This chapter aims to discuss the old victorian practice of Post-mortem photography, exploring the the attitudes towards death at the time and why they were important to those who had them. Memento mori is a term that best describes a genre of art and motif designed to remind the viewers of their mortality and of the shortness and fragility of human life. It has been around since paintings which were normally commissioned by rich patrons. An example of this can be seen in The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533). In the painting were French diplomats and fiends Jean De Dinteville and George de Selve. (Puchko, 2016) Upon close inspection of the image their ages are inscribed into the painting and painting in itself was a status symbol commissioned by Dinteville to immortalise himself and his friend, however the anamorphic image of the skull in the foreground serves as a memento mori, a reminder of death and that all the wealth and status shown in the image is fleeting and temporary. However a skull may seem like an ominous sign to place between the two but Dinteville was a memento mori admirer whose personal motto was “remember thou shalt die”.
(Puchko, 2016) The painting is filled with symbolic representations of the time period it was painted, where political turmoil and religious tensions were high. “At photography’s inception in the nineteenth century the portrait was equated with oil painting” (Clarke, 1997) Photography in the early Victorian era was heavily influenced by the morals at the time and therefore shows why things are represented in particular ways which is done similarly to how Hans Holbein the Younger represents the time period in which his painting was done. Whilst superficially, the photograph is directly opposed to the portrait painting, “portraiture photography remains encoded within the context and painting and hence the complexity and contradictions at the heart of any photograph of an individual.” (Clarke, 1997) In the mid-1800s photography was becoming increasingly popular and affordable, leading to memento mori photographic portraits. Before 1939, mourning portraits were expensive endeavours that involved hiring portrait artists, but with the invention of the daguerrotype in 1939, a new kind of portraiture was more accessible to the rising middle class.
(Hreno, 2014) Death portraiture was increasingly popular as Victorian nurseries were plagued with numerous potentially fatal illnesses and infant mortality rates were high. “Death wasn’t necessarily terrifying for the Victorians. the end was often seen as a relief from the sorrows of this world and a chance to be reunited with family members who had gone before. many Victorian mourning customs focused on preserving family bonds with the departed.
” (Lovejoy, 2015) Post-mortem photography was a tradition in the Victorian era that involved photographing the recently deceased. These became part of European and American culture and were often commissioned by grieving families as a visual remembrance of their departed loved ones. Although it is often cast aside or mocked as a peculiar and morbid occurrence post-mortem photography represents a particularly prominent part of mourning for the era. “The use of photography in mortuary practices and memorialisation differs between cultures, reflecting specific attitudes to death.” (Oxford Press, 2005) This can be shown in the contrast between westernised cultures in the 1800s and Turkey, a Muslim majority country where religious restrictions on imagery meant there was an absence of post-mortem photography in the classical Victorian sense.
“These photographs are not simply photographs that depict corpses; they can instead be described as dispossessed mourning photographs that construct loss by visually narrating the mourner’s grief.” (Aytemiz, 2013) However, the article later discusses how the non-muslim minority in Turkey produced post mortem imagery at photography studios and cemeteries as part of the funeral rituals before burial, though the practice was not overly popular. In Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ she writes how “A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture.” (Sontag, 2002) An article by Gordon Riches Pamela Dawson considers the role of photographs in parents’ adjustments to life without their children and argues that visual representations of children’s lives are a crucial feature of the process of coming to terms with the loss, he writes: “Photographs and other artifacts may therefore help confirm the fact of parenthood, help anchor a disoriented parental identity in the face of daily experience of the child’s absence, mark parenthood firmly as a period in time and space, and help shape a discourse about the lost child” (Dawson, 1998) This backs up Sontag’s statement as post mortem photographs seek to capture the final ‘likeness’ of that person, and may have been the only documentation of that person in their entire life and it served to cement the reality of their existence even if they weren’t around for a long time.
Sontag also writes that “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” (Sontag, 2002) Mortality can be linked to the ephemerality of time and uses photography as an affirmation of the narrative a person is trying to convey, in post-mortem imagery the purpose is to display the body whilst providing evidence that that person existed. The composition and appearance of postmortem photographs changed throughout the 19th century, for example postmortem photographs taken prior to the 1860s depicts death as if it just happened, with many showing the body laid out for the viewers, who are invited to understand the death as a visual representation of the ‘last sleep’.
These photographs were not intended to trick the viewer into assuming the deceased were alive but posed them in such a way as to soften the reality of their death, and represent their body at peace. Around the turn of the mid 19th century postmortem photographs also demonstrated the shifting cultural ideas which was the photographic aspect of attending a wake in which the body of the deceased are visited by relatives, friends and neighbors to pay their respects. Due to the infant mortality rate many photographs tended to depict children.
