- Post-mortem photography
Post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture or memento mori) is the practice of photographing the recently deceased.
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.
These photographs served less as a reminder of mortality than as a keepsake to remember the deceased. This was especially common with infants and young children; Victorian era childhood mortality rates were extremely high, and a post-mortem photograph might have been the only image of the child the family ever had. 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.
The practice eventually peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century and died out as "snapshot" photography became more commonplace, although a few examples of formal memorial portraits were still being produced well into the 20th century.
The earliest post-mortem photographs are usually close-ups of the face or shots of the full body and rarely include the coffin. The subject is usually depicted so as to seem in a deep sleep, or else arranged to appear more lifelike. Children were often shown in repose on a couch or in a crib, sometimes posed with a favorite toy or other plaything. It was not uncommon to photograph very young children with a family member, most frequently the mother. Adults were more commonly posed in chairs or even braced on specially-designed frames. Flowers were also a common prop in post-mortem photography of all types.
The effect of life was sometimes enhanced by either propping the subject's eyes open or painting pupils onto the photographic print, and many early images (especially tintypes and ambrotypes) have a rosy tint added to the cheeks of the corpse.
Later examples show less effort at a lifelike appearance, and often 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.
Post-mortem photography is still practiced in some areas of the world, such as Eastern Europe. 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.
A variation of the memorial portrait involves photographing the family with a shrine (usually including a living portrait) dedicated to the deceased.
Responses in contemporary photography
As the common practice of post-mortem photography in North America and Western Europe has largely ceased, the portrayal of such images has become increasingly seen as vulgar, sensationalistic and taboo. This is in marked contrast to the beauty and sensitivity perceived in the older tradition, indicating a cultural shift that may reflect wider social discomfort with death. Notably, however, the photographs of a number of contemporary artists imply a dialogue that helps illuminate the intent of the early works.
Andres Serrano's controversial "corpse" series presents morgue photographs of the victims of violent death in the manner of beautified portraits.
Somewhat similarly, the Mexican tabloid photographer Enrique Metinides—known for his stark and often grisly depictions of life in Mexico City—documents crime scene victims using an unexpected compositionally rich aesthetic that has seen his work exhibited to positive critical response in galleries worldwide. Joel-Peter Witkin does similar work.
Irish photographer Maeve Berry finds an aesthetic compromise by capturing the burning embers of bodies within the funeral crematorium.
Recently Lyn Hagan has produced a series of hand embroidered portraits of the children in Paul Freckers collection. These reflect a fascination in how people react to impermanence and how such photos were "a means of capturing the image of the person in one last futile gesture that denies their loss whilst at the same time admitting it totally".
- Mord, Jack. (2011). Beyond the Dark Veil: Postmortem Photography from The Thanatos Archive
- Ruby, Jay. (1995). Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. Boston: MIT Press.
- Burns, Stanley B. (1990). Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America. Twelvetrees/Twin Palms Press.
- Burns, Stanley B. & Elizabeth A.(2002). Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement in Memorial Photography American and European Traditions. Burns Archive Press.
- Orlando, Mirko. (2010). Ripartire dagli addii: uno studio sulla fotografia post-mortem. Milano: MjM editore.
- The Thanatos Archive
- A brief history with examples
- Paul Frecker collection
- Gallery Page, Incandescence by Maeve Berry
- Antique photo album examples
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