"What a comfort it is to possess the image of those who are removed from our sight..."
August 29, 2009 3:47 AM   Subscribe

 
First link was courtesy of @RichardWiseman on twitter
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:50 AM on August 29, 2009 [2 favorites]


They are beautiful. The big thing here is the advent of photography and the incredible opportunity it must have presented to these grieving people.

"What a comfort it is to possess the image of those who are removed from our sight..."


Says it all.
posted by fire&wings at 4:47 AM on August 29, 2009


Love the photographs, hate the enormous copyright-protective watermarks that completely disrupt the viewing experience.
posted by mrmojoflying at 5:05 AM on August 29, 2009


Maybe I'm watermark-blind the way that some people are coloreblind - I'm not seeing them.

Nice post, fearfulsymmetry!
posted by sidereal at 5:21 AM on August 29, 2009


s/coloreblind/colorblind/

coffee first, then post.
posted by sidereal at 5:22 AM on August 29, 2009


On the one hand, what an amazing comfort these kinds of photos must have been to simpler people from a by-gone era.

On the other hand, yamma-hamma, it's fright night!
posted by Servo5678 at 5:28 AM on August 29, 2009


In a way this is akin to the modern habit of keeping the outgoing message on the answering service if it had been recorded by the deceased.

The methods of holding on may change, but the human nature behind them does not.
posted by bwg at 5:46 AM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


These have always been fascinating, yet creep me out. Oh man, the scene in The Others where she discovers the photo of the servants was the only time a movie has literally caused the hairs on the back of my neck to rise, accompanied by a chill. This, even though I had seen photos of the type in history books and the like before then.
posted by cmgonzalez at 5:50 AM on August 29, 2009


...what an amazing comfort these kinds of photos must have been to simpler people from a by-gone era.

For christ's sake this kind of chronological condescension really isn't necessary. Every one of these images highlights how unsimple these people were — this is one of the most gorgeously imaginative responses to a new technology I've ever heard of.

The related "Victorian Blood Book" is worth a look if you're ever in Austin.
posted by dickymilk at 6:10 AM on August 29, 2009 [5 favorites]


This makes perfect sense to me. Photography was hardly ubiquitous, so a post-mortem portrait may well be these people's only portrait. I don't think wanting to capture their image, at what is literally the last possible chance, is at all creepy or macabre. A while ago some friends of mine's baby was still born at full term yet there are many photos of the child that never was being cradled by family members as if still alive. I understand these images do indeed provide a comfort to them. There are literally hundreds of photos of my children, but I can imagine that if there were none, I would want that one last tangible memory if anything were to happen to them.
posted by adamt at 6:27 AM on August 29, 2009


Reminds me of the many times I was forced to go to wakes, mostly Italian if that makes a difference, when the old ladies would snap a pic of the deceased in the coffin. Freaked me out
posted by Gungho at 6:40 AM on August 29, 2009


In a way this is akin to the modern habit of keeping the outgoing message on the answering service if it had been recorded by the deceased.

What?
posted by ixohoxi at 6:49 AM on August 29, 2009


Absolutely nothing simple about mourning photography (not least the often-elaborate staging). Another example: Postmortem Daguerrotypes.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:54 AM on August 29, 2009


Related, Victorian Hair Art.
posted by aetg at 6:57 AM on August 29, 2009


bwg - I disagree. They would be similar of you placed an airhose in their trachea and used attached wires to manipulate the deceased's toungue, lips and vocal cords to create some sad and creepy* facsimile of the loved one's voice.

* I actually don't think these photos are sad and creepy. No, these were done in an age before the ubiquity of photography and demonstrate how grief can drive the desperation to create a lasting physical memory.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:25 AM on August 29, 2009


The posed photographs, particularly the adults, are so haunting to me because I can so easily imagine the demands made on the photographer by a large, dead body. The corpse would have to be clothed including all accessories such as hats, shoes, jewelry, etc which meant a member of the family would have to make these decisions. Next the body would have to be wrestled into position. Each arm and hand. The feet. The head. All uncooperative, limp. I can imagine the photographer taking his time, stepping back and deciding to rearrange an extremity, which makes the photographs posed with loved ones such as this one, much more horrific. One can imagine the whiff of decay, the cold heaviness of the loved one's arm, perhaps even the sound of flies buzzing nearby.

This obsession with death by Victorians was fueled in part by Queen Victoria's great show of mourning after Prince Albert's untimely death, but arose mainly in response to the great social upheavals of the time. The Victorians saw the gentle, slow-paced agrarian lifestyle being replace by the violent, noisy Age of Machinery. Horses were replaced by trains. Farm hands became factory workers. People left the small towns and villages for the big cities. Furthermore, science was beginning to challenge the fundamental beliefs of the Christian religion. So Victorians turned to the fairy world and spiritualism. Fairy painters. Psychics. Mediums. Momento mori. The fascinations of an age when foundations were crumbling.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 7:43 AM on August 29, 2009 [3 favorites]


I think it's interesting how even after seeing countless "dead" bodies in movies and on TV, seeing pictures of REAL! DEAD! PEOPLE! still freaks me out. Like, to the point I can't even look at them for very long.