In the mid-19th Century photographs of the dead became more elaborate and indicative of what that persons was like, some children photographed with their favourite toys or blankets, inviting viewers to imagine what they would have been like, others would show bodies outstretched in their final resting place which may have been an elaborate coffin or casket. (Christian, 2007)720089297396Fig 1: The Thanatos Archives (2015) Fig 1: The Thanatos Archives (2015) Post mortem photography however does sometimes shield people from the far worse realities of the images. For example Fig. 1 was taken in Auburn, New York on January 25th 1894 and shows Emil, Mary and 9-month old Anna Keller in their shared casket. Convinced that Emil was having an affair, Mary shot him through the heart, instantly killing him, Mary then mortally wounded Anna and committed suicide. In the image they appear to be sleeping peacefully and taken out of context are presented to be a loving family. They were all buried in the same casket implying they were united by death, though they came to such an untimely end. The head of Mary Keller is resting on her husband’s left shoulder, thus to hide the view of the wound in her temple.
The mother and child are dressed in plain white whereas the father is dressed in a black suit. The mother is also holding the child’s hands, all posing indicates a peaceful family life filled with love. "Due to the extremely high cost of film in the nineteenth century, death was often one of the few occasions deemed important enough to photograph a relative or friend and violent death resulting in disfigurement was not cause to forgo the photo op.” (rehadlock, 2016) Chapter 2: Keepsakes ; Memorial This chapter aims to discuss how photographs act as a keepsake and memorial object and how they serve as an important commodity in remembering the deceased and how photography can impact memory on a personal, cultural and even historical way.
Post-mortem photographs were often kept as keepsakes for the deceased loved ones and whilst the art of post-mortem photography has essentially died out, we still use photographs as keepsakes to memorialise and remember a person. It can be argued that we use photographs as a way to protect ourselves for when a person inevitably passes, recording our loved one’s image to alleviate our own fears of death by anticipating its use as a memorial. We rely on these memorial objects to safeguard memories that would otherwise fade and vanish, and creates a narrative of that person’s life and recalls their best moments. However, it could be argued it is not a completely true representation of that person as the images used to remember them are dictated by the bereaved and they control how they are then presented to the world once they’ve passed, meaning they may exaggerate certain things about the person recalling their best moments whilst perhaps leaving out less desirable aspects of their lives. Akram Zaatari’s images of Mrs. Baqari are a contrast to the more typical memorial keepsakes. Baqari’s wife (her name is unknown) snuck into Madani’s studio and had some portraits taken of335544291509Fig 2: Zaatari (2012) Fig 2: Zaatari (2012) her, her husband was a jealous man who couldn’t stand for other people to look at her so upon finding out what his wife had done he went to the studio and demanded that the negatives be destroyed, Madani refused but instead agreed to scratch the negatives with a pin. Years later, Baqari returned to the studio, by this time his wife had committed suicide in order to escape him, and asked Madani to make prints of the scratched negatives and any others he may have kept in secret as he wanted to look at her again.
(Mikanowski, n.d.) Figure 2 shows Mrs Baqari in the studio, whilst she does not seem to be the most confident in front of the camera she allows herself to be seen, something she was likely not used to given what little we know about her relationship with her husband. The scratches are mainly over her face, which takes away parts of her that we would normally use to associate with identity and individuality. These scratched portraits of Mrs. Baqari conjure feelings of sadness, as she was merely a woman looking for some form of outlet, and knowing she took her own life the image becomes far more haunting, however, the fact her husband returned for the images despite the damage to them serves to show how important images can be in remembering, allowing him to look at her once again.
In figure 1, the image of the Keller family sought to hide the violence that ended their lives and was done through post-mortem techniques whereas Mrs. Baqari’s images (fig. 2) and the destruction of them happened whilst she was still alive, but the scratched negatives visualised and symbolised the hidden violence and oppression she suffered that eventually led to her suicide and become a testament to what she possibly endured thus remembering her in a more melancholy light than other memorial keepsakes, which are often used purely to celebrate a person’s life and achievements. A research study on children by Hayley Davies offers sociological insight into their personal relationships.
She looked at the way children participating in her research “illuminated the personal and familial significance of family stories, photographs & keepsakes … which all constitute family and kinship. Through photographs, children were able to gain embodied knowledge of deceased family members, and where photographs or keepsakes were accompanied by narratives from parents and grandparents, children were able to know the relational position and significance of the deceased within the family, and to know aspects of their lives.” (Davies, n.d.
) Whilst this research centres around children and their personal relations, it shows the importance of photographs and keepsakes as sensory tools in passing knowledge about. and maintaining memories of deceased loved ones. These photographs and keepsakes create a family narrative and inform us on how important the deceased relative was. This puts an emphasis on how photographs of loved ones aid us in the remembrance of them and how they’re important for extending the family narrative. Memorial objects and keepsakes were also around and used as souvenirs of war. Whilst this contrasts against our more typical definitions today, during periods of war these keepsakes became increasingly popular. Photographic postcards were popular as151122343733Fig 3: Fig 3: “sending to soldiers was postage-free during the conflict” (Onion, 2014) Due to this, the cards were mass produced in large quantities with a wide variety available, the composition of these images, as seen in figure 3, “helped bridge the gap (visually, and through the mail) between home and soldiers” (Onion, 2014) On the postcard it says “Zut Pour Les Zeppelins” which very roughly translates to “To heck with zeppelins”, The postcard depicts an embracing couple smiling as the main focus of the post card which contrasts with the zeppelin advancing on the city to the left. The man is shown in uniform, and with his arm around the woman could symbolically represent him protecting her it also appears as though he is diverting her gaze, which could perhaps represent that he does not want her to worry about the danger of the incoming zeppelin.
