Meghan Jordan is a fourth year fine art photography major at RIT currently interning with our Department of Photographs. In the future she hopes to pursue a Master’s degree in the area of photographic history to further educate people of the medium’s importance.
Unidentified Photographer. [Woman sitting in high-backed chair, holding deceased child] ca. 1860. Daguerreotype with applied color.
Since beginning my internship in the Department of Photographs five months ago, multiple people have asked me what I have been working on. The majority of the time, my response of “a postmortem collection” has ignited looks of bewilderment and disgust. Even after an explanation, friends and family are still confused as to why one would spend their time with such a collection.
From its birth, photography has been used to preserve moments in one’s life, so why not death as well? In the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, it would not be uncommon to find a postmortem photograph on a mantel or in a family album. So why today are people so uncomfortable with such an idea?
Perhaps an association between death and gore in the media casts a negative light on postmortem imagery. Television, movies, and news often show bloody corpses and gruesome deaths; but memorial photographs are quite the opposite. In 2010, the George Eastman House acquired the Walter Johnson Collection – one of the largest of such collections in North America, containing over 1,000 postmortem and memorial objects. The photographs are not morbid or grotesque; they are beautiful, emotional images that commemorate the life of the lost.
Unidentified Photographer. [Young woman holding a deceased infant] ca. 1850. Daguerreotype.
In viewing the collection, one can see that along with society’s attitude, memorial photography has evolved throughout the centuries. Early memorial photography depicted the deceased subject in their homes or in the photographer’s studios. Studio owners of the mid-19th century openly advertised and discussed their practice of memorial photography. The well-known firm of Southworth & Hawes of Boston often published advertisements and descriptions of their techniques in professional trade journals, “The way I did it was just to have them dressed and laid on the sofa. Just lay them down as if they were asleep. […] Then place your camera and take your pictures just as they would look in life, as if standing before you.” (1873, Josiah Southworth)
Unidentified Photographer, REMEMBER ME. ca. 1890. Gelatin or collodion printing out paper print.
Lee McDowell (American, Active 1883 – 1897) AUNT ELLA MAE (HUNTLEY) KEETON. ca. 1895. Gelatin silver print.
After the 1880s, trade journals rarely published articles on the matter, photographers ceased advertising their services, and memorial photographers turned to re-photographing photographs of the deceased often surrounded by personal possessions and flowers, some conveying a symbolic meaning. As cameras became more accessible to the general population, families of the deceased often preferred to take these photos themselves, allowing greater control over who could see the resulting images.
Hughes Studio (American, active ca. 1940 – 1960) [Funeral floral arrangements and open casket.] ca. 1945. Gelatin silver print.
Currently, the openness and visibility of postmortem photography has largely decreased. However, organizations assisting with the mourning process, such as Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and contemporary artists such as Andres Serrano continue to make and circulate these photographs as both therapy and art.
Lisa Kribs-LaPierre is the former Manager of Online Engagement at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
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