Thursday, December 10, 2009

The History Hare - December 10, 2009

“Secure the shadow ere the substance fade.”

by footnoteMaven

"I Think She's Dead Series"

On Shades Of The Departed I wrote a series of articles based on the photograph above, titled "I Think She's Dead." The photograph was analyzed and Victorian postmortem photography was discussed.

Some of the discussion led to questioning how the photographing of the dead was actually accomplished and whether dead bodies were transported to the photographic studio. I have spent a good deal of time researching old photographic magazines looking for articles written by photographers and their experience photographing the dead.

I've found some interesting information and if you're not squeamish read on.

A soldier rushed home from the Civil War in order to have his photograph
taken with his dead child in his arms; he was James Garfield, later the
President of the United States.

Post-mortem child being held by
Photographer's Assistant

In the era of the daguerreotype (1839 to the mid-1850s) the death of a child was a fact of life - and a business specialty for some American photographers.

A daguerreian studio in a "For Sale Ad" made post-mortem studies its major selling point: Daguerreian Gallery for Sale - The only establishment in a city of 20,000 inhabitants, and where the pictures of deceased persons alone will pay all expenses.

The owner of a photographic studio advertised that “I also hold myself in readiness to make pictures from Corpses if desired.

Post mortem cases attended to with care and promptness

Southwork & Hawes

We make miniatures of children and adults instantly . . . and of Deceased Persons either at our rooms or at private residences . . . We take great pains to have miniatures of Deceased persons agreeable and satisfactory, and they are often so natural as to seem, even to Artists, in a quiet sleep.

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The Photographic and Fine
Arts Journal of 1854 published an article regarding photographing the dead which commented:

"All likenesses taken after death will of course only resemble the inanimate body, nor writ
there appear in the portrait anything like life itself, except indeed the sleeping infant, on whose face the playful smile of innocence sometimes steals even after death. This may be and is oft-times transferred to silver plate."

Post-mortem Daguerreotype

In “Taking Portraits After Death” the photographer N. C. Burgess discussed the methods for giving the impression of a sleeping rather than a dead infant:

“If the portrait of an infant is to be
taken, it may be placed in the mother’s lap, and taken in the usual manner by a side light, representing sleep. For an older child, Burgess recommended placing the body on a table and using a sheet as a reflector, “and very soon a good picture (is) produced.” Corpses already in their coffins can still be taken but not quite so conveniently, nor with so good results.” He recommended placing the coffin near a window (so that the shadows appear below the nose and eyebrows) and insisted that “the coffin should not appear in the picture,” but rather be concealed by a shawl or piece of drapery.

A Philadelphia photographer in an article titled, “Ghastly Photographic Experiences,” gave examples of his experiences photographing the deceased:

"I once photographed two children – sisters – who had died the same day of diptheria.
They were posed with their arms about each other’s necks.

An Irish family, living in the
southern part of the city, called on me about two years ago to take a picture of their dead son – a young man – with his high hat on. It was necessary to take the stiffened corpse out of the ice-box and prop him up against the wall. The effect was ghastly, but the family were delighted, and thought the hat lent a life-like effect.

Sometimes, and at
the suggestion of the family, I have filled out the emaciated cheeks of dead people with cotton to make them look plump. The eyes are nearly always propped open with pins or mucilage, but when people can afford to engage an artist it is an easy matter to paint the eyes afterward."

The British Journal of Photography, 19 February 1904, suggested that to increase the lifelike appearance of the corpse a few drops of glycerine should be injected into the eyes with a syringe. The effect was said to be astonishing: “The lids open wide and remain so.” Also, the lips were colored with carmine: “The transformation of appearance is then complete, and the photograph of the corpse will resemble that of the living person.”

Victorian Postmortem Photography: A How To Guide
Philadelphia Photographer
Charles E. Orr

The following is an article showing the steps taken by the post-mortem photographer from notification by the family to turning the eyeballs to the proper direction. I warned you!

My mode of procedure is as follows: where the corpse is at some distance and cannot be conveyed to the [studio], my first step is to secure proper conveyance, select and carefully prepare a sufficient quantity of plates, pack necessary instruments, implements, chemicals, etc., being careful not to forget any little thing necessary. Proceed at once to the cellar or basement of the house, that being most spacious, and generally affording better opportunity of shutting out the light than any other room, set up the bath, have your collodian and developer in readiness, your fixer, etc., handy, secure sufficient help to do the lifting and handling, for it is no easy task to bend a corpse that has been dead more than twenty-four hours. Place the body on a lounge or sofa, have the friends dress the head and shoulders as near as in life as possible, then politely request them to leave the room to you and your aides.

If the room be in the northeast or northwest corner of the house, you can almost always find a window at the right and left of a corner. Roll the lounge or sofa containing the body as near into the corner as possible, raise it to a sitting position, and bolster firmly, usin for a background a drab shawl or some material suitable to the circumstance. By turning the face slightly into the light, you can produce a fine shadow effect if so desired.

Place your camera in front of the body at the foot of the lounge, get your place ready, and then comes the most important part of the operation - opening the eyes. This you can effect handily by using the handle of a teaspoon. Put the upper lids up; they will stay. Turn the eyeball around to its proper place, and you have the face as nearly as natural as life. Proper retouching will remove the blank expression and the stare of the eyes. Such with me has proved a successful experience."

Now, we have had a glimpse into the life and art of the post-mortem photographer.



Camera Club of New York. Boston Photo-Clan. Photo-Pictorialists of Buffalo (Society). New York : American Photographic Pub. Co., 1908.

Jay, Bill. Momento Mori. Bill Jay On Photography. 2006.

Schechter, Harold. The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide To The Bitter End. New York: Ballantine Books. 2009.


I Think She's Dead. Anonymous. Unknown. Privately held by Jack Mord, WA.

Dead Boy & Shrouded Figure. Anonymous. Unknown. The Post Mortem Archive & Research's photostream on Flickr. (It should be noted that Jack Mord claims ownership of this original photograph.)

Daguerreotype. Library of Congress. Anonymous. Postmortem Portrait of a Child. 1855 57 Sixth Plate Dag.


Blogger NerdGirl said...

What a fascinating article!

December 10, 2009 at 5:51 AM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Thank you so much for the comment. And, the GYRabbits Online Journal is the perfect spot for this type of fascinating.


December 10, 2009 at 5:47 PM  
Blogger Leah Kleylein said...

Holy Cow! Now today I have really learned something. I appreciate you pulling this together - so interesting!

December 22, 2009 at 2:58 PM  
Blogger Sherry - Family Tree Writer said...

I'd not realized this was a profession with some photographers. I've seen some post-mortem family photos, and now that I think about it, one might have been taken by a professional photographer, when a child was stillborn.

December 29, 2009 at 10:13 AM  
Blogger greenchilemaven said...

Dittos to Leah and NerdGirl ... I am glad I stopped in to see such a wonderful American Studies of an obvious tradition during a time bygone. Posted by Beth McKenzie Castaneda 4/11

April 28, 2011 at 1:30 PM  
Blogger Phillip said...

Good article. Theres also a site that specializes in this the link is below:

This is a real interesting site.

May 16, 2011 at 12:32 PM  

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