Death and the Daguerreotype: The Strange and Unsettling World of Victorian Photography
Victorian photography reveals obsession with immortality.
Image courtesy of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr., Indiana
Having an eternal thirst for commemoration and remembrance, the 19th century was influenced by the Victorian obsession with spirituality and early photographic techniques. The introduction of the daguerreotype, a 19th century photography technique, enabled Victorians to capture spectral photographs of loved ones which illustrated their attitude towards intimacy and death. The Victorian era saw the development of two eerie photographic trends, one we now call hidden mothers, ghostly photographs of parents hidden behind veils and the other, post-mortem photography which captured images of the deceased. At a time when paintings were expensive, the daguerreotype invention was an increasingly affordable way to remember and respect a loved one.
Hidden mother photography is a contemporary term for when Victorian mothers hid behind veils and held their child while the photographer took the long exposure image. This was necessary due to the slow processing technique of the daguerreotype. Older children were held by a clamp fastened to a chair, but babies and toddlers were too small and immature for this, so the parents, shrouded in black, had to hold them still themselves to ensure the infant would not suddenly move and blur the image. Parents were discreetly placed behind curtains or chairs, sometimes blurred out of an image, or occasionally "appeared" showing only their hands or arms, giving the appearance of a strange, grim reaper-like figure in each photograph.
The 19th century was a time when death was embraced and all too familiar with the average lifespan being approximately 40 years of age. Collector of 19th and 20th century photography, Hans Kraus Jr. tells The Creators Project, “By the mid-19th century a preoccupation with death had taken a firm hold on both sides of the Atlantic. Due to the century’s high mortality rates, especially among infants and children, death was often perceived as a manifestation of God’s will. Because death frequently occurred at home, the experience was shared by all family members and was recorded and remembered.” Kraus Jr. continues, “Visual manifestations of mourning, post-mortem photographs most of all, became an accepted memorial practice and were part of the era’s mourning process.”
Post-mortem photography was also popular in the Victorian era. As Kraus Jr. explains, “Post-mortem photography consoled the bereaved and memorialized the dead. A photograph was a tangible object that represented the deceased and could be held or worn close to the body. Commissioned by grieving families, post-mortem photographs often represented the only visual remembrance of the deceased and were among a family’s most precious possessions.” Here, the children in these post-mortem images look as though they are sleeping, but in reality they are deceased and held up by props or family members. Occasionally the photographer ensured their eyes remained open or painted them on to their closed eyelids to make them appear as if they were living. More often than not, the photographer was asked to capture one of two poses: a peaceful, sleeping image of the loved one, or one that depicted them vibrant and alive.
Not only were these images a deferential remembrance of the deceased, each was often placed with the best clothing, flowers, toys and jewelry, showcasing the family’s wealth, and what the deceased individual valued when they were living. Kraus Jr. says, “Post-mortem photographs were kept on parlour tables and mantles and in family albums. They were also sent to faraway relatives along with written accounts of the death. As photography was still a recent invention, not always affordable or widely available, there were limited opportunities to sit for a lifetime photograph thus commissioning a posthumous image of the departed was especially important.”
To view more of the Hans P. Kraus Jr. collection, click here.