Most of us have sat for a family portrait at least once in our lives. They are often tedious and uncomfortable, especially if you have a sibling who is five and a half years younger throwing a screaming fit while strangers are trying to make her smile and expect you to keep your cool. With the invention of the Daguerrotype, the first commercially successful photography process, photography became a lot more feasible to the common family. Portraits, which were previously painstakingly painted by an artist, could now be taken in a few moments. So what’s the catch?
Well, portraits were still expensive, so many families could only afford portraits taken post-mortem. Yeah, that means dead.
The Victorian era had a high infant and child mortality rate, so it wasn’t uncommon for the family portrait to be taken as a way of remembrance of the deceased loved one. With them included. Coffins were rarely photographed and the deceased member was often positioned in a lifelike act, such as playing with toys or “lounging” in a chair. Props like flowers were also added to increase life in the photo.
The photographic process used was a Daguerrotype, which resulted physically in a direct positive made in the camera on a silver copper plate. The surface of a daguerreotype is like a mirror, with the image made directly on the silvered surface; it is very fragile and can be rubbed off with a finger, and the finished plate has to be angled so as to reflect some dark surface in order to view the image properly. Depending on the angle viewed and the color of the surface reflected into it, the image can change from a positive to a negative. The cases provided to house daguerreotypes have a cover lined with velvet or plush to provide a dark surface that reflects into the plate for viewing. A bit far before film, but you guys get the idea.
Since this process was fairly new, photographers tried to make the very best of each result. The physical result made it easy for photographers to add things to the photo after it was made. Often times the deceased’s eyeballs would be propped open in order to have their pupils painted on the Daguerrotype later. Sometimes the photographer would even go as far as to paint a rosy tint on the cheeks. Super creepy! As the years went on and this became a very common practice, photographers got lazy and didn’t bother to make anything to appear lifelike and instead just showed up, photographed the deceased in their coffin and went about their day. This popular practice died out when snapshot photography was introduced.
Today, a lot of very religious faiths still practice post-mortem photography but the subject is now considered taboo. So what
made me write about this? Well, I haven’t been on in a few days and I was thinking of what would capture both photographer and non-photographer’s attention. Then I remembered how a few years ago I went to an antique book shop in Vermont. They had more than books including shoeboxes of old photos. I commented on how the people in them looked dead and the owner replied “Well, they are.” Who buys them? I really don’t know. Maybe no one because there were so many. I’m guessing someone was cleaning out an attic, came across them and freaked out but couldn’t just throw them in the trash, so off to the antique store they went. Those were in film, which was especially creepy because by the time film came out it wasn’t as popular of a practice.
This wasn’t about film exactly, more so about its predecessor but it’s historic photography nonetheless so hopefully your curiosity was satisfied. I know we all like to read about the weird and creepy every so often.
Photographers: Would you photograph someone deceased? Why or why not?
Anyone: What would you do with port-mortem photos if you found them?