"Rather a Grave Subject..." The Critical Role of the 19th Century Postmortem Photograph

MAVCS Thesis

Thesis Advisor: Shawn Michelle Smith

Photographing the dead is rooted in photographic history, although often left out of traditional academic scholarship. In this thesis, I open my discussion of nineteenth century postmortem photography by relating the practice to the inception of the daguerreotype. As I move through a cultural history of the postmortem photograph in the nineteenth century, I construct an understanding of this phenomenon through an interdisciplinary approach that attends to a variety of social histories, political involvements, cultural changes, and medical advancements. Because the postmortem photograph became widespread and commonplace, it is imperative to consider the many aspects of that era that were conducive to this particular practice.

Although the mere notion of photographing the dead in the contemporary moment seems to be startling on many levels, it was anything but at its height in the mid to late nineteenth century. Dealing with death on an intimate, domestic level was unavoidable in the 19th century given the high infant mortality rate in addition to the prevalence of infectious disease, and widespread loss in the Civil War. The postmortem photograph represents a pragmatic and realistic dealing with death and its many obligations.

The ideas and the very language of Roland Barthes have provided highly valuable resources while negotiating the many social histories of photography. Camera Lucida is a seminal book for my work because Barthes explores how a viewer can have a close relationship with a photograph. Throughout this text, Barthes also illuminates the omnipresence of death in the photograph and how our relationship to the photograph itself speaks to our desire to both remember and forget. Barthes offers his reader three ways in which the individual can interact with the photograph: by actively photographing, by being a subject in the photograph, and by viewing the photograph. It is with this approach, and from all three points of view, that I explore the complex role of the postmortem photograph.

Lastly, I analyze my role in the archive at the Museum of Mourning Photography in Oak Park, Illinois. A large part of my research has been influenced by my sustained and intimate contact with actual postmortem photographs. In this way, I have been granted a specific relationship with the photo-object that has been essential to how I write the postmortem photograph. It is with this critical interaction that I hope to offer the postmortem photograph not merely as the expression of some morbid, cultural fascination with death but with the dedication, sentiment, and optimism with which it was created.