Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or a mourning portrait) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased. Various cultures use and have used this practice, though the best-studied area of post-mortem photography is that of Europe and America. There can be considerable dispute as to whether individual early photographs actually show a dead person or not, often sharpened by commercial considerations.
History and popularity
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." As photography was 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. The long exposure time made deceased subjects easy to photograph.'" (The problem of long exposure times also led to the phenomenon of hidden mother photography, where the mother was hidden in-frame to calm a young child and keep them still.) 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."
These photographs served as keepsakes to remember the deceased. 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. Approaching the 20th century, cameras became more accessible and more people began to be able to take photographs for themselves.
In America, post-mortem photography became an increasingly private practice by the mid-to-late nineteenth century, with discussion moving out of trade journals and public discussion. The now more private practice was studied by anthropologist Jay Ruby who was able to find limited information after the turn of the century, but noted a resurgence in the so-called "mourning tableaux" - where the living were photographed surrounding the coffin of the deceased, sometimes with the deceased visible - in America in the 1930s. He was also able to find examples of death photography as a private practice in America his own time - the 1960s. Barbara Norfleet investigated further and discovered the practice of post-mortem photography continued in America right up until World War II "at least among rural and urban working-and middle-class families [in ethnic minorities]." Her conclusion centred on the work of African-American portrait photographer James Van Der Zee in Harlem from 1917-1940s, whose Harlem Book of the Dead is a collection post-mortem portraits of other African Americans in Harlem over the course of his career.
In Britain, Audrey Linkman found a similar continuation of post-mortem photography in the inter-war years, indicating the practice was not limited to the Victorian Era in Britain, though she said little about wider Europe. She also was a strong supporter of Barbara Norfleet's research into the ethnic minorities and middle-classes of America, insisting that post-mortem photography remained popular among these groups for far longer than the upper classes who had previously been studied.
Post-mortem photography as early as the 1970s was taken up by artists, and continues today. Audrey Linkman, Christopher Townsend and Lauren Summersgill have all researched this particular area of study. Artists include Jeffrey Silverthorne, Hans Danuser, Hannah Wilke, Nick Wapping, British photographer Sue Fox, Nan Golden, and Andres Serrano's series The Morgue. Summersgill argues that artists in America in the 1990s used post-mortem photography to fight against the increasing medicalisation of death.
Personal post-mortem photography is considered to be largely private, with the exception of the public circulation of stillborn children in the charity website Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep and the controversial rise of funeral selfies on phones.
Jay Ruby’s analysis of various styles in post-mortem photography – particularly the poses of the deceased – argued that key poses reflected cultural attitudes toward death. Ruby argued for the dominance of the ‘Last Sleep’ pose in the first forty years of post-mortem portraiture. In the ‘Last Sleep’ the deceased’s eyes are closed and they lay as though in repose, which Ruby argued reflected the American desire to associate death with sleep.
Another popular arrangement was to have the deceased presented seated in a chair or arranged in a portrait to mimic life because these photographs would serve as their last social presence. In the Victorian era it was not uncommon to photograph deceased young children or newborns in the arms of their mother. The inclusion of the mother, it has been argued, encourages one to see through the mother's eyes: "The desire to see through the mother’s eyes, and even identify with such pain would have been more potent at the time, when the daguerreotype would be shown to friends and family who might have known the child and certainly knew the family."
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 19th-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.
As noted above, post-mortem photography is still practised and is common in America among women who experienced stillbirth; commemorated on websites such as "Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep". This style of mother holding child was also common in the Victorian era when death of infants was common. 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.
In other cultures
It is believed that the post-mortem photography died out in the Nordic countries around 1940. When examining Iceland's culture surrounding death, it is concluded that the nation held death as an important and significant companion. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, the country's infant mortality rate was higher than the rest of European countries. Consequently, death was a public topic that was considerably seen through Icelanders' religious lenses. There are many that believe Iceland's attitudes about post-mortem photography can be drawn out from its earlier attitudes about death. In the early 1900s, it wasn't uncommon to read a local newspaper's obituary section and find detailed information regarding an individual's death, including instances where suicide occurred. How post-mortem photography began in Iceland remains uncertain, but these photographs can be traced to the late nineteenth century.
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Post-mortem photography was particularly popular in Victorian Britain. From 1860-1910, these Post-mortem portraits were much like American portraits in style, focusing on the deceased either displayed as asleep or with the family; often these images were placed in family albums. The study has often been mixed with American traditions, because the two are so similar.
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