Before I get started, let me define some terms I will use in this blog post:
Daguerreotype: a photograph taken by a long-exposure camera that was invented by Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839. The camera produces a positive image, meaning that it can never be reproduced unless it is re-photographed or scanned. In contrast, a negative image (like the ones from a disposable Kodak) can be infinitely reproduced because of its filmstrip.
Post-Mortem Photograph: a photo taken of someone after they have died.
Spirit Photograph: a photo taken in order to capture the image of a ghost or spirit.
Hidden-Mother Photography: a photo taken of a deceased infant held by their mother because their body would have been too weak to be propped up alone. The mother would wear a black veil and black clothing so that she would be undetectable (to some degree) in the photograph.
Aura: A term used by Walter Benjamin in his 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” that refers to the unique presence of an artwork that viewers experience by seeing a work in real life. The same “aura” can apply for daguerreotype photography. The aura is weakened when a work is reproduced, according to Benjamin.
Weegee: A tabloid photographer who worked in the mid 1900s. He would sit in his car with a police radio waiting for tips so he could take the first photos of New York City’s latest scandals and tragedies.
Post-Mortem Photography in History
As you may already know from our post and self-guided tour about Victorian-era mourning customs, the 1800s saw tragedy and death far too often. Disease and infection increased death rates, and it was common for children to die before turning five. Obviously devastated, parents wanted to remember what little they knew of their children, so they employed photographers to capture their image one last time before sending them to their graves. The children were dressed in their finest attire and were posed carefully to maintain the integrity of their forms. In some cases, an infant would be propped up with a post, or held by their mother who wore a black veil. Once the daguerreotype photographs finished developing, the artistic photographer would paint eyes onto the child’s eyelids and add some blush tones to their cheeks (colour photography was not widely popular in the 1800s because of its intricate process and high costs). The goal was to make the child appear alive again. Though this post-mortem photography process seems morbid today, what with painting eyelids and such, the images brought comfort and closure to those who lost their loved ones back in the 1800s.
Perhaps even more eerie is the comparison of post-mortem photography to spirit photography. We know that the daguerreotype is a positive image. It cannot be reproduced; therefore, it has an aura. What if within this aura was the spirit of the deceased person in the picture? The same can be asked about an urn full of ashes on one’s fireplace mantle. What vessel is required to house a spirit? A body? A visual memento? Families hoped to not only capture an image but to capture their child’s essence in their post-mortem photographs.
Considering the fact that the Victorians were fascinated with immortality (think gothic horror stories like Frankenstein or Dracula), post-mortem photography makes sense. According to Nancy M. West’s essay, “Camera Fiends: Early Photography, Death, and the Supernatural,” the Victorians believed that young children were not spiritually developed. West writes: “very few photographs were taken in those days of infants or children, since the precariousness of their lives evoked superstitions that representation could indeed destroy existence.” In death, the opportunity for representation was attainable; the photograph took the place of one’s everlasting body.
Post-mortem photography more recently
Post-mortem photography has gone through a couple shifts in attitude and reception from the public. In the mid- to late-1900s, mothers were expected to forget their stillborn children. They were not encouraged to name them, let alone to look at them or to take photos of them. Today, stillborn photography can be considered helpful in the mourning process, like it was in the 1800s. Visually, contemporary post-mortem images are much different though. The children aren’t meant to look alive or reborn, instead they are captured as they are with innocence and acceptance. Images provide parents with representation and confirmation of their relationship with their child, especially when the world around them discounts their parenthood on the basis of little time served.
In our current digital age, these post-mortem mementos come with a lot of controversies, mostly because of our access to social media and obsession with sharing intimate moments with millions of strangers. There’s a line where the difference between memorialization and spectacularization gets cloudy. To many, sharing an image of a deceased child is considered offensive or even violent. Personally, I believe that everyone grieves differently. If someone wants to keep their stillborn photographs private, that is their prerogative. Similarly, if they want to share their stories with the world, they should feel comfortable doing so. In either case, acknowledging one’s grievance is healthy and could help someone else who is going through the same process.
Picturing the deceased body as spectacularized object
Now that I’ve discussed photography as a medium for memorialization, I’ll conclude this post by BRIEFILY touching on photography as it is used to document the dead. When I write “document,” I mean the act of producing a photograph for the purpose of proof and documentary, not for memorialization. There is a criticism that picturing the dead body as an outsider is not conducive to anyone’s mourning or healing, which runs extra deep if the pictured person’s face is not covered. In order to prevent the spectacularization of death, the face or body must be covered with some type of veil. Again, the line of respectful versus disrespectful representation can get blurry. Consider Weegee’s 1940 tabloid photograph, Dead Body on Cobblestone Street.The body is literally covered by a newspaper that is sure to eventually detail the person’s death in its bulletin. While this photo isn’t one of memorialization like many post-mortem mourning photographs, it is a testament to the evolution of and relationship between photography and the deceased. If one has a personal relationship with the person depicted, then more respect is applied. The opposite is true if the photographer has some degree of separation from their subject. I could get into the complexities of photography regarding complicit viewing and empathy, but for the sake of brevity, I encourage you to read two essays. The first is Susan Sontag’s “Regarding the Pain of Others” and the second is Kimberly Juanita Brown’s “Regarding the Pain of the Other: Photography, Famine, and the Transference of Affect.” Both put the viewer in front of the mirror, forcing us to contemplate our role as observers of unfamiliar, shocking imagery.
So, what do you think? Are post-mortem photographs creepy, or could they offer healing in ways unlike traditional memorialization?