When discussing Victorian visual culture casually, the topic of photographed death tends to be a favorite. There are some familiar landmark images that come to mind, including death that is faked for the camera, such as Hippolyte Bayard’s “Self Portrait as a Drowned Man” (1840) – with death being used as a convenient narrative device to incorporate human subjects, given the slow exposure time it took to capture a single image.
There are actual postmortem photographs, which I’m sure most of us are familiar with (if not, Google Search will bring up thousands upon thousands of results, and I think there’s a line on our syllabus for this topic, so I won’t go too in-depth here just yet…) – typically including men and women sitting in chairs, children posed with their families, looking deeply asleep, sometimes among their favorite toys…
but as I was perusing the web, I found one tradition in postmortem photography I was not previously aware of, wherein the dead are actually posed as living.
Supposedly the girl in the center here is actually dead. The author of http://www.mentalfloss.com/blogs/archives/32946 (where you can also see an enlargement of the image here) talks about how you can tell:
The girl’s rigid hands and painted-on pupils — not to mention the edge of a stand behind her left leg — give it away. The owner of the photograph adds:
If you look closely you can see a base behind the girls feet and a post would go up from that with clamps at the waist and neck and the clothing would be open at the back. The arms would have stiff wires running at the back to hold them in place. Also notice the strange placement of the hands. The pupils are painted on the closed eyelids.
I was unaware of the lengths people went to to make their family members look alive — including having a dead body propped/held up with clamps, and painting eyes over closed eyelids. While the reasons seem to make sense (depicting the child as if still alive and among the family), I was surprised by how shocking I found this image, so I wanted to share.
OH! EDIT! I meant to discuss the contemporary ties to the portrayal of dead bodies in photographs today. I’ll try to come back to this later, but most contemporary images of death I can think of are not a) mementos nor b) posed earnestly. There are war photographs used for journalism and crime photographs used for investigations. More subversively, there are artists who use dead bodies in their work (one of my favorite photographers is Joel Peter-Witkin, who created complex images out of dismembered parts of corpses to photograph – for example, http://www.edelmangallery.com/witkin10.htm), but I wonder if anything we can find today is comparable to the postmortem photographs of the Victorian era…