The phenomenon of post-mortem portraiture has a particular place within photographic history. Capturing an image of a dead loved one became quite popular after the advent of photography and continued to flourish as a cultural norm until the mid 1930s. The ways in which this particular kind of photograph captured a moment of both mourning and memorial extends beyond the mere instant of the shutter closing; the particularities of certain photographic practices speak to the desperation and duration of grief. Although the practice of photographing the body after death became a largely accepted and practiced occurrence, certain eccentricities emerged. Many photographs concentrated on a likeness of the deceased individual by posing the body as if in an eternal sleep, creating a photograph documenting the last rest. Beyond this, however, some photographs strayed from that pose. A small body of photographs also document the deceased imitating moments from life: the painting of eyelids to mimic oneʼs awake state or the posing of a child still in mid-play with a cherished toy. Noting this, I will explore how the post mortem photograph depicts the body not merely as dead but in limbo between life and death, creating a visually ambiguous representation of mortality. The complexities of photographing the gray area between life and death informs the history of photography and its relationship to mourning and memorial.
This piece was originally written for the 23rd Annual 2011 Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA), held in Philadephia, PA. It was presented on the Death panel. If you are interested in reading the rest of the piece, please contact me.