Perhaps beneath my gruff little exterior I'm a sensitive type after all.
posted by elder18 at 8:32 AM on August 29, 2009


The photographs may date to Victorian times, but these are images with a long history in Western representations of death and grief. The images of a mother holding her dead child reminded me of Michelangelo's Pietà.
posted by apartment dweller at 8:34 AM on August 29, 2009


Interesting, Secret Life of Gravy. See, now, what I imagine when I see these photos is the Disapproving Victorian Spinster Aunt in a nearby room, clucking audibly about how the mother had her heart set too much on this earthly creature, and this was a lesson from God about looking to heaven for your comforts.
posted by palliser at 8:46 AM on August 29, 2009


To better understand mourning photography as practiced in the U.S. I highly recommend Jay Ruby's Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America. It's currently out of print but you may be able to find it at a library near you. Ruby's collection is also available at the Special Collections Library of the Paterno Library at Penn State, if you're in the neighborhood.
posted by Toekneesan at 8:55 AM on August 29, 2009 [1 favorite]


By the way, this is still practiced today. The Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep Foundation helps parents connect with photographers who are willing to photograph infants who died during or soon after birth. It's a tremendous tool for some folks working through the grieving process. It was FPPed here a few years ago.
posted by Toekneesan at 9:10 AM on August 29, 2009


Wow. What a fascinating post and a great find.

And what beautiful photos. This practice makes a lot of sense to me. Though I wonder how much color would sort of, er, ruin the effect?
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:16 AM on August 29, 2009


dickymilk: That Blood Book is AMAZING.

When I was in the UK a few years ago, I took a weekend trip to York, and went to a big museum they have there. There's a huge section of it devoted to the Victorian obsession with death -- it's fascinating just how central the contemplation of death was to the culture of the period.

There was a copy of one painting hanging on the wall, "The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner." I don't think any other image has evoked the tragedy of death and its presence in our lives more than this picture; I just started weeping while looking at it.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:47 AM on August 29, 2009


One of my wife's most prized possessions is a copy of "Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America" by Stanley Burns, M.D. (forgive me the self-link, that's her site); it's a remarkable collection of Victorian mourning photography.

One of the most striking photos is of a pair of twin boys, dressed identically, one of whom is dead and lies in repose on a couch while the other gazes down upon him. I often found myself thinking about the surviving twin, wondering what it must have been like to grow up alone but with photographic evidence that a person who looked just like you had died.
posted by anvilcity at 10:08 AM on August 29, 2009


Previously.
posted by spock at 10:46 AM on August 29, 2009


Somebody correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm thinking that these photos were the only ones the family had of the deceased - the usual human tendency to put things off until it's too late. In an era when photography was expensive and inconvenient (photographers few and far between, long exposure times requiring clamps and props even for the living), people probably didn't get around to taking pictures very often - or ever. In that case, these pictures are perfectly understandable last-possible-chance efforts to photograph loved ones.

If families already had photos of these people when alive, and took another picture when dead-but-posed-as-if-still-alive, that seems creepy to me. Any context here on what the situation was?
posted by Quietgal at 11:23 AM on August 29, 2009


With modern lighting and the short shutter speeds on today's cameras we can even photograph the living, now.
posted by jfrancis at 11:42 AM on August 29, 2009


...these are images with a long history in Western representations of death and grief. The images of a mother holding her dead child reminded me of Michelangelo's Pietà.

But the remarkable thing about most of these photographs is that they aren't representations of death and grief — at least not in the fiction created by the photographer & the family members. Michelangelo had a living model for a dead subject — these are dead models playing living people.

A Pietà with Mary pretending to have a chat with a post-crucifixion Jesus propped up on a stick would be pretty cool, though.
posted by dickymilk at 12:34 PM on August 29, 2009


If families already had photos of these people when alive, and took another picture when dead-but-posed-as-if-still-alive, that seems creepy to me. Any context here on what the situation was?

For the small children, anyway, my guess is that it would be impossible to have gotten a good photograph when alive, as they couldn't sit still through the long exposure times. We have a few family photos of infants/toddlers, and they're all a little blurred in spots.
posted by palliser at 12:44 PM on August 29, 2009


They would be similar of you placed an airhose in their trachea ...

That's quite a leap, and not what's happening in those photos. Posing a corpse to appear 'alive' helps make the image less gruesome. My point was that keeping a voice recording is about keeping alive the memory of the person one has lost by any means possible.

As for the other comment of "What?", it seems that someone doesn't understand the use of tense.
posted by bwg at 4:50 PM on August 29, 2009


Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy features much of this photography. Poetic, macabre, gorgeous and moving. Highly recommended (for those who are fascinated by this great post) and readily available. It was adapted into a film a few years ago, but the book is much better.
posted by theperfectcrime at 7:22 PM on August 29, 2009


Previously.
posted by spock at 6:46 PM on August 29 [+] [!]


Damn... oh well at least it's now dead, ahem, link. Didn't search for 'photographs' as well as 'photography'
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:34 AM on August 30, 2009


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