Photography might today be a thing so essential a part of our living that we go on capturing a considerable chunk indeed of our daily lives, even when there is not always a definite enough reason or a defining enough moment that absolutely commands the picture into the frame. Our current residing in the photographic technology might be availed out of the beauty that life holds in each of its moments but even then, the living and breathing humans of the 21st century still have not quite courted so much the idea in mortality to deem it as necessary a premise in snapping.
Travel back through the times however and even just a century earlier or some couple of it ago- that is to say when photography was only just beginning even, there prevailed a certain fetish that homo sapiens of that era had with the dead. So much so that there ruled large an eerie almost practice in postmortem photography that wasn’t exclusively or even considerably governed by reasonings of the medical and/ or legal kind.
The identity of this form of photography in commoner terms of say death or corpse photography stands truer to what it actually had been back then. Because while the postmortem reference might come across like a created necessity, photographing the dead made then for a cultural practice indeed not exclusive to a certain population of the human. Particularly in the countries of Europe and America, this tradition in photographing the recently deceased had so much to account for- in mourning and remembrance, as memory and keepsake and of course also catering more practical matters of life in establishing the ‘authenticity’ of a death.
That corpse photography had been a thing and widely prevalent at that as well does not however occur as so much of a surprise given the practice of painting mourning portraits that already was well established by that time. Commissioning however a painter to do the task at hand and often at short notice and in immediacy as well meant that portraits of the dead would make for pricey treasures that only the wealthy could afford. The invention of photography did not do much to change that notion of being an expensive indulgence at least for the first few years of it. But with the advancement that set in real quick and in real time in this maverick indeed field of art, postmortem photography came to be more real- and realistic as well a possibility in picturing.
And yet, even with the first ever daguerreotypes producing really expensive photos, photographs still came to be captured of the dead- achieving therefore something in death that the actual essence of a life being futile could never dawn upon them. Contrast that to the very affordable ambrotypes and tintypes that followed and the phenomenon in corpse photography would go on to become a craze that stood true still to the traditions and customs of the sombre kind.
This cultural practice in preserving the memories of the dead by capturing them in their last moments in the world was a very widely spread encounter. But while much of the world from the Americas to some specific countries in Asia, particularly India explored this possibility in final preservation not of the body but of its image at least, it would be an England of the Victorian times most notable in its more than definitive dwelling in this prospect of mourning as a whole.
So vital was photographing the dead to the entire process in bidding the deceased farewell from earth that the ‘style’ of photography transitioned as well from capturing lifeless images indeed of the body to framing them also in such poses that the dead body was made to emulate in all livingness. Sitting therefore upon chairs would be the once adult, now dead human often also holding a book even as lifeless infants would be held in the laps of their mothers or would be otherwise depicted holding equally lifeless toys themselves, portraying therefore a mood permeating the times of perhaps seeking to eke the maximum possible out of the prospect in once living of the now remaining body ceasing to bear anymore the soul of life.
Essential elements therefore of the entire mourning ritual that unsurprisingly took place in much elaborateness much like any other experience of the Victorian times would, these postmortem photographs would be often displayed upon mantlepieces at homes or sent to friends and relatives as mementos or even worn as lockets or kept as pocket mirrors. It is this latter application of these photographed memories of the dead that perhaps brought upon them the discrete identity of being ‘mirrors with memories’ even when they indeed would be just that even without any allusion to this particularly intriguing aspect of use.
To believe however that it was just the resultant output of the photographs that held significance in them being depictions of emotions entailed out of the grieving process upon losing a loved one would be but overlooking of the essence of the art through which corpse photographs followed as something physical enough to be held onto for eternity. In all their uniquely important task in being entrusted with creating memories that would be all one would have to mourn over and cherish and commemorate and remember in fond memory of the painful loss of a dear one, post mortem photographers bore upon their selves a responsibility critical enough in their handling of it. So much so that post mortem photographers of Victorian England lived by the slogan of “Secure the shadow, ere the substance fades” that at once portrayed the multiple essences of life being fleeting and photography being the wonder in helping capture at least semblances of it, establishing therefore the artistic superiority of the medium as one almost as fascinating as life itself.
This resting in immense esteem also however meant that postmortem photography was by no means an easy art to master, in fact emerging as trickier since evoking ‘response’ out of a no longer living being way outweighs the challenges of eliciting the perfect pose out of a living one, no matter how difficult. Apart from the comparatively easier technical manipulations in terms of editing to deal with the irony in making the dead person look more alive for instance, the very process of photographing had to deal with such challenges in manipulation of the props most essentially to arrive at such depictions realistic enough to be worthy of being the ultimate memory that one would have of their grieving mate.
Why this urge to capture the non existent essence of the dead was so ingrained in the Victorian times or even in many a cultures around the world at different periods of time in history is of course no difficult matter to understand. As being a part of the greater mourning process, photographs developed thus perhaps presented as a solace in the knowledge of retaining at least the dead person’s once living essence in sync with the universal human tendency to hold on to memories and have beens and weres as preciouses through which our own lives experience fulfilment.
But perhaps along with that more futuristic tendency in keeping forever with them such instances that they hold dear, humans also sought out corpse photographs as a means to deal with the grief that accompanies unavoidably the harsh but ultimate reality of death. Like any ritual known to be experiences in helping to deal with the many profound truths necessarily characterising the extensive domain of life, post mortem photography too, of the earlier days, would be also an attempt at lessening considerably the burden of what grief manifests as in perhaps presenting an alternate channel of attention to dwell upon. There is a certain calm in the feel of holding that preciousness near, even if in the form of mere imprints upon (photographic) paper as in other similar cases of holding on to physical possessions, which is what makes these final attempts at salvaging lost lives so very effective a something to have commanded commonplace popularity.
And yet, the divulgences in such intimacy that photographing the dead made allowance for could not do much to not let it enjoy that popularity for eternity. As shifts occurred in the very mood of postmortem photography, moving from focussing on the body of the dead to zoom in instead into the funeral or burial necessities of them, this essence in holding onto memories was lost or at least replaced by an obligatory requirement instead. Whether it be the more absolute depiction of death in photographing not the dead as such as much as the settings that evoked the idea of mortality- coffins, cemeteries et al or the shallow idea in showcasing exclusively the weeping folks in appropriate ‘mourning language’ as well of their living bodies, photographing the dead wandered about further and further away from the subject of its definition.
Another significant development that made postmortem photography lose much of its earlier ground was the increasingly private affair that it was turning to be. Not many specimens exist of such images captured after the early decades of the 20th century mainly because they would not be as commonly documented as they had once been in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The premise though was also governed by the measure to which this form of photography had acquired a dimension not so much reflecting of the original basis out of which it emerged.
In a more modern day world, corpse photography came to be a means in establishing the case of death so as to facilitate the increasingly complex functionings of a modern society not allowing of even the ultimate truth of life to retain its sanctity. As valid proof of death that would render it convenient to have access to that all important document of the death certificate through which the ‘benefits’ can be entailed out of a corresponding ‘loss’ of the deceased, death photography today no longer commands the sacrosanctity of what death was once understood as nor does it demand such resources in terms of professional photographers or the equipment thereof to render such artistic visages of what culminates the art of life.
And thus has unfurled another even distinctive assertion of what the once emotional domain of post mortem photography stands for. Limited now by ambits of the external requirement in such cases of what occur as subjects of concern for the police and in pathology is the post mortem concept for which photography has traded its emancipatory almost essence in emotional artistry to emerge as more practical a science driven by the physical reality of it all.