the picture.  Then there is the wreath of flowers around the baby’s head, which, in the context of the flower-strewn children in post-mortem photographs, layers on a graver significance.  The part of the image that startles me the most, though, is the baby’s eyes.  They are not open, but they are not exactly closed.  They look unnatural in a face already somber, and remind me of the other instances of the unnaturalness around the eyes in post-mortem photographs I have seen.  These eyes would have me think the baby is dead.

The baby’s self-contained stillness further problematizes this image, for it then calls into question the reason for the presence of the mother (we assume it is a mother) behind it.  Why would the mother, whose job in such a photo is typically to keep the baby from moving, be in the photo if she is not touching or otherwise calming the child?  But if this is in fact a memento mori image, why is she trying to hide herself when many such post-mortem photographs feature children cradled by their living relatives?  Is this child alive or dead?  I am not sure if the image itself can conclusively tell us.

But that is precisely why I find the image so intriguing, and why I decided to write a blog post about it.  The photo fits uncomfortably well in either context (of the ghost mother or the post-mortem), which suggests that the Victorian conception of mortality is more complicated than it seems to us.  In our culture, when you die you’re dead, and taking photographs of the dead is typically unsettling.  Death is the most final state of all–its boundary cannot be recrossed once it has been passed.  Victorian photographs, however, often blur the boundary between the living and the dead, making the deceased subject look “as if she were alive” (I do not think it was an accident that Robert Browning wrote this line during this particular period).  Traditional portraits could memorialize the dead, but photography has an immediacy to it, and painting a likeness of the deceased reconstructed from memories of loved ones is a different practice entirely from actually photographing the corpse.  Photographers would often pose the figure as if s/he were still alive, whether as merely sleeping, as here [WARNING–ABOUT TO GET GRAPHIC]:

c.1870 carte de visite of a young girl, posed as if sleeping.

and here:

or posed as if in a normal photograph, as here:

and (behind the scenes) here:

and here:

I’ll admit that when looking at a lot of these photographs in slideshows or in archives it was sometimes (though not always, and those were the especially disturbing pictures) difficult for me to decipher who was dead and who was not, because photography blurs the line between the living and the dead in a way that other mediums cannot.  While painting and poetry memorialize the dead, photography does so by using their own corpse as part of the medium.  The body is staged, costumed and positioned, in order to give the appearance of life.  Sometimes the body serves further as a canvas when color is later added to the cheek to indicate a life all black and white photographs lack, or when pupils are painted onto closed eyelids.  The photographer must manipulate the body in order to make it represent something it no longer is, the living person who is now gone, and so the body becomes a medium through which the artist’s “vision” (or the departed life) must be expressed.  Then again, this is not all that different from what a photographer usually does.  The figures in photographs are all staged, costumed and positioned appropriately, in order to convey some sort of essence of identifiable self through the photograph.  Making the dead seem as if they are alive is not all that different from making the living seem as if they are alive in a certain way (by which I mean the presentation of a self–that this woman is a lady, or that woman is a housemaid, the accuracy in the depiction of which we have already seen called into question by Hannah Cullwick).

There are a lot of interesting questions here, but, unfortunately, one blog post cannot ask them all.  So, Victorian conceptions of mortality aside, what do you think of the first image?  Is it a picture of a ghost mother or a ghost child?  And, I can’t help but wonder, how many people in Victorian images taken out of context might be merely passing as alive?


  1. I will venture a guess and say ghost mother. The baby’s hands are grasped, something I am not sure would have been possible post mortem (the opinion of an English major not pre-med). The other question I have pertaining to ghost baby is: why would the mother have to hide? The child wouldn’t squirm.

  2. I think this is a post mortem picture/ghost child. It is possible that the child’s hands are being held together with some sort of binding at the wrists; the image is too small in this reproduction to get a good look at the hands, but that is my guess.
    I agree that the feet / crossed leg pose seems unrealistic for a child to hold with such stillness for any amount of time.

    As to the (presumed) mother, I believe she may be holding the child’s head up, her hands reaching through the back of the chair. It is possible that the studio did not have a stand, but the family wanted the child in an upright position.

    I wish we had more information on the photograph’s origin and date.
    (I just spent a ridiculous amount of time trying to find such information and I return empty-handed to finish this post). I can add that early daguerreotypes took anywhere from 10 minutes to a half hour to expose, making portraiture nearly impossible. (The “first” photograph in 1826 took 8 hours to expose). However, the technology quickly progressed and in the early 1840s the time was cut down to minutes/under a minute depending on the lighting.
    However, I’m not sure if this is a daguerreotype. I believe it’s likely to be a tintype – but I digress.

    As to your last question, though I know it’s mostly rhetorical, personally any Victorian photograph that is very sharp/still gets me wondering who’s alive and who’s dead.

  3. I like your idea about “passing as alive.’ You’re right that it is hard to tell who’s living and who’s dead. You note that we feel confident of definite boundaries between life and death. Yet we can’t distinguish living from dead forms. I think that we find this eery because it challenges our belief that we are categorically different from the dead and the inanimate.

    ALSO, speaking of photography as a method of hanging on to the past, and reconstructing cherished memories…I just today found this article in a literary Journal (Nineteenth-Century Contexts) by Helen Groth called “Literary Nostalgia and Early Victorian Photographic Discourse”…it doesn’t mention the Robert Browning poem, but it does talk about Barrett Browning.

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