Post mortem photography

Charles 1 Comment

Posted by Vale

We had quite a debate recently when we published some recent post mortem photgraphs.

They were respectful, intriguing and, some of them, quite lovely in their own way. But they made us – and some of you – uneasy. Did the photographer have permission to publish? Was it right to expose the dead – so vulnerable in their invulnerability – to public gaze in this way?

We weren’t always so squeamish. Back in the days when photography was still a new art, the idea of photographing the dead was seized on as something that, like embalming, preserved ‘the body for the gaze of the observer’. The quotation is from an interesting essay by an American, Don Meinwald, about Death and Photography in 19th Century America.

The photographs were for private consumption rather than public sharing and Meinwald links them to the Ars Moriendi tradition of funeral portraits. Photographs of children were especially treasured:

These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake 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 be 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 quotation comes from a portal site over on Squidoo with lots of links. Fascinating. Macarbre. Unbearably poignant.


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