Posted by: keenan | December 11, 2012

The Uncanny and Postmortem Photography

In the blog entries on postmortem photography so far, there have been a lot of comments about the eerie quality of the photographs. The photographs might be particularly unsettling because they seem so distant from present sentiment–  they seem surprising, almost unfathomable and possibly blasphemous. There’s an uncertain quality about them that shocks the viewer, and a concern about the casual quality of this portrayal of death. At least, that’s been the case for me. However, beyond that, I would argue that postmortem photographs are inherently uncanny from a Freudian perspective.


We’ve discussed the photographs asmomentos. The Thantos Archive was introduced to me in another class and although the origin of the photographs are not always noted online (and are very possibly American), this selection seems equally relevant to the discussion of Victorian post-mortem photography. These photographs are full of sentiment and care. So then why do they seem in such poor taste?Image

Freud’s psychoanalytic standpoint explains the concept of the uncanny as something that is both home-like and un-home-like. Freud mentions that “To many people the acme of the uncanny is represented by anything to do with death” and, in connection with Lara’s entry below, Freud argues that “in hardly any other sphere has our thinking and feeling changed so little since primitive times or the old been so well preserved [ . . .] our unconscious is still as unreceptive as ever to the idea of our own mortality” (Freud 148). Rather than settle into the obvious ghastly qualities of someone dead, however, postmortem photography can be approached from the idea of the uncanny double. In this vein, a dead body is unsettling because it suggests a person but isn’t one. By “promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it” (Freud 157), the uncanny arises.


This idea can be understood through considering the concept of the automaton, or a very life-like robot. Dead but seemingly alive and vice versa. This concept seems perfectly designed for post-mortem photography.


Having defined the photographs as uncanny, however, one must wonder why the owners of the photographs wouldn’t have found them to be so. If we are to believe or even entertain Freud’s Uncanny, it would make sense to consider this reading definitive for all of humankind, in any generation. This is even logical in considering Victorian literature– it is very clear that this uncanny is used to inspire fright or sensation (Miss Havisham anyone?). Why wouldn’t these photographs be considered equally eerie during the Victorian era?


Freud, Sigmund. The Uncanny. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 123-161.


  1. I know as a Medieval studies student, we are always reminded to look at a time period from the view of that time period. Just as today it is inconceivable to imagine believing that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, or that they were property, I need to be able to put myself in their shoes, so to speak, and explore the time through their eyes. They would think it normal because it was normal, just as I think that I have a right to vote and purchase property, why shouldn’t I? Sorry for the cliches…

    • That’s true– but I think psychoanalysis is intended to explain phenomenon retroactively. It’s supposedly more of a general analysis of human nature.
      The Uncanny was initially published in 1919, so this kind of discourse isn’t far off anyway– and when Dickens writes about Miss Havisham he clearly intends her frozen manner of living to be eerie.Her living space is literally home-like but not home. Something’s amiss, even if he wouldn’t have used that language.
      I do think that you have a point, but especially with the rise of gothic literature it still feels a bit odd that it was seen as such. I think it might have more to do with the novelty of the technology at the time than anything.

  2. The Freudian concepts that this post helps me understand in a psychoanalytical way why some people react the way they do to these photographs. If we were to simply visualize these photos without the knowledge that these children are dead, they seem like peaceful solemn photographs. However, when we are told that the figures are dead, we are confused because we tend not to make the dead hypervisible let alone put them in scenarios that suggest normality. As humans, some people struggle with the concept of mortality and tend to put it hidden in the backs of their minds. However, these photographs help me understand some of the psychology that the owners of the photographs had in regards to infant mortality. This post helps me understand the postmortem photographs even more so and I’m interested in the fact that these photographs did not simply originate in Victorian England. As mentioned in class, I assume one reason why postmortem photography wasn’t considered as eerie as it is presently is because the mortality rates of infants were much higher than in present times (at least in America). These photos were used as mementos by loved ones. I would also like to highlight the facial expressions of the living that chose to be photographed with the dead. Their faces are somber as they tenderly embrace their loved one. The second photograph is even manipulated to have blush on both the woman and the infant’s cheeks, giving off a life like quality to the body of the infant.

  3. I’m assuming that you have taken the class that I am now finishing this semester “American Gothic” with Professor Young. Great class! Half way through the semester we also studied Postmortem Photography, along with depictions of blackness and whiteness of civil war images following a discussion about ‘Nat Turner’. Here’s another site that features postmortem photography that I studied in that class this semester:

    Might I just add, that as a mother myself, I kinda understand to an extent why these families would’ve chosen to participate in such morbid photography during that time. As we’ve learned, photography wasn’t common as it took so long to process and was so expensive. If parents didn’t have any pictures of their children/babies when the all too common unfortunate incident occurred and they lost them due to illness, they would have wanted something to remember what they looked like. These photographs would have also given them something to memorialize their deceased loved ones as well. I probably would’ve done the same thing if I had been in that situation back then.

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