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

Colorizing Postcards

Photo postcards used to only be in black and white. While black and white is all well and good, postcard publishers quickly wanted to add a little color to their offerings.

Did you know that some companies specialized in colorizing postcards? Before cards were actually printed in color, greeting cards and postcards were sent off even to different countries to brighten the cards with exotic colors. This started with holidays like Christmas and Easter, but soon grew into a year-round practice.

The first colorizing started in Leith, Germany with a business called Lundy. Lundy started printing business messages in color.

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The first color postcards emerged starting in 1893, more than 20 years after the first postcard was published. Soon the color caught on, and everybody wanted color in their postcards! That set the ball rolling for a lucrative color postcard business, making postcards more in-demand than ever before.

Often, publishers sent photographs to India or Italy to be colored. Their exciting colors stood out to consumers. The brighter the colors, the better.

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

Photos from the Attic: Three Generations

A while ago, we posted an introduction to our old black and white photos lying unused. Many of these photos are conventional portraits, but among the piles, rare photographic gems stand out.

What are the stories behind these photos? Who is shown in the picture, why was it taken, who took the picture? No one can really know for sure, but each single shot offers thousands of possibilities.

What about these three photos of women from different generations? Each has a clear and distinct personality (and one could be a unique Coca-Cola advertisement).

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The little girl in this photo clearly has the center stage – and she wouldn’t have it any other way. The perspective is such that she looks taller than she actually is, like she’s owning the sidewalk she stands on. She’s just a little girl – but her attitude says she’s so much more.

A few guesses of what the older lady thinks as she walks by this fabulous young girl. Though the older lady is wearing a nice suit, pearls and a fur stole, she’s got nothing on the girl taking center stage.

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No clues as to why this girl is holding a lion cub – though Coca-Cola seems to be sponsoring the event. The lens’s focus centers on the now old-fashioned “Ice Cold” Coke sign, though the girl with the lion stands front and center in the foreground. Did the photographer intend to focus instead on the girl in the front? What an inconvenience that slipping fingers on a slippery lens had to change the image permanently.

She does look a little nervous to be holding a lion. She’s probably wondering how this happened to her. Does the cub belong to her, or is it a side show attraction? What do you think?

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The last of these photos has the simplest but most beautiful subject. An old woman sits on a quaint wooden porch. She wears a floral-print blouse and a homemade apron. Her hands rest in her lap; she stares off into the distance in a pensive pose. What is she thinking about? Maybe she’s in the middle of telling a story, taking a pause to collect her thoughts. Or is she watching someone or something from her perch on the porch, like neighborhood kids playing?

All these photos have hidden histories. What do you think the people in these pictures are thinking?

The Radioactive Rock Metatorbernite

Don’t worry, it’s not going to hurt you – at least, not if you don’t handle it for too long. And you wash your hands afterward.

Many radioactive minerals exist in the world, some more radioactive than others. This particular type – metatorbernite – contains uranium and should be handled with care. But even small barriers between yourself and the rock can effectively block the radiation, like a glass case or gloves.

We’ve written about radioactive materials before; radioactive glass pieces from the early 20th century glow in the dark because of their uranium content. They’re not terribly dangerous, however.

Photo by Rob Lavinsky, CC by SA 3.0 - radioactive mineral metatorbernite

Photo by Rob Lavinsky, CC by SA 3.0.

Metatorbernite is a more organic radioactive material. It comes in colors ranging from specks of green on grey to almost black to a bright, almost fluorescent shade of green. You can often tell what materials are radioactive by their appearance. They’re often a neon yellow or green, or a dull opaque texture with rounded crystal edges.

The beauty of this mineral makes it a wonderful addition to a collection or even as a display on its own.

As with any radioactive material, exposure should be limited. Their forms of radiation include gamma rays, which can be harmful. Keep the mineral away from other minerals so they don’t come in contact, and limit holding the mineral in your bare hands. If you do hold the mineral, make sure to wash your hands afterward.

Do you own any metatorbernite? Would you feel comfortable with a radioactive rock in your home?

Traveling with Art: Mount Shuksan, Washington State

 

On the west side of Washington State, Mount Shuksan has become a beloved mountain of the Pacific Northwest. It’s one of the most visited and photographed in the world; the artist Banksy even used it in a piece in Palestine.

