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The history of post-mortem photography

What does it mean to remember? For some, remembrance means capturing an image, documenting not just a life, but a death. In the 19th century, photographers were often called upon to do post-mortem photography, capturing the stillness of the final moment.

Like Victorian literature scholar Nancy M. West writes, “People were more willing to pay a few dollars for a daguerreotype that commemorated the death of a loved one than to commemorate a marriage or birth.” The reason was simple: death was everywhere. There have been outbreaks of highly communicable and deadly diseases, and “when scientific discoveries shattered conventional religious beliefs … many embraced the medium. [of photography] as a means of countering death. If their lives were short, their image at least could endure.

Part science, part illusion, a permanent reminder of a temporary moment – the first photograph had some kind of magic, West explains. In the 1840s, she continues, “a whole vocabulary developed around the medium,” a language that encompassed both fear and pleasure. Many people regarded photography as blasphemy, an art which “attempted to surpass a work reserved for the Almighty.” Some even thought the photographs were physically dangerous. Honoré de Balzac, for example, believed that each image removed a layer of the subject’s skin, diminishing his “essence of life.”

The tension between the desire to hold on to the dead and fear of the power of photography has probably also increased the demand for images of the deceased. In Britain, for example, the 1850s saw an increase in advertisements for post-mortem photographers “and the production of albums and special cases to contain and display post-mortem photographs,” according to researchers Liz Stanley and Sue Wise. As photography evolved, more and more people sought it out as part of the grieving process. As Stanley and Wise point out, it has become a way of grieving, helping people come to terms with death.

In some communities, capturing death has taken on a different meaning. Photographer James Van Der Zee, a Harlem photographer who captured the life and death of the neighborhood’s black community, used his art to document the beauty. As Carol E. Henderson, scholar of literature, writes, the 1978 collection of Van Der Zee Harlem Book of the Dead, which featured his funeral photographs from the 1920s as well as poems and texts by poet Owen Dodson and artist Camille Billops, was part of a long line of black artists using their work to “preserve themselves, their families and their human dignity in the face of overwhelming odds. Van Der Zee’s work, Henderson continues, suggests “that African Americans have long used death to investigate social injustice and cultural immorality in the past and present.”

While it may appear that post mortem photography is a relic of a bygone era, it is still part of the grieving process for many. Rather than a holdover from an earlier time, Stanley and Wise explain, it’s part of the human condition, a need to capture a moment when a person is both here and not here, “a grip, and also like a sign of having let go. “

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By: Nancy M. West

The Centennial Review, vol. 40, n ° 1 (winter 1996), pp. 170-206

Michigan State University Press

By: Liz Stanley and Sue Wise

Sociology, Vol. 45, n ° 6 (DECEMBER 2011), pp. 947-962

Sage Publications, Inc.

By: Carol E. Henderson

Folklore / Cinema: popular cinema as a vernacular culture

University Press of Colorado, Utah State University Press