Saturday, October 17, 2015

A Deathly Debate: Do I Own A Post-Mortem Photograph?

A much sought-after book on the topic of Victorian mourning. 

From the 1830s until the early 1900s, death was very much a part of daily life. High mortality rates  combined with the 40-year regal mourning period of Queen Victoria over her beloved Prince Albert set the stage for elaborate rituals and remembrances following the passing of a loved one. 

And with the advent of daguerrotype photography in 1839, mourners of the Victorian age had a visual aid by which to honor the death of their spouses and children.  It seemed fitting that at a lengthy, nearly 30-minute development process would best suit the dead. And so, post-mortem photography became commonplace for those afforded the luxury of hiring a photographer to capture the likeness of their loved one for the final time. And for many, it was a grim fact: Perhaps the only time in their physical existence in which they were photographed was after their passing. 

Since purchasing a copy of Beyond The Dark Veil: Post-Mortem and Mourning Photography From The Thanatos Archive, I've become even more intrigued by the subject than my first  initial fascination. Though packed with hauntingly beautiful photographs of the dead, sometimes accompanied by their surviving loved ones---it is the essays within that shed light on a seemingly dark subject. 

To briefly summarize: Looking back at post-mortem photography now in the 21st century, we might be tempted into seeing nothing more than a macabre image resulting from a gruesome period of death-obsessed middle class mourners who were as fascinated with the cutting edge technology of the time as they were their own mortality. 

But when considering memento mori as their namesake suggests....a remembrance, the meaning becomes suddenly clear. These images, though grim, have an unmistaken beauty...and a forged bond with their surviving family in a very strange time. 


And what is this peculiar device? 

And so photographers took care to position the deceased, lying in their beds, or propped on chairs. Often times the bodies were positioned in such a way to suggest sleep. But in some instances, family members commissioned photographers to capture their loved ones as they were in daily life. And this meant posing the body in a standing position, and yes, even photographing them with their family in a group portrait. 

Did you notice it? Look there, just behind her legs. 

Perhaps you've seen this photograph circulation the web? While I cannot speak to its  unedited authenticity, I can say that this type of post-mortem portrait was quite commonplace for the time. 

And how did the photographer achieve this positioning of the body? Using a stand that anchored the body under the arms, at the base of the neck and head, and counter-weighing with a heavy base, the body could be held in a standing position. It is even suggested that photographers used wires to better pose and bend the arms, so that they weren't draped quite so lifelessly (as they do in the above portrait). The eyes could be tricky---depending on the level of decomposition. Some could be kept open. Some  had to remain closed And when this was the case, some  photographers  took to a crude sort of  post-editing fix: drawing pupils on the photographs over the closed lids of the deceased. 

Okay... that's a lot to swallow. I know. 
So let's take a moment. 

And let's consider an opposing theory. Some say that modern day morbid curiosity seekers invented this form of post-mortem posing---that photographers NEVER posed the deceased standing or posing in a lifelike manner. So that then begs the question: Why would a photographer use that body stand? Well, remember as I've said before...the early photographic process could take up to 30 minutes. This meant standing perfectly still for a half-hour, as to not blur the image. It is suggested by some that these stands were used only on the living, and only to ensure that the subject of the photograph would remain completely still during the process. 

It sure makes for an interesting debate. Doesn't it? But arguably, post-mortem photography is a fascinating topic for me---one made all the more fascinating by one question.


Is this a post-mortem photograph?
 I call this the Haunted Child Of The Abyss. 

I'm not trying to be a ghoul. So please hear me out on this one. Ever since coming across this photograph in an album at Goodwill and uploading it to my vintage photo gallery, I've been really entranced by it. There's just...something off-putting about it.

And as I became more aware of post-mortem mourning photography in the Victorian age, I began to suspect what that something was. 

Let's take a closer look, shall we? 

If you focus on the hands, you'll notice how rigidly this little girl is posed. For someone her age, maintaining this distinct posing of her hands would be quite difficult, I'd imagine. 

Judging by the specific qualities of the photograph, and the style of dress, I would date this picture to be in the very early 1900s---which fits into the Victorian mourning timeline.

It should also be noted that when photographing children post-mortem, photographers often used props such as a toy or a flower.

Now, if you take a step back and look at the whole picture... you'll notice a dark vignette, especially around the lower extremities. Plain and simply put: You can't see her legs. Do you think this was a conscious decision on the part of the photographer....to perhaps hide the body stand being used? 

Perhaps these factors taken at face value, or considered individually don't add up to very much at all. But when they're considered against the criteria for Victorian mourning photography... Well... could it be? 

Is this curious photograph a cleverly crafted post-mortem memento mori? Or is this just a very subdued portrait of a child from the previous century?

I may never know. But I may often wonder...

What are your thoughts? Is this a post-mortem photograph? Is this post just too damn morbid? Are Victorian mourning rituals a touching tribute or taboo? 

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7 comments:

Jessica Cangiano said...

Excellent post, Jackie. Personally I find this topic wildly fascinating and have studied it quite heavily over the years. I'm convinced that genuine post-mortem image were captured and while not every rigid body or closed eye in a Victorian or very early Edwardian image was indeed that of a deceased soul, some most certainly were and I find such a sweet, compassionate beauty in such images. In an era when folks didn't have a million Instagram photos, FB updates, cell phone captures, videos and the like of a loved one, a final photo might have been the first and last, or one of just a small number, of photos to remember that person by for the rest of time. Who wouldn't want to be thought so highly of after they had passed?

♥ Jessica

Pam WhimsicalVintage said...

Very intriguing post and definitely not too morbid in my opinion. This is all part of history and that's what makes our business so very interesting.
The family members who requested post mortem photos knew it as a way to preserve their lost loved one...never thinking how it would be viewed 100 years later.
Thanks so much for sharing this info...I'm not sure I would have come across it otherwise!
(Sorry for the delete and repost, I needed to fix a typo:))

Jackie Jardine said...

That's very true, Jessica. Imagine a Victorian woman being transplanted into modern times...with girls taking 50 selfies a day----some sadly at en route to a funeral. (Seriously... I've seen it). It's an interesting juxtaposition.

____

Thanks for reading, Pam. I'm glad you found this post interesting. I'd much rather the intrigue of post-mortem mourning photography being a part of our history than the modern selfie craze. That's for sure!

<3 Jackie @ Let's Go Thrifting

Vanessa said...

I've read a lot about the topic and era too- so fascinating and not weird at all...but I am a junkie for all things morbid ;) I can't tell with that girl, that hands are weirdly still but the eyes/expression look very organic and alive.

Jackie Jardine said...

Thanks for reading, Vanessa! I know. It's hard to say. To me, when I zoomed in I thought that the eyes looked discolored. But then again, giving how old this photograph is that could be anything. Still, a fascinating topic!

<3 Jackie @ Let's Go Thrifting

Carla Behrens said...

Host Mortem photography is not morbid in my opinion. That being said, you cannot prop s dead body in a position. That is an urban legend. Think about how a thin pole could hold up dead weight....

Carla Behrens said...

I meant to say you cannot pose them in a standing position