By Joe Festa, Print Room Reference Assistant
Today, photographs of dead humans are seen as taboo, and talk of death is almost always avoided at all costs. But this hasn’t always been the case. During the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, capturing the image of a corpse was commonplace, and was viewed as a normal, culturally acceptable practice.
Previously, individuals were celebrated and remembered through the visual medium of painting, but it was costly and thus limited to the wealthy upper class. But with the advent of photographic processes in the 1840s, portraiture became available to the masses at a low cost, and pictures quickly began to flood mainstream America. Postmortem photography followed on the heels of this influx, providing society with a new way to remember someone whose life ended too soon.
Postmortem photographs were often the only images ever to be made of an individual. They were largely of infants and children, though adults and the elderly are represented as well. As times andtastes progressed, so did the aesthetics of the genre. Compositions began as
stark settings with particular emphasis on the face, and gradually started to feature the body on its bed or in its casket surrounded by lush floral arrangements, a shift that brought emphasis from the individual to the larger act of funerary rituals and modern developments in that field.
The simplicity of these photographs makes for powerful imagery. While some subjects are posed as if they’re awake, others are seen resting peacefully. Whichever the case may be, both formats attempt to soften death, providing survivors with a record for posterity and a long-lasting memory of the deceased.
It’s no secret that the quality of life during the early 19th-century was severely affected by a wide range of diseases, poor sanitation and living conditions, and limited medical expertise; -as a result, the rate of infant mortality was high, life expectancy was low, and death was often drawn out and painful.
Sharp changes took place as the 20th century brought improved standards of medical intervention, sanitation, and shelter. Likewise, photographic technologies advanced exponentially, and photography became a more integrated tool for the documentation of everyday lives. Ultimately, postmortem photography fell out of vogue in the mid-20th century, due in part to the increasing standards of living that came along with modern technology.
The way death is viewed and approached has evolved significantly since the 18th- and 19th-centuries. Creating images of the deceased might seem like an eerie or disturbing taboo to contemporary culture, but postmortem photographs are artifacts that document an unspoken part of our social history, and can be seen as icons or reminders of love and loss.