Friday, August 8, 2014

Living or Dead, Preserved Images

I stumbled across some post-mortem, or momento mori, photographs online from the mid to late 1800s.  These were photographs made after the person had died, or when they were deathly ill, in order to have a preserved image of the person- perhaps the only photograph ever taken of the person.

So naturally I went through my photo collection with a new goal:  finding post-mortem photos.  At first, I thought that any of the pictures could have been of dead people because nobody smiled for pictures in the 1800s.  Most of the facial expressions are depressed at best.

In the Bishop album, I found a tintype of two boys that might be a post-mortem.  The bases of stands are visible behind both boys.  These stands held up dead people for the picture.  The boy on the right is not posing his hands.  His expression is vacant.  The hat is straight, but his head is crooked, as if he was propped up and then someone stuck the hat on his head.  Is the boy on the left also dead?  Maybe he alive and holding up the other boy, or he is dead and his hands are fastened.

Notice the bases of the stands behind the boys.

I have no idea who these people are.  What would be useful would be finding out who these boys are and when they died.  That information could tell us if this is indeed a post-mortem picture.

Anyone have any opinions?


  1. Jody,

    I'm reasonably certain that both of these boys were alive at the time of the photo. Upon further reading of the link that you provided regarding stands, these stands were not sturdy enough to hold up a dead person. Stands were used primarily to gently help pose the subject(s) of the photo.

    Another point here is that the subject of the photo had to hold their pose a long time due to the very long exposure times necessary for early photography. Sometimes the eyes of the subject had to be touched up after development as they were blurred because they couldn't keep still long enough. It's certain that these young men had a hard time sitting still long enough for the picture and they were likely quite bored as well, which explains the lack of expression on their faces.

    I do find the subject of momento mori to be quite fascinating and thank you for your interesting post!

    Mae West

  2. Thank you for weighing in, Mae. Yes, these stands were useful for subjects who could not stay still- the opposite of being dead. It is interesting to comb through old pictures looking for dead subjects.