Despite their prudishness and strait-laced living, the Victorians have left something of a legacy for we 21st century dwellers; Christmas, wedding traditions, and dressing small boys in dresses. (Okay, perhaps not the latter.) One of their customs we are grateful has since dropped off the radar is their practice of post-mortem photography, which would now be considered utterly gruesome and certainly not for the faint-hearted.
With the advent of more affordable and less time-consuming negative printing (in the 1830s), photography became more widely available to the middle and lower classes as a means of spreading family news. These photographic post cards became valuable keepsakes for the Victorians as they were often the only image families would ever have of their loved ones. Unfortunately, this extended to their dead loved ones just as much to the healthily perky ones, and post mortem photography rapidly came into vogue across all strata of society.
The photographs themselves vary in composition and typically include head shots or full coffin shots. Where it becomes desperately creepy is when the deceased is posed in a homely setting – propped up in favourite chairs, wearing their Sunday best or, in some cases, apparently stroking the family pet or reading a paper. On closer inspection, some photographs may show evidence of stepladders or poles being used to prop the corpse into a standing position, allowing them to feature in what would otherwise be a perfectly normal family tableau. What is most surprising tois that there is absolutely no evidence in the expressions of the living relatives that the presence of death is in any way upsetting, eerie, emotional or otherwise unusual to them. Is this evidence of the Victorian stiff upper lip or just the sad fact that death was as omnipresent as the God which gave them life?
Dead children in these photos are treated somewhat differently and are often laid out in somewhat sickly sweet, romantic settings, surrounded by flowers, favourite teddy bears and ghostly (ghastly!) images of angels floating above their heads (after the development of stereoscopic photography, that is). Siblings may surround the lifeless child, trying not to look at it. We are left wondering whether they feel any kind of guilt for having survived whatever it was that spirited their brother or sister away.
These photos force us to quite literally stare death in the face in a very unambiguous, non-confrontational way. However, modern post-mortem photography (Andres Serrano, Enrique Metinides and Joel-Peter Witkin are the three names most commonly associated with this art form) dispenses with attempts to keep loved ones closer. It is voyeuristic and ugly and demands that we rubberneck at the scenes portrayed. These photographs shout ‘look at me’ at the viewer; there is no sense of the privacy and silence of their antique counterparts. Isn’t it interesting that, the more visible death has become (via movies, TV, news etc), the less comfortable we have become at dealing with it, and the uglier its photographic portrayal has become?