Posted by: Sam Stone | November 16, 2014

Headless Photographs

In class, we have talked about Victorian post-mortem, or memento mori, photography briefly and also looked at photographs of hidden mothers. The mothers, who needed to be in the photograph to hold up their child or keep it still, were concealed under dark cloth, hidden off to the side with only an arm sticking out, or sometimes their faces were simply cut or scratched out. It was a very early form of “photoshopping” the mother out of the picture. Both memento mori and hidden mother photographs tie into another phenomenon in photography I discovered while browsing the internet: Headless photographs.

Credit: George Eastman House

The headless photographs, much like the hidden mothers, are an early example of Victorians attempting to manipulate and edit photographs. Given that they did not have access to photo editing software such as photoshop back then, it is impressive the effects that they could make possible. To achieve the headless effect, multiple negatives were placed over on another and the images were combined until it looked as if the subject of the portrait was missing their head. Other forms of trick photography also existed, including dwarf, giant and a type where double exposure was used to make it look like there was two of the same person.

These photographs also tie into memento mori photographs as they are another way Victorians demonstrated their fascination with death. The post-mortem photographs not only served as a reminder of the death of a loved one, but also as a reminder of their own eventual death. Victorians recognized death was always around the corner and instead of hide from it in fear, they seemed to embrace it and even poke fun at it, as seen in the headless photographs. Death was normal for Victorians and they might as well have fun seeing how they would look if they had been decapitated, without having to suffer the actual decapitation.




  1. Wow this is really spooky! I like how in the first one, there is that bit of color on the knife and neck. I wonder if that was added with the techniques you talk about here, or if it was scratched on after like the halos in some of the photos we looked at in class on Wednesday.

    I’m also wondering about the implications of the first one. Did this man cut off his own head? Is it some sort of commentary on mind disconnecting from body/ the will….that your actions can somehow betray you, and you can harm yourself?

    I also found a few that had different representations of a family harming each other:×489.jpg

    Two men, who didn’t seem to get along:

    As well as countless others:

    It’s really interesting to me when an actual knife / other instrument of decapitation is present in the photo. What do you think the impact is when it’s present VS not present?

    Really cool post!

  2. Wow these photos are amazing!!

    Like Emily I wonder what the intention was, is there a social commentary on disconnect of the mind from the body? Or are these a kind of joke/novelty product intended to shock and amuse. I kind of hope it is the latter and the Victorians who developed the method for creating these bizarre and macabre images were just having a laugh!

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