The Victorians could certainly be a weird bunch. They invented the modern seance and picnicked in cemeteries. Talented taxidermists turned the craft into an art form, particularly involving anthropomorphised animals. They made jewellery out of the hair of their loved ones. It’s hardly surprising that they’d also invent death photography.
As we’re in the build-up to Halloween, it seems a suitable time to look into this practice. Who started it and why? What made it fall out of fashion?
So come, let me lead you through the bizarre, creepy, and often just plain sad world of Victorian death portraiture.
Death and the Victorians
The Victorian era is often lauded as a period of scientific progress and engineering marvels, often at the hands of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. People who focus on this side of the Victorians often overlook the horrific conditions faced by those working in the new industrial centres around the country.
The unsanitary conditions and lack of basic healthcare saw many epidemics of diphtheria, typhus and cholera sweep the country. Tuberculosis was depressingly common.
The fashion for using lead in paint used on toys, and even arsenic in wallpaper, meant the Victorians surrounded themselves with items that could kill them. Even the very air they breathed was deadly. In 1873, a dense fog descended on London and 273 people died from the bronchitis caused by the smog.
But in 1861, Prince Albert died, and Queen Victoria went into a period of deep mourning. Many in the country condemned their monarch for seemingly deserting them. But her behaviour also kick-started an entire industry around the practice of mourning.
Periods of mourning became strictly regulated. A uniform of accepted mourning dress was created and huge warehouses opened to service the demand for specific mourning wardrobes. Both funeral and burial arrangements became more extravagant. Just look at the design of Highgate Cemetery, created to help alleviate the over-crowding of London’s parish churchyards.
Highgate is one of the so-called ‘Magnificent Seven’, great municipal cemeteries established away from London’s crammed inner city. It opened in 1839, mirroring a similar move taking place in Paris. The aim was to move the dead away from the living to try and halt the spread of disease.
New technology gives birth to a new trend
Post-mortem photography comes out of the Victorian fascination with all things technological, as well as the cult of mourning. The practice created mementos of the deceased using the brand new technology of photography.
In a lot of ways, it was just an update of the earlier fashion for deathbed portraits, and death masks.
Photographers first used daguerreotypes to capture the likeness of the deceased. Many date the first daguerreotype to 1839, and it’s believed the first post-mortem photograph was taken in 1841. It clearly didn’t take them long to find a new use for this emerging technology. By the 1850s, cheaper techniques emerged that used metal, glass or paper instead of the traditional silver.
Death photography was for ‘special’ occasions
But this is in a period when most people wouldn’t have sat for many photographs during their lifetime. It wasn’t a practice affordable to many. These post-mortem photographs were often the only chance a family might have to preserve the image of their loved one.
The first death portraits show the deceased ‘laid out’ in some way. They might be lying on a bed. The photographers wanted to show the deceased as being asleep – there was no attempt to show them as if they were still alive.
But the photographs change after 1860. Living relatives appear in the photos, cradling the deceased or holding their hand. The deceased might be propped up or sat on a parents’ lap. Some photographers even painted eyes onto the plates before exposing the photographs to make the deceased look awake.
Death photography in action
Exposure times for 19th-century photography were incredibly long due to the primitive technology available. People often had to sit for 20 minutes, which explains why they’re always frowning. It was also common for people to move slightly during the exposure, which created slightly blurry images.
In the below example, the parents are slightly blurred as they’ve moved during the exposure. Their deceased daughter in the centre of the shot is pin sharp. It makes the shot all the more poignant.
Remember the length of exposure times. It must have been incredibly difficult for the families to pose with their deceased loved one for so long.
Note: A user on Wikimedia Commons points out that this example could be pre-mortem photography. The daughter and mother appear to be looking at the same thing. Perhaps the daughter’s illness was so severe that the family wanted a photograph of her before she died.
The practice falls out of fashion
A combination of better healthcare and more accessible photography saw the demand for death photography fall away. After all, people lived longer, and families could take photographs of live subjects instead.
This ad for Kodak is from 1889 and appeared in the first issue of The Photographic Herald and Amateur Sportsman. It was priced at $25. That’s over $600 in today’s money, but the prices fell steadily.
The cult of mourning lost its appeal as the Victorian era gave way to the 20th century. Modernity caught hold of medicine and death became something that happened in sterile hospitals. People no longer cared for their dead at home before a funeral. With more family portraits taken during life, there was no need to take photos after death.
Death photography now appears in horror films, most memorably in The Others (2001). Here’s the moment where Grace (Nicole Kidman) discovers an entire album of post-mortem portraits.
I don’t think death photography is creepy at all. I think the photos remain as a poignant reminder of earlier times. In the 19th century, death seemed less sanitised and the selfie culture was over a century away. It was a world where death loomed large and these portraits acted as a memento mori – an object that reminds us that we, too, will one day die.
Over to you! Do you think death photography is morbid, or just strangely sad?
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