Posted by: elskie118 | December 14, 2020

Photos of the dead

A family of three gazing at the deceased father
A silver gelatin print showing Mrs. Della Powell from Arkansas, circa 1894
A post-mortem image of a man posed with his arm holding his head, circa 1900. His eyes have been propped open in a bid to give the impression he is still alive
Iola Haley Newell in her coffin, Kentucky, USA, November 1901
A set of twins, the one who has died is surrounded by flowers on the right.
A family surrounding their dead daughter, posed to be sleeping

Cultures and traditions around the death of someone are present all throughout the world, and is often a marker for when societies begin to form. After looking at some of the Victorian era photographs of the ghost mothers online, I stumbled across the practice of post mortem photography, the popular Victorian practice of taking a photo of a loved one after they have died. It’s a tradition that is so different to how we treat our dead today, that it almost seems odd that this was one of the norms for Victorian England.

This posthumous portrait depicts Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816) and His Family. This was painted however after Lady Pepperrell had died.

The very small number of articles devoted to the subject in the photographic press confirms that photographers consciously attempted to portray the dead as if sleeping. While memorializing the dead and portraying their image is a practice that has been around for a long time, and taken many forms like statues, memorials, body preservation, tombs, and the more macabre death masks, the posthumous portraiture is considered the precursor to the photographs. As far back as the 15th century portraits of the dead were created as a customary procedure after someone’s death. As these paintings turned into photos, it was easier to see that the subject of was indeed deceased due to the accuracy of the photograph. The paintings had always shown the subject when they were alive, and it was impossible to tell just from the photo that this was painted after someone had died, because of the way a painter could create an image outside reality, and present an image showing the subject to be alive. But what is interesting is that the photograph and the paintings had different goals. In his book “Secure Shadow”, Jay Ruby writes that the “…post mortem photographs constitute a failed attempt at trompe l’oeil (visual illusion used in art) which fooled no one. Their Function was not to keep the dead alive, but to enable mourners to acknowledge their loss.” (p.43)

The frequency of death during the 19th century allows death to be familiar and treated as a normal prat of life. Unlike the modern-day post-mortem pictures that are used to document the deceased in a very impersonal way, these posthumous photographs were taken for emotional connection. The photos often mimic a portrait photo, where the deceased person could be posed in several ways. This is not to suggest that there was any lack of dignity when taking these kinds of photos, like holding them up with string, but rather the arrangement of what is around them, and the emotions that are evident from that type of presentation.

As seen in the photos above there are many ways to present the family and deceased person in the same image, and there are ways that they are portrayed alone. If with a group of people or pared with a sibling or parent, they can be held upright, and the living the photo act as if the deceased is still alive, as with the 3 siblings on the left in the images below. Other images can show the deceased as sleeping, either in a chair, on a bed, or held in someone’s arms, and can have parents with looking at the camera, or staring at their faces. These pictures are almost always taken in the home of the family.

A child might be posed in their mother’s arms, as shown below or in cradles like the image above. Often, they are given the illusion of merely being asleep, almost as if trying to fool the viewer into thinking this child is still alive. This theme of suppressing the unpleasant part of death, and presenting them in a way that is familiar to life would bring comfort to the family, and allow them the ability to acknowledge that the child they cared for is now gone in the least amount of pain, as a way to ease the process of grieving. Photos even go beyond the familiar and toward beautifying the dead with flowers, their best clothes, and lighting that gives the subject almost a glow.

A mother with her deceased child, Sept 12, 1854

Seeing mothers in these types of photos with their children is more intensely sad, as though the viewer of the image can see through her eyes and understand the depth of her grief.  The mother in the image above has such a somber and far off look in her eyes. Her baby looks as though it were just sleeping in her arms, but the child is gone, and seeing the relationship between the two makes this image even sadder. But for the mother, she most likely values this photo as a memento to keep for the memory of her child, as the only permanent image she would have.

