Memorial photography

Boing Boing has a post and link to a site of Victorian postmortem photographs, also sometimes referred to as memorial photography, which reminded me of a book I have called Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America by Stanley B Burns, MD (Twelvetrees Press, 1990) which collects such pictures in chronological order from the 19th through to the early 20th century when it began to go out of fashion. Yes, I know what many of you are thinking: A) Joe has been spending too much time round at his Aunt Morticia and Uncle Gomez’ house and B) euuggghhhh. That latter reaction is quite telling as is Boing Boing’s description of the site as a timely ‘creepy’ treat for Halloween.

The fact is these pictures were not normally taken for creepy of ghoulish purposes: reading these images that way is a conceit of our contemporary society, which is one where death is normally a taboo subject in a way the people of the 19th century would not understand, being face to face with it on a regular basis far more than we were, not only because of greater mortality but because the structures and services (hospitals, morticians etc) we have were not as widespread then; more people died in their own family home and not hospitals or rest homes. Then again, those people would have been shocked by how openly we talk about sex today – such is the nature of changing societal norms. Take this from Burns’ introduction to Sleeping Beauty:

“Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practise in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These photographs were often the only ones taken of their subjects and much pride and artistry went into them. It is astounding that although post-mortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth century American genre photographs, they are largely unseen and unknown.”

He also goes on to note that the 19th century was the first to have access to photography; suddenly ordinary people could have portraits of their loved ones recorded for posterity. Something we wouldn’t think twice about today, surrounded as we are by cameras and images, but a revolution then. For many the only photograph taken of them may well be after death, especially for young children in a time of high infant mortality, which is why some of the children’s pictures in this book have been lovingly hand-tinted, adding in a blush of pink cheek to a silvery, black and white image to counterfeit life and make it look like the infant was simply sleeping, often with a living sibling or parent lying next to them (some are quite convincing). They were, in other words, often a desperate act of love and respect, from children through to memorial photographs of Abraham Lincoln. Some of the other pictures, such as ‘trophy’ pictures of gunned down outlaws in the Old West propped up next to the posse who brought them down are perhaps rather more exploitative (and possibly were back then too), but again would not have been seen as ghoulish.

I suppose it is one of those examples not only of how the subjects Western society will openly discuss changes over time but also how our interpretation of something changes over time. They say the camera doesn’t lie, but the photograph, like every other medium, relies on the person viewing it to interpret it through the filters of their aesthetic senses, experiences, their society and beliefs and this is a classic example of how the same unchanging black and white image, light and shadow fixed for eternity on silvered glass or paper, still can change depending on the viewer and the time.