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Postmortem Unidentified Child

Collection: 
George Eastman House, Rochester

 

In remarks to the National Photographic Association in 1873, Southworth explained how he and Hawes sought to make deceased subjects appear asleep:

“When I begun to take pictures, twenty or thirty years ago, I had to make pictures of the dead. We had to go out then more than we do now, and this is a matter that is not easy to manage; but if you work carefully over the various difficulties you will learn very soon how to take pictures of dead bodies, arranging them just as you please…

The way I did was just to have dressed and laid on the sofa. Just lay them down as if they were in a sleep…  I will say on this point, because it is a very important one, that you may do just as you please so far as the handling and bending of corpses is concerned.  You can bend them till the joints are pliable, and make them assume a natural and easy position… Then place your camera and take your picture just as they would look in life if standing up before you.  You don’t go down to the foot of the sofa and shoot up in this way (indicating). Go up to the side of the head and take the picture so that part of the picture that comes off from you will come off above the horizontal line. So it would be as if in a natural position, as if standing or sitting before you.”

Albert S. Southworth, “Comments at the National Photographic Association,” Philadelphia Photographer, vol. 10 (September 1873).


The American daguerreotypist N.G. Burgess, a contemporary of Southworth and Hawes, offered advice to photographers wishing to improve their postmortem portrait techniques:

“The occupation of the Daguerrean Artist necessarily brings him in contact with the most endearing feelings of the human heart… How often has he been called upon to attend at the house of mourning to copy that face who, when in life was so dear to the living friends…If the portrait of an infant is to be taken, it may be placed in the mother's lap, and taken in the usual manner by a side light representing sleep. If it is an older child, it can be placed upon the table, with the head toward the light, slightly raised, and diagonally with the window, with the feet brought more towards the middle of the window….Should the body be in the coffin, it still can be taken, though not quite so conveniently, nor with so good results. The coffin must be placed near the window, and the head placed in the same position as upon the table. It is of considerable importance that the coffin should not appear in the picture, and it may be covered around the edges by means of a piece of colored cloth, a shawl, or any drapery that will conceal it from view.

By making three or four trials, a skilful artist can procure a faithful likeness of the deceased, which becomes valuable to the friends of the same if no other had been procured when in life. All likenesses taken after death will of course only resemble the inanimate body, nor will there appear in the portrait anything like life itself, except indeed the sleeping infant, on whose face the playful smile of innocence sometimes steals even after death. This may be and is oftimes transferred to the silver plate. However, all the portraits taken in this manner, will be changed from what they would be if taken in life—all will be changed to the sombre hue of death.

How true it is, that it is too late to catch the living form and face of our dear friends, and well illustrates the necessity of procuring those more than life-like resemblances of our friends, ere it is too late—ere the hand of death has snatched away those we prize so dearly on earth.”

N. G. Burgess, “Taking Portraits After Death,” The Photographic and Fine-Art Journal, vol. 8, no. 3 (March 1855): 80.


In his famous 1861 essay on photography, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote that one of the medium’s most remarkable properties was its potential to preserve exact appearances forever – even in the face of death:

“It is hardly too much to say, that those whom we love no longer leave us in dying as they did of old. They remains with us just as they appeared in life; they look down upon us from our walls; they lie upon our tables… Our own eyes lose the images pictured on them.  Parents sometimes forget the faces of their own children in a separation of a year or two.  But the unfading artificial retina which has looked upon them retains their impress, and a fresh sunbeam lays this on the living nerve as if it were radiated from the breathing shape.  How these shadows remain, and how their originals fade away.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Sun-Painting and Sun-Sculpture,” Atlantic Monthly (July 1861): 14.


In an 1843 letter to Mary Russell Mitford, the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning expressed her preference for memorial daguerreotypes over painted portraits:

“I long to have such a memorial of every being dear to me in the world.  It is not merely the likeness that is precious in such cases – but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing… the fact of the very shadow of the person lying there forever.... I would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved than the noblest artist’s work every produced.”

Cited in Susan, Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux), 1977, p. 183.


Phoebe Lloyd argues that the illusion of continued life was an important aspect postmortem portraiture:

“The posthumous mourning portrait functioned as an icon for the bereaved; contemplating is was part of the mourning ritual.  Because the artist represented the deceased as alive, a delicate pictorial balance had to be maintained between life and death.”

Phoebe Lloyd, “Posthumous Mourning Portraiture,” in Martha V.Pike and Janice Gray Armstrong, eds.,  A Time to Mourn: Expressions of Grief in Nineteenth Century.  Exhibition catalogue (Stony Brook, NY: The Museums at Stony Brook, 1980), p. 73.

 

Jay Ruby argues that postmortem photography was related to a growing interest in family heritage:

“Where the serf of the Middle Ages would be all too content to bury dead relatives quickly and forget about them as soon as possible, the middle class nineteenth-century American felt that it was important to remember his father, and important that he was indeed someone of worth and part of an historical continuum.”

Jay Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), p. 61.

About the Artist

Born: West Farleigh, VT/Weyland, MA, 1811/1808
Died: Boston, 1894/1901
Nationality: American