The strangeness of post-mortem photography
While studying photography’s history, I came across articles about post-mortem photography. It’s a kind of photography that I’ve always found strange, weird. Before explaining my thoughts, let’s talk about post-mortem photography’s history.
Photography was born in 1839 (but it’s unofficially much older than that).
In 1839, thanks to Arago in particular, the daguerreotype became known troughout the whole world.
Although the exposure time was quite long, photographic portraits began to appear. It’s also at this time that post-mortem photography (= memento mori photo) appeared. A post-mortem photography is, as you probably know, a portrait of a deceased person. It is said that this kind of portraits originated in England, during the reign of Queen Victoria. It’s probably true as there are many many post-mortem photographs dated the Victorian era.
Before photography’s invention, last portraits were made in sculpture, painting, moulding (death masks), etc. At that time, these portraits were mainly for important people (from the political, philosophical, artistic or religious world, for example) and for very wealthy people.
Daguerreotype’s invention was a big revolution. It was cheaper compared to the other artistic fields, so more people could access it. But, it still was quite expensive (and very recent). That’s why, for some people, a post-mortem portrait was the only portrait the relatives could have of the deceased person. In addition, photography could provide a much more accurate portrait of people, compared to other artistic mediums.
Both anonymous and famous people were photographed.
Many photographs and companies specialized in this kind of portraits, whether they were taken in photographic studio or at the deceased person’s home.
With the photography’s evolution, such as the arrival of KODAK films,
families no longer hired professional photographers.
Post mortem photography was very popular in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries, particularly in Europe and America.
Among post-mortem photographs, we can find a large number of photographs of deceased children, because at that time, a lot of children died in infancy (due to diseases such as chlorella, scarlet fever, etc).
There are mainly two “types” of post-mortem photography.
They’re photographs in which we can see the deceased person on their deathbed / in a coffin, giving the impression that they’re asleep.
And there are staged photographs where the deceased person is standing or sitting (thanks in particular to thanatopraxy and other tools), it can give the impression that the person is still alive. In both cases, the deceased person may be surrounded by their living family (especially parents and/or siblings). A deceased baby could be sitting on his mother’s knees, for example.
Photographers didn’t hesitate to use objects (such as toys surrounding a deceased child) and props.
For the family, the post-mortem portrait was a way of remembering the person, a way of remembering their life and a way of paying tribute to them. In some cases, It was also a way to gather around the deceased person one last time. It could also be a way of accepting the death. But also, for some people, the photograph could give the impression that the person was still alive.
The photographs could be treasured in photos albums, framed and hung, or even sent to family members (thanks to the André Disdéri’s invention).
I understand this. I really understand that these portraits could help people’s mourning. This last and sometimes only portrait was a way to keep an image of the deceased, in every sens of the word.
It was probably also a way of never forgetting how the person looked and I find that totally understandable. Like many people I think, I’m always a bit afraid of forgetting the face of the people I loved and still love.
Even though I understand this desire, I’d never want to own this kind of portrait.
The only deceased person I saw, is my grand-father. And when I think about him, I think about when he was alive. I think about the holidays, about the funny times like the time he showed me sheep droppings and made me believe there were sweets (I was a naive child haha).
Even though I remember very well the last time I saw him, and even though he looked peacefull and sleepy, it’s not the memory I want to keep of him.
And I wouldn’t have wanted that moment to be photographed. Because the photograph taken would have reminded me the sadness I’ve felt at this moment and also, because, I think that the body is just “the envelope” of the person. What give the person their individuality, in other words : their personnality, their soul, their spirit, are forever gone and… they cannot be photographed and thus preserved.
To be honest, I very rarely look at pictures of him because it reminds me that’s he’s no longer with us. Even though I have many photographs of him,
thanks to analog and digital photography.
I also think that some post mortem photographs look creepy.
Here I’m talking about the ones who are staged.
When you look at these photographs, you can see that in many of them, the deceased persons have been manipulated. They’re standing up, or sitting with the help of props, and they’re sometimes surrounded by their relatives.
Like in the photograph below :
On this image, the young woman standing between her parents is the deceased person. If you look closely, you can see the stand (a stand specially made for this kind of images) behind the young woman. This special stand helped to keep the deceased person up.
You can also see that her eyes have been coloured (it was something common in post-mortem photography — the eyes and the cheeks could be coloured during the development). We can easily understand that these artifices were used to give the impression that the girl was still alive.
I find that some artifices are quite “failed” (the colouring for instance).
But I think that this false impression, this “false life”, the fact that the person, who’s standing right in front of us, is in fact dead…this, this is really strange and a bit creepy.
In fact you just need to think about the “photoshoot” (it doesn’t seem like the right word here) : just imagine the parents sitting between their daughter, and the photographer who may put the young woman’s hands on the parents. I can’t help but thinking that it’s strange. Even if it obviously showed the love of the parents for their daughter.
Once again, I know that this portrait could have been the only “physical” memory of their daughter, but I also look at these staged photographs as a death denying photo. This family portrait probably couldn’t have been taken before, for a reason or another, and it’s maybe the only way to remember that the girl has lived (this subject is definitely linked to what Roland Barthes said in his book “La Chambre Claire”). It’s maybe the only way to remember that she was and will always be part of the family, that she was loved but I also find that it shows how the parents desperately tried to keep their daughter with them.
I often linked the movie “The Others” to certain post mortem photographs, because I see in both of them the same ghostly, white-but-dark, disturbing aspect. It’s maybe related to the monochrome and the textures of the photographs. Moreover, according to certains persons, some photographers used discolorations, which would easly explain this ghostly aspect.
Maybe if I didn’t know that these staged photographs were post-mortem photographs, I wouldn’t have felt this way. It’s possible.
As a photographer, I think that if one day I were asked to take this kind of portrait, I wouldn’t know what to do.
On the one hand, I’d want to say yes to the client because I’d understand their wish. But on the other hand, it would be very difficult for me.
I don’t think that it’s morbid or disgusting. Really, I don’t.
But I don’t know if I could do it. I’d be afraid of not being good enough and I have a very personal point of view on this subject.
I also believe that it’s linked to my relationship with death (and that of many other people, I guess) that makes me feel this way. I want to to keep death at a distance, to ignore it as much as possible and to be confronted with it as little as possible. Not to face it, in short.
Also, when I think about death and photographs, I think about a photograph Nan Goldin took (even if i don’t know if we can consider it like a post-mortem photograph), and which shows Vittorio Scarpati in his coffin.
In general I really like Nan Goldin’s work but, concerning this photograph, I’ve always find it quite disturbing. I can’t say exactly what makes me feel this way, but I think it might be because the photograph looks too “real”, too “documentary”, too “intimate”. It’s a little bit contradictory compared with what I previously wrote but I think that a middle ground needs to be seen in those portraits.
While studying this subject, I read that the post-mortem photography seems (I’m not sure about that) to be still accurate in some countries, especially in Eastern Europe.
I’ve also learnt that some persons had recently taken selfies in front of opened coffins, which they then posted on social networks…needless to say that I find this totally disrespectful and shocking.
I’ve also read that a few years ago in France (I don’t know if it still exists despite my research) there was a company that proposed post-mortem photography services.
Maybe one day I’ll change my mind (like my mom says : only fools don’t change their minds). Maybe one day, the photographs of my grand-father will be a way of remembering him and the moments we shared together.
Maybe they won’t make me sad anymore.
And maybe one day, if someone asks me to take a post-mortem photograph, I’ll decide to go beyond my thoughts and I’ll say yes. Because taking this kind of photograph means helping those who are left behind.
And this, this is maybe the most important thing.