Postmortem Photography was a trend in the Victorian period and represented one of the most desirable luxuries for the working class. Looking back at it from the 21st century, used to taking hundreds of pictures a year, the habit of remembering a dead person through one last picture can appear as macabre and odd and internet has certainly contributed to create through time, a series of fake myths about this type of photography.
One of the myths, probably the most famous one says that the post mortem pictures were taken to corpses kept standing by supports such as stands or tripods. The bodies were photographed and embellished but they were never kept in impossible positions held up by fragile iron supports.
The visible stands in the pictures have been collected from the website “Artgallery” which explains in details the evolution and their use. They were supposed to keep the (alive) people still, who were receiving a painting of themselves. Due to the very long exposure time that the first photographies would require, it could take up to 50-60 seconds to capture a face, so blocking the subject was crucial for a good result.
The myth of the corpses kept up by only some thin stand was then a distortion of reality, which instead would require a rather specific etiquette. The children, common subjects for this type of picture, were usually kept on their parents arms, and this way they could remember them throughout the years.
The adults were photographed inside their coffins (practice still common in a few areas) or sat on a chair.
15 Post-Mortem Pictures become popular online
1 – Child with a note on her hand
The child above wasn’t in any way dead and with a note in her hand, probably to keep her busy. Her face seems slightly blurred while mother, still, came out completely focused.
2 – 2 Children
The children in the picture are active and happy and their faces appear unrecognisable as well as look as if they were 3 even though they were only 2.
3 – Innsmouth mask
The woman in the picture is not dead. In reality she is not even a woman but a fake representation of a character of the novel “The Innsmouth Mask” written by H. P. Lovecraft.
4 – The dreaming girl
In the picture, a girl like many others looks dreaming up to the sky. She was not dead either.
5 – The drama of war
The image was a promotional image to show the drama of war. None of the present ones were dead.
6 – The twins
The two tripods behind the twins assured us that they were alive. Their surprised gaze was probably given by the use of the flash light.
7 – Christmas Dreams
The picture wasn’t in any way post-mortem, but it was titled “Christmas Dream”. The children pretend to sleep (one is even smiling) while one of them plays the role of the angel/fairy.
8 –the Clairvoyant
On the net it has spread the legend that this was the corpse of a clairvoyant. In reality it is a sculpture by Christine Elfman made out of chalks and glossy paper. The dress is made out of pieces of torn paper with the story of her family.
9 – Held by the curtain
Often this image has been identified as post mortem, but it’s just a child, kept still by a stand and maybe by his mother through the curtain.
10 – the ruined picture
The baby girl in the picture above has certainly a ruined look, with a spirit-like expression but there is no evidence of her death.
11 – the posing child
like above, the child has helped to stay still by the stand, he rides a walking cane but he was no dead whatsoever.
12 – the 4 sisters
The child on the left certainly holds a curious and weird pose. Despite she seemed immobilised compared to the other sisters, there is no evidence she was dead. On the contrary having her standing suggests her to be alive.
13 – In a pose
Another confusing image as there is no evidence that the child was dead. The legs are in a pose of dynamic tension, the eyes lively and the hands tight, so nothing suggests that the subject was dead.
14 – the disabled girl
The girl in the centre was alive with a disability. The two assistants keep her standing not because dead but rather because she was not able to do it by herself. The covered assistant did not want to be depicted, maybe she was not a relative and a picture found on Pinterest shows the same girl this time on a wheelchair.
15 – 2 sisters
Both girls in this picture were alive, characters of the painting “Kiss of Peace” from the 1869 by Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the biggest photographers from the ’800.