 

This particular piece that you see above is by the artist Laurie Wells, titled “Autumn at Mt. Shuksan.” Its name “Shuksan” comes from a Lummi word meaning “high peak”. It’s a non-volcanic peak and makes for a stunning, almost intimidating view. The huge mountain has made many best-of lists, including “Washington’s Highest Peaks” and “Great Peaks of North America”.

 

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A view of the mountain from Baker Lake. By Lhb1239 on Wikimedia, CC 3.0

“Mt. Shuksan epitomizes the jagged alpine peak like no other massif in the North Cascades…Shuksan is one of the finest mountaineering objectives in the North Cascades and its reputation is certainly deserved” – Fred Becky, Cascade Alpine Guide : Rainy Pass to Fraser River

 

It’s common to see photographs with the mountain’s reflection in Highwood Lake near the Mount Baker Ski Area.

 

The mountain also has its own waterfalls: Sulphide Creek Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in North America, along with four other tall waterfalls.

 

It’s a paradise for hikers, to be sure — not to mention clearly popular among the artistic crowd! This Pacific Northwest monument is sure to impress.

 

Have you ever visited Mt. Shuksan? What did you think?

 

 

Early 1900’s Shipwreck Postcards

These real photo postcards from the 1900’s and 1910’s show remarkable shots of shipwrecks in Alaska and Washington. Each card has a story behind it.

The above photo shows the shipwreck of the Princess May in 1910. It ran aground near Sentinel Island during high tide, and the ship’s momentum brought it up onto the rocks. This led to the famous photograph as illustrated above. The captain had to improvise an electrical connection with the engine room’s telegraph battery to send out a distress call, all while the engine room was being flooded. Since the island was so close, the passengers and crew safely evacuated to land. If you’re interested in the postcard, you can buy it here.

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The Guard wreck postcard, for sale here.

Another impressive wreck ending on top of some rocks: the Revenue Cutter Guard hit a rock in a channel between Woody and Lopez Islands in Washington state. Again thanks to the help of a high tide, the ship found itself on the rocks, leaning to one side. The channel is reportedly one of the narrowest and most dangerous near the islands.

The Jabez Howes wreck

The Jabez Howes was a salmon cannery ship. An April 1911 heavy gale tossed the boat onshore. The crew got off safely, but the ship itself was beyond hope and sank into deep water. However, the Star of Alaska, which was also blown onshore from the same storm, was able to be repaired.

Here are some other, similarly remarkable shipwreck postcards:

Wreck of the Delhi, Sumner Island, Alaska

Wreck of the Delhi, Sumner Island, Alaska

Another view of the wreck of the Delhi.

Another view of the wreck of the Delhi.

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The wreck of the Life Saving Launch “Audacious” near Port Townsend, Washington.

Which postcard is your favorite?

Remembering the Dead: All About Mourning Jewelry

Who knew jewelry could be so macabre?

Once upon a time before photography, people needed a way to remember their deceased family members. So they used what might seem a little odd today: jewelry in which to keep pieces of the dead loved one’s hair.

The practice started as late as the 16th century and lasted through the Victorian Era. Queen Victoria, ever the trendsetter, popularized mourning jewelry after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Black jewelry in general became especially popular at the time.

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This antique mourning locket still has a lock of hair inside.

Mourning rings were the most popular type, but you can also find hair in lockets and other types of jewelry.

Jewelers got creative with hair: locks were not only kept in lockets, but also braided with a cord or ground and mixed with paint to paint a small, detailed picture. No matter the type, each piece of jewelry was inscribed with the name and date of death of the deceased. Some also had morbid epitaphs like “we must submit” and “we’re his last”.

Black enamel was the most common material in mourning jewelry. But other materials also had their own significance: for instance, white enamel meant a girl had died before she was married, and pearls meant the death of a child. Victorians had extra-strict rules for mourning periods, and their jewelry would match each period based on the appropriate color.

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A mourning brooch.

When photography became more widely available in the Victorian Era, people started the infinitely creepier practice of post mortem photography. People put their dead loved ones in poses as if they were alive and had photos taken with them to remember them by. You can easily find these by searching online.

Most mourning jewelry you’ll find out there is beautiful, so keep an eye out and you may just be surprised by what you can find.

Sources:

Historic New England

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On (re)Purpose

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!