Post-Mortem Photography

Historically you can find numerous cultural traditions that we might find odd today, such as taxidermy animal hats, professional mourners, and cheese rolling festivals (yes those were a thing!). But one tradition that sticks out as not only odd but a bit unsettling is post-mortem photography. Post-mortem photography was a type of photography that gained popularity in the Victorian era where families would photograph their loved ones after they had passed away.

In images that are both unsettling and strangely poignant, families would often pose with the dead, infants appear asleep, and consumptive young ladies elegantly recline, the disease not only taking their life but increasing their beauty.

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Until the mid-19th century, photography was considered an expensive luxury that not many could afford. As the price of photographic material came down and the number of photographers increased during the 1850s, more people paid to have them or their family photographed, often even on their deathbed. Tragic as it may seem, to low-income families, post-mortem photos were often the only family photographs that they had; as death was their last chance to scrounge together the money to afford the photos. Getting photos taken was regarded as a luxurious family occasion.

Photographers had an important job and a part of the photographer’s tasks was to prepare the body of the deceased and make it look more “lifelike,” or as if it was asleep. The BBC notes that “the long exposures when taking photographs meant that the dead were often seen more sharply than the slightly-blurred living, because of their lack of movement.”

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deceased child with painted on eyes

As technology slowly advanced there were more options for the families to choose from. Sometimes portrait cards were created to be distributed to family and friends; these portrait cards looked even creepier as eyes were painted on to the deceased. Later examples of memento mori photographs show the deceased presented in their coffin, often with a large group of funeral attendees.

Today, post-mortem photography is a nearly exterminated practice and peaked in popularity around the end of the 19th century. Although it is still present in some parts of Eastern Europe. This type of photography is nowadays regularly practiced in police and practice of pathology. The advent of snapshots allowed most families to have photographs taken in life.

 

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This post is apart of our 13 days of Halloween series. Checkout our other spooky posts:

  1. Washington Ghost Stories
  2. Out of Place Artifacts
  3. Henry Rathbone
  4. Charon and the Journey to Hades
  5. Post-Mortem Photography
  6. All Hallows Eve Divination Games
  7. Saved By The Bell and other Idioms
  8. Halloween Coins
  9. Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  10. Coins Connecting You to the Spirit World
  11. Ancient Egyptian Alien Coins
  12. Superstitions Around the World
  13. A Brief History of Halloween

How Do Halftones Work?

If you look closely at old advertisements from vintage magazines, you will notice something interesting: the image is comprised of tiny dots of different colors. The tiny dots trick the eye into seeing varying tones of colors when really there are only limited colors of dots. For instance, cyan dots on top of yellow dots create the illusion of the color green.

This is not pointillism we’re talking about. The dots are much too fine for that. But before widespread use of computers, the artist involved could not possibly have sat down and dotted each and every dot to make the image; that’s simply impossible. So how, exactly, were halftones created?

It all comes down to a photography technique. The invention of photography led to many different printing techniques, but it took artists a while to figure out the most efficient techniques. At first, artists tried copying photos in pen and ink or through woodcutting, but as you can guess, this was a time-heavy project.

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Soon, photographers and artists discovered better methods. In the 1830’s, William Fox Talbot thought up a technique using gauze; he suggested projecting the photo through a screen. Doing so created a pattern of dots that could be photoengraved onto a printing plate. Perfecting the process took trial and error and the breaking of some expensive glass screens, but it was worth it to reach the half toning effect.

Of course, once digital methods took over, the traditional method of half toning was no longer needed. Digital imaging made image processing much, much easier.

Next time you see genuine vintage advertisements, take a closer look at their colors. If they were made with half toning, you will see small dots – sometimes perfectly round, sometimes not – that create the bigger picture through small details.

 

Sources:

Graphic Design

Wikipedia

The First Photography

The 19th century saw the invention of, at the time, an incredibly new and exciting media: photography.

The first surviving photograph was taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce with a camera obscura in 1826 or 1827, titled View from the Window at Le Gras. He had made a heliograph from an engraving of Pope Pius VII in 1822, but when he tried to duplicate it years later it was destroyed, making his later photograph the one that was remembered.

The view from the upstairs window of Niecpes estate -- the first permanent photograph.

The view from the upstairs window of Niécpe’s estate: the first surviving photograph.

 

The camera obscura is a simple device that uses a light projection box to project the image of its surroundings on a screen, which can then be traced or engraved onto material.

The first camera obscura was used to watch a solar eclipse in 1544. Of course, it took a few centuries after that to discover all that the camera obscura could be used for – most notably photography.

The first accessible method of photography came from Niécpe and Louis Daguerre, though Niécpe died before the invention was complete. Called the daguerrotype, this method used a copper plate coated with silver treated with iodine vapor for light sensitivity. Mercury vapor was used for development and salt fixed the image.

The Susse Fréres Daguerrotype camera from 1939.

The Susse Fréres Daguerrotype camera from 1939.

Daguerrotype cameras were large and boxy, but compared to former photography methods, they were quite streamlined (check out our article about the photo cousin of the daguerrotype: the tintype.)

George Eastman’s 1885 invention of film led to much smaller and more accessible cameras: his Kodak film was made to be sent by the customer to be developed at a factory.

And you probably know how successful that turned out to be.

Stay tuned for part II of the history of photography!

The Tintype: Photo Magic of the 19th Century

Tintypes were pretty great inventions.

Today we have our instant photos; we can take a snapshot and immediately see the photo on screen.

In the 19th century this would have seemed like some crazy science fiction written by Jules Verne.

The 19th century equivalent of photo magic was the tintype.

There’s actually no tin in the tintype, despite its name.

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A tintype of a man with a great goatee.

Tintypes could be developed completely in a matter of minutes and then handed to the customer, making photography available to everyone for the first time. These portraits started in formal settings and photographic studios, but later photographers would sell them at fairs or carnivals, or at sidewalk sales. They were most popular between 1860-1870.

Adding an element of danger, the chemical process required to develop a tintype included hazardous chemicals.

To lighten up the tintype as much as possible, the developer had to use the chemical potassium cyanide, a powerful and deadly poison. Thankfully, unless the chemical was ingested, it wouldn’t do any harm.

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A great tintype of an older woman.

The tintype had the ability to capture a much wider variety of subjects and locations than ever before. It even caught moments of the Civil War and the Wild West.

Tintypes come in a variety of packaging. Some came in quality leather cases, others in thin cards with a window cut out for the photo, and carnival photos with festive poses came in colorful cases.

If you find yourself buying a tintype, it’s important to know to NOT clean its surface, which can be very delicate. See here for more tintype cleaning information. This list is also great for finding the rough date your tintype was made. And if you’re itching to get your own, find some great tintypes here.

Do you own any tintypes? Let us know in the comments!