Postcards from this collection used colour in a way that made the images very striking, and by using couples and children within them made them more related for the soldiers who were sending or receiving them to/from loved ones. Some postcards in the Eastman collection were in English as well as French which was a way for “postcard sellers to capitalise on the presence of English troops who might have wanted to send a card home” (Onion, 2014) These postcards have a romantic and hopeful outlook on the war which contrasts to how some may view the war now, however, during the time it represented certain ideas creating a symbol of hope for the soldiers that would receive them. Photographs and keepsakes are used for lots of other things, for ceremonies, funerals, simple reminders and even protests. Chapter 3: Protest ; Memorial This chapter will explore how photograph, especially memorial photographs, can be used in protest contexts as a way to get people talking and prompting them not to forget whatever horrors were trying to be covered up. Photography can be used as a politically motivated and defiant act against a government to remember individuals or parts of their past that they would rather remain hidden and forgotten. It can be used as a mnemonic tool to remember the missing and immortalise them.
An example of this is Marcelo Brodsky’s art book, ‘Buena Memoria’, the book in centred around a Buenos Aires High-school class and the fate of its members during and after the argentine military dictatorship. It is a very personal documentation utilising photography and writing throughout focusing on remembering the disappeared, which include his own brother, revealing the crippling effects of political violence on a generation and simultaneously motivating the public not to forget. Figure 3 shows one of the most central images of the book, it is an class portrait from Brodsky’s first year at Colegio taken in 1967. He came across this whilst he was going through his family photographs and felt the need to know what had become of his classmates. He held a 25th reunion for his classmates so that they could see each other again, he blew the original print up to serve as a backdrop for portraits of the classmates who came and he took smaller prints to those he didn’t make it that he could track down. (Brodsky, Caparrós, Feinmann & Gelman, 2006) Brodsky has marked the surface of the original image with brief notes as to the fate of his classmates, some married, emigrated, exiled and some has “disappeared” during the Dirty War. Along with finding out what happened to his classmates Brodsky also focuses on exploring what happened to his missing brother, Fernando. The conclusion of the photo book provides closure where his brother is concerned as Victor Basterra, a photographer who was held captive in the Navy School of Mechanics (ESMA), was in charge of taking photographs of the prisoners, among which Fernando was pictured, managing to smuggle some out of the concentration camp when his temporary exit permits began.
His imagery of the prisoners were used as evidence at the Trial of Military Juntas. (Brodsky, Caparrós, Feinmann & Gelman, 2006) The book is a politically cutting and deeply moving piece that-8800270599Fig 4: Fig 4: represents the traumatic experiences and memory of a political struggle for human rights. Susan Sontag wrote in ‘Regarding the Pain of Others’, “Narratives can make us understand, photographs do something else: they haunt us” (Sontag, 2003) This can be seen particularly in Brodsky’s emotive work his narrative is clear but the photograph is haunting due to the chilling context behind it. In Roland Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’, Barthes discusses a portrait of Lewis Payne from 1865. In 1865, “Payne tried to assassinate secretary of State W. H. Seward.
Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged”. (Barthes, 2010) He discusses the dual gesture involved in the photograph, captioning it “He is dead, and he is going to die”, the photograph shows three realities Powell was, he is no more and in the moment captured by the photograph he is on his way to death. He also uses the words studium and punctum “The studium of a photograph is its ostensible subject matter and what we might imagine the photographer seeks to convey through the photograph. The punctum by contrast is the aspects that “pricks” or “wounds” the viewer. The experience of the puncture is wholly subjective It is the aspect of a photograph that disturbs the studio and jars the viewer”. (Sacasas, 2013) This is applicable to Buena Memoria as it shows the students as they were, how some are now and expresses the fate of the others even showing pictures of some from concentration camps were they were eventually killed.
The studium in this photograph is the the 8th grade class, but the punctum is the fact that many of these people were missing and victims of a military dictatorship. Another example of Memorial being used as protest is the Black Lives Matter protests. Black Live Matter is a civil rights activist movement originating in the African-American community that campaigns against the violence and systematic racisms towards black peoples. It was founded July 2013 and is still going today. (;Black Lives Matter;, 2017) BLM became internationally recognised for their street protests and demonstrations in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York. Michael Brown’s death “laid bare a painful divide between the city’s predominantly black population and its predominantly white police force. Mr Brown’s death sparked international outrage and protests, preceding a long list of similarly tragic high-profile killings of unarmed black men at the hands of police across the country.
” (Mindock, 2017) After Brown’s death, the officer that shot him tried to vilify Brown and in retaliation a photograph of Brown’s graduation from Normandy High School began to circulate on the internet, not only as a way to remember him but also to show his potential as a young man, being just 18 years of age. BLM often uses images of the deceased and from the protests as a politically motivated act to get people discussing the topic of racism in America and how their law enforcement officers treat African-Americans