Posted by: Lingyu He | December 27, 2020

Death and Spirit Photos

It was often the first time families thought of having a photograph taken – it was the last chance to have a permanent likeness of a beloved child. (Bell Betahn)

Contrary to mainstream modern sensibilities about death photos, photographs of loved ones taken posthumously served as an important way of remembering the dead and soothing the pain of loss in Victorian England. In the 19th century, the country suffered from long-term epidemics such as diphtheria, typhus and cholera without the aid of modern medicine. The child mortality rate at the time was appalling only 5 out of 10 children could survive and the graveyards were filled by the bodies of children no older than 5 years old (Dobbins). Constantly challenged by those diseases, from 1861, the bereaved Queen made mourning rituals fashionable among her subjects. A form of memento mori, photography was becoming increasingly popular and affordable and was gradually replacing painted portraits since the introduction of Daguerreotypes in 1839. Later in the Victorian Period, photography advanced to the point where simple artificial touches, such as painted open eyes, rosy cheeks, and haircuts, can be added to make the persons look more lifelike. Through images captured, the beauty of the sleeping infants, consumptive young ladies, and valorous soldiers were not diminished but preserved and enhanced. Photography was the perfect medium that connects the realms of life and death, that through which the dead can be revived in the memory of the living, and the living become dead when stabilized in the photographic framework.

PC: The Thanatos Archive. A dead infant was posed standing straight in the arms of an adult. 

Tamara Kneese points out in her article Death Stares:

The perceived creepiness of postmortem photography has to do with the uncanniness of ambiguity: Is the photographed subject alive or dead? Painted eyes and artificially rosy cheeks, lifelike positions, and other additions made postmortem subjects seem more asleep than dead. Because of its ability to materialize and capture, photography both mortifies and reanimates its subjects. Not just photography, but other container technologies like phonographs and inscription tools can induce the same effects. Digital technology is another incarnation of these processes, as social networking profiles, email accounts, and blogs become new means of concretizing and preserving affective bonds. Online profiles and digital photographs share with postmortem photographs this uncanny quality of blurring the boundaries between life and death, animate and inanimate, or permanence and ephemerality (Kneese).

The nature of the soul was hotly discussed during the Victorian period. People believed that souls were all identical and the distinctive personality or habit were the direct results of bodily disturbances (Cadwallader 17). Once a soul’s physical shell is cast off, it enters upon its collective permanent state, where the independent consciousness no longer exists but merges into one “General Soul”. Ghost photos directly counteract the fear and anxiety for death by centering the individuality of afterlife, stressing the connections between the living and the dead. Spirit photos are visual proofs of the trace of souls and the interface between the spiritual realm and the physical world. Death photos opened an interactive space in which the living and the dead could co-exist and interact, an epitome of flowing imaginations intertwined with concrete reality. 

PC: Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection. On some occasions, eyes would be painted on to the photograph after it was developed, which was meant to make the deceased more lifelike (left) while other times death was more obvious.

Although the scientific and methodological ways of analyzing the unknown were gaining attention at the time, it was still widely believed by Victorian spiritualists that ghosts could be captured on film (Gershon). Ghost photos served as a conduit through which people could conceive a reassuring version of the afterlife with discrete forms, recognizable traits, and distinctive personalities. The Ghost photography marks “a shift in faith, of a belief in man’s ability to reveal the nature and workings of the Divine, and in technology’s ability to enhance man’s powers of perception” (Cadwallader 20). While in reality, photographers forged ghost photos with sneaky tricks, like glass plates previously prepared with images of the deceased, yet many Victorians were willing to believe in them (Gershon). The secrets of the unknown became observable and visualizable through technological and scientific lenses that made the shapeless have shapes and the colorless with colors. These characteristics of spirit photography reveal Victorian people’s inclination to believe in the freewill of choice afterlife and the possibility of communicating with deceased loved ones. 

Death photos and ghost photos are both subject to people’s hope and imagination. While death photos served as a means to mimic and preserve the beauty of the dead when they were still alive, spirit photos eased people’s anxiety and fear towards death by emphasizing on the individuality of the soul and the links between physical and spiritual realms. Those photos inform readers about the Victorian way of viewing, interpreting, accepting, and living with the “Death” experiences and provides context for correctly understanding literary works of the time. 

PC: The Thanatos Archive. A mourning woman seated in the center of the frame and the spirit of the departed staring at the viewer from behind.

Works Cited

Bell, Bethan. “Taken from Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography.” BBC News, 4 June 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36389581. 

Cadwallader, Jen. “Spirit Photography Victorian Culture of Mourning.” Modern Language Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2008, pp. 8–31., http://www.jstor.org/stable/40346959. 

Dobbins, Bill. “Memento Mori – Victorian Death Photos.” Frame by Frame: A Samy’s Camera Blog, 14 Jan. 2019, http://www.blog.samys.com/momento-mori-victorian-death-photos. 

Gershon, Livia. “How Spirit Photography Made Heaven Literal.” JSTOR Daily, 22 Feb. 2020, http://www.daily.jstor.org/how-spirit-photography-made-heaven-literal. 

Kneese, Tamara. “Death Stares.” Media Studies, 18 Mar. 2014, http://www.repository.usfca.edu/ms/22.


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