Curious History : Victorian Death Portraiture

I know that it may be a bit morbid, but a great deal of human curiosity surrounds death.  Sometimes it’s the fascination of the afterlife, sometimes it is the intrigue of the manner in which someone dies (a post soon on that I do believe) and sometimes it is the eagerness to keep the decease’s memory alive.  I have heard of locks of hair being kept in lockets (or any other part of the body for that matter…ie, teeth and nail clippings) or having the decease’s clothing laid out every morning though they will never be there to dress (Queen Victorian did this after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 ).  But during the late 19th and early 20th century having photos taken of the dead was considered a very accepted method of remembering the dead.

During the infancy of photography (though photography was commonplace by the 1830’s) death photographs, or Memento Mori, were insatiably popular amongst the grieving masses.  In those days, ones life expectancy was not high and many children never made it to adulthood.  That is where memorial portraiture comes into play.  Sadly, those might be the only pictures the parents would ever have of there children.

Would you like me to tell you what the most curious thing about the portraits are to me?  The earlier portraits were very well thought out but almost never included a coffin (later they did) or even an indication that you were looking at the dead at all!  They posed them on couches appearing to be in a state of sleep and even had their eyes open for the picture just as they would be living in that moment.  Sometimes eyes would later be painted in on the picture itself.

But you can tell in some cases!  It was common for parents to pose with their loved ones. Photography was, as I said earlier, in its “starting stage” so it wasn’t quite perfected yet.  The exposure (the time it takes the image to burn onto film) was very long so if you moved, it was blurred.  Many old photos have a creepy eye effect because we all blink and your eyelids do not show in focus in the exposure.  I have never met someone who could stay perfectly still when getting their photo taken…but the dead cannot move.  No pun really, but it is a dead giveaway.

So if you see an old picture, don’t be fooled.  Though it is hard to tell if what you are looking at is postmortem or not, if you see sleeping children or adults posed asleep in chairs then you have a small clue that you are looking at the dead.  When you see a static figure in almost perfect focus but everyone else is out of focus, you could very well be looking at a corpse.

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7 thoughts on “Curious History : Victorian Death Portraiture

  1. Barthes identified something integral to photography. As soon as we click the shutter, the moment is frozen, passed and represents something we can never get back to. Victorian death photography is just the ultimate condensation of this, and also a pointer to just how integral photography is to our contemporary culture,

  2. About 50 years ago, my family visited my mother’s aunt and uncle. In a bedroom there were large poster size photos of dead infants. The infants were in their open coffins. The infants had their eyes open. I tell you I will never forget those pictures as long as I live.

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