Post-mortem photography

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A post-mortem photograph of a middle-aged man. The body is arranged so as to appear lifelike (circa 1860).

Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or a mourning portrait) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased.

History and popularity[edit]

cabinet card c.1885 showing deceased infant, lovingly dressed in Christening robes and positioned in a buggy

The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 made portraiture much more commonplace, as many of those who were unable to afford the commission of a painted portrait could afford to sit for a photography session. This cheaper and quicker method also provided the middle class with a means for memorializing dead loved ones.

Post-mortem photography was very common in the nineteenth century when "death occurred in the home and was quite an ordinary part of life."[1] Due to photography being a new medium, it is plausible that "many daguerreotype post-mortem portraits, especially those of infants and young children, were probably the only photographs ever made of the 'sitters.'"[2] According to Mary Warner Marien, "post-mortem photography flourished in photography's early decades, among clients who preferred to capture an image of a deceased loved one rather than have no photograph at all."[3]

These photographs served as keepsakes to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had. The later invention of the carte de visite, which allowed multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that copies of the image could be mailed to relatives.

The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as "snapshot" photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century.

Evolving style[edit]

Syrian bishop seated in state at his funeral (ca. 1945).

The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include the coffin.[4] The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favorite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.

Nineteenth-century photograph of a deceased child with flowers

While some images, (especially tintypes and ambrotypes), have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse, it is untrue that metal stands and other devices were used to pose the dead as though they were living. The use by photographers of a stand or arm rest (sometimes referred to as a Brady stand), which aided living persons to remain still long enough for the camera's lengthy exposure-time, has given rise to this myth. While nineteenth century people may have wished their loved-ones to look their best in a memorial photograph, evidence of a metal stand should be understood as proof that the subject was a living person.

Later photographic examples show the subject in a coffin. Some very late examples show the deceased in a coffin with a large group of funeral attendees; this type of photograph was especially popular in Europe and less common in the United States.

Post-mortem photography is still practiced in some areas of the world, such as Eastern Europe. Photographs, especially depicting persons who were considered to be very holy lying in their coffins, are still circulated among faithful Eastern Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Christians.

A variation of the memorial portrait involves photographing the family with a shrine (usually including a living portrait) dedicated to the deceased.

Responses in contemporary photography[edit]

As the common practice of post-mortem photography in North America and Western Europe has largely ceased, the portrayal of such images has become increasingly seen as vulgar, sensationalistic and taboo. This is in marked contrast to the beauty and sensitivity perceived in the older tradition, indicating a cultural shift that may reflect wider social discomfort with death. Notably, however, the photographs of a number of contemporary artists imply a dialogue that helps illuminate the intent of the early works.

Andres Serrano's controversial "corpse" series presents morgue photographs of the victims of violent death in the manner of beautified portraits.

Somewhat similarly, the Mexican tabloid photographer Enrique Metinides—known for his stark and often grisly depictions of life in Mexico City—documents crime scene victims using an unexpected compositionally rich aesthetic that has seen his work exhibited to positive critical response in galleries worldwide. Joel-Peter Witkin does similar work.

Irish photographer Maeve Berry finds an aesthetic compromise by capturing the burning embers of bodies within the funeral crematorium.

Recently Lyn Hagan has produced a series of hand embroidered portraits of the children in Paul Frecker's collection. These reflect a fascination in how people react to impermanence and how such photos were "a means of capturing the image of the person in one last futile gesture that denies their loss whilst at the same time admitting it totally".

There is a nonprofit organization in Colorado named Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep that "specializes in infant bereavement photography."[5] The organization was co-founded by Cheryl Haggard and photographer Sandy Puc in 2005. The organization "connects a network of photographers who provide their services free of charge with parents grieving the loss of a new child."[6] The organization's mission statement is to "introduce remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with the free gift of professional portraiture. We believe these images serve as an important step in the family's healing process by honoring their child's legacy."[7] This was the basis of Victorian post-mortem photography as well.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Hirsche, Robert (2009). Seizing the Light: a Social History of Photography. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. pp. 34–35. 
  2. ^ Hirsche, Robert (2009). Seizing the Light: a Social History of Photography. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education. pp. 34–35. 
  3. ^ Marien, Mary Warner (2002). Photography: A Cultural History. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 
  4. ^ "Memento Mori: Victorian Death Photos". August 28, 2009. 
  5. ^ Tetens, Kristan (February 15, 2007). "Group Revives Victorian Custom of Post-Mortem Portraiture to Help Grieving Parents". The Victorian Peeper. 
  6. ^ Tetens, Kristan (February 15, 2007). "Group Revives Victorian Custom of Post-Mortem Portraiture to Help Grieving Parents". The Victorian Peeper. 
  7. ^ Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. "About Us". 
  • Ruby, Jay. (1995). Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Boston: MIT Press.
  • Burns, Stanley B. (1990). Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Twelvetrees/Twin Palms Press.
  • Burns, Stanley B. & Elizabeth A.(2002). Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography American and European Traditions. Burns Archive Press.
  • Orlando, Mirko. (2010). Ripartire dagli addii: uno studio sulla fotografia post-mortem. Milano: MjM editore.
  • Orlando, Mirko. (2013). fotografia post mortem. Roma: Castelvecchi.
  • Vidor, Gian Marco.(2013). La photographie post-mortem dans l’Italie du XIXe et XXe siècle. Une introduction. In Anne Carol & Isabelle Renaudet 'La mort à l'oeuvre. Usages et représentations du cadavre dans l'art', Aix-en-Provence: Presses universitaires de Provence, 2013.

External links[edit]