October 7th, 2011
Earlier this week, I had reason to rout about in my shelf of photographs. Among the color slides from my husband’s trip to Mexico (circa 1964) and endless albums of wedding pictures, I came across a largish manilla envelope I’d stashed and promptly forgotten. It turned out to be four early 20th century postmortem photographs from my father’s side of the family along with a letter from my Auntie Mary (also my godmother). She sent the packet last year while I was curating Memento Mori: the Birth & Resurrection of Postmortem Photography.
I know that the idea of photographing the dead seems strange today, and even makes some people very uncomfortable. The reactions to the show last year were across the map, but they were all very emotional — which is exactly what a curator wants! A major component of Memento Mori was the amazing collection of The Burns Archive, which celebrated the release of Sleeping Beauty III in conjunction with the exhibition.
In the 19th century, when photography itself was relatively new and fairly expensive, the postmortem photograph was often the only image made of a person, especially in the case of childhood deaths. In their anxiety to have a picture, any picture, to remember their loved one by, bereaved families relied on the miracle of the camera. Photographers charged a premium to transport their cumbersome equipment and dangerous chemicals to the home of the deceased. Sometimes they worked to make the corpse seem as life-like as possible, posing it in a bed, or painting the eyes open once the plate was developed. In other cases, the body was photographed in a coffin, surrounded by candles and flowers. Before photographs, hiring an artist to make a painting or sculpture (or death mask) was the only way to make a portrait. Photography democratized personal memorials.
These are the four postmortem photographs that Auntie Mary sent. They are unidentified, but we know they belonged to our family, and were likely of family members. Postmortem photographs were extremely personal mementos, and are rarely labeled.
You’re probably wondering why I took the trouble to tag these photos with a snarky message. Normally I don’t care who borrows the photos I post (just don’t link back to the copy on my server please) but these seemed a little different. First of all, I know there is a demand for postmortem photographs. People are fascinated by them, and there just aren’t that many available; I know these will attract some attention. They’re also very precious to me. I want to share them with you, but I also want to make sure that people searching for images online think twice about reusing them.