Other times the child would be shown in a coffin or laid peacefully somewhere in the house. In the left most image below, the child has their eyes open. This is an intriguing conflict of presentation, as usually a baby laid out tenderly and lovingly was for the family to process their acceptance of their child’s death. This image has a baby laid out in a similar manner, but with open eyes, simultaneously alive and dead.

Grieving parents sit beside their daughter for a photo

This image in particular captures my attention, because of the differences between the living parents on the sides of the photo and the dead woman in the middle. Her image is so much clearer than the images of the two people beside her, and this is because of the way photographs were taken in the past. It required a long exposure, which meant that you had to stay as still as possible to get the cleanest image. And the reason the woman in the middle is so clear is that she cannot move, she’s dead, so her image would come out the most defined. Compared to the blurrier images of her parents, there is an implied motion or energy that comes from moving around, almost like the photos we see today that are too blurry because the subject was running when the snapshot was taken. The dead daughter is, in a way, more beautiful than her living parents in the photo because of the clarity that her death allows when being photographed. The contrast between the living and the dead makes the image little macabre. To see a visual separation while simultaneously being an image that where the daughter’s eyes are open and she is sitting upright as if she is still among the living like her parents.

The stillness of the dead also meant that these post mortem photographs could have been the only photos some families had of their young children. The long exposure time does not make a clear image when you have an energetic and bouncy child trying to sit down. Of course, this is not the case for every family, as some mothers resorted to the methods of the Ghost mother images that we analyzed in class, and held the child in their laps with a drape over them, or held their arm off screen. But it is possible that the only time a child got photographed was when they were already dead.

The many different poses and presentation of the dead family member complicates our interpretation of what it is that the family was feeling. Did parent feel denial when they painted the eyes on their children, or posed them as if they were only sleeping? Did families feel acceptance if they took a photo around the casket of family member? What was the mother feeling when she held her dead baby in her arms and posed for the camera? The mourning of any loved one is a complicated process, and it would be foolish to try and make a claim on what individuals were feeling when face with such circumstances. But the variety of composition of these photos and the adherence to taking them as a cultural tradition does at least suggest that both themes of photographing, denial and romantic acceptance, are socially acceptable ways of mourning someone loss. The concept of death was more familiar, and it was something that could be more continually present for these families.

The Curator. (2011, September). Post Mortem Portraits of Children Lecture. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://darkdissolution.blogspot.com/2011/09/post-mortem-portraits-of-children.html

Dobbins, W., Dobbins, B., & About Author Bill Dobbins Bill Dobbins THE BODY PHOTOGAPHER became well known for his male and female physique photos – images of the aesthetic. (2019, January 14). MOMENTO MORI – Victorian Death Photos. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://blog.samys.com/momento-mori-victorian-death-photos/

The Guardian. (2016, December 09). The poignant art of the posthumous portrait – in pictures. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2016/dec/09/posthumous-portrait-art-american-folk-museum

Linkman, A. (2015). Taken from life: Post-mortem portraiture in Britain 1860–1910. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/03087298.2006.10443484

NCMA. (2017). Sir William Pepperrell (1746-1816) and His Family (work of art). Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://learn.ncartmuseum.org/artwork/sir-william-pepperrell-1746-1816-and-his-family/

Ruby, J. (1955). Secure the shadow : Death and photography in America. Retrieved December 14, 2020, from https://www.worldcat.org/title/secure-the-shadow-death-and-photography-in-america/oclc/31014926


Responses

  1. I believe the picture of the man in the armchair leaning on his arm is actually a portrait of Lewis Carroll, taken while he was still alive. Which gets into an interesting problem of post-mortem photography – it’s sometimes difficult to identify which portraits are actually of dead people. There are several similar portraits that are either misidentified as post-mortem, or there is a lot of debate around and no clear consensus. I think this adds a whole new layer to that discomfort we feel when looking at post-mortem photography. For images that seem to be posed as if the subject is still alive, we can often never be quite certain of whether they are alive or dead.


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