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LadyMcBain 22 May 2013 05:50 AM

Standing Dead Victorian Photographs

I am new to this forum, so please excuse me if the subject I’m about to describe has been discussed in the past. This is about the “standing dead” Victorian photographs being sold on-line. Collectors have apparently created a name for these—“post-mortem photography.”

I’ve read of pictures of dead infants and photographs of corpses at wakes, but the individuals in these photographs are standing bolt upright with their eyes open. There is a weird set of rules that “establish” if a person in a photograph is dead. These are:

• The photo is retouched, especially around the eyes
• The person is slumped or the pose is unnatural
• The person is standing inside a posing stand, or in front of one
• Retouching only occurs with one person
• A “hidden” mother is holding her child
• A visible mother is holding a slumping child
• The person’s coloring looks “unnatural”
• The person looks bloated
• The person has light blue eyes
• The person appears to be “clamped” or “tied” to something

Here are some examples of “standing dead” Victorians:

I know for a fact that many photographers retouched photographs of living persons during this period. The only legitimate pictures I’ve seen of dead adults show the adults in coffins or propped up on something (usually partially covered with a blanket).

Can anyone provide any evidence of a single, legitimate standing “post mortem” Victorian picture of an adult? Just a reference to the fact that it was taken and how it was done, preferable a newspaper article from the period, is fine.

damian 22 May 2013 10:06 AM

Welcome. :)

I've seen the old West photos of dead outlaws. I've never seen photos of kids posing with dead people. That's just creepy. :eek:

mags 22 May 2013 12:38 PM

I have only looked into this a little myself, but one website done by a collector of old photographs dismisses many of the supposedly post-mortem photos. Apparently it was fairly common to use a brace to keep a standing living person steady during the long exposure time needed. Which only makes sense, when you consider it. Even then, photographs of the living were much more common than of the dead, why would a photographer buy or keep around a big heavy piece of equipment capable of supporting dead adults in a natural standing position? For that (at most) once a year job of photographing a dead adult? The stands I've seen in the pictures don't look likely to be able to support over 100 lbs, either, their bases are like hat racks.

I think it is just a matter of (fraudulently or at least toeing that line) causing supply to meet demand. People are alternately creeped out and fascinated by the idea of photographing the dead (especially in "living" type poses) and it causes demand for these photographs. We know some Victorian post mortem photos exist, which piques people's interest. Some people will claim their photos are of dead people to increase their price, others will because they just really want their pictures to be.

Morrigan 22 May 2013 01:21 PM

There are several books of photographs of PM photographs. Some with the standing adults/children.

A Turtle Named Mack 22 May 2013 02:09 PM

I did some searching on the exposure time. I had long heard that the reason for lack of smiling was the 'very long' exposure time needed - I had been told it was over an hour. Not so. The first commercial process, daguerreotype, required up to fifteen minutes exposure at first but was reduced to about a minute.


Exposure times for the earliest daguerreotypes ranged from three to fifteen minutes, making the process nearly impractical for portraiture. Modifications to the sensitization process coupled with the improvement of photographic lenses soon reduced the exposure time to less than a minute.
In 1850 a much faster and more detailed process known as Ambrotype was patented and soon displaced daguerreotype, and in turn, before the Civil War (1861-65 for our non-US readers), tintype was developed. According to the link below, even modern versions of tintypes require 5-10 seconds exposure in bright daylight. We can expect the exposure time would be substantially more with less-intense fire-based light available for 1800s indoor photography (candles, oil lamps, gas lights, etc). As noted in the link, even the 5-10 seconds is too long for someone to hold a smile perfectly still for an unblurred photograph (unless of course, they have trained as a flight attendant).

Ali Infree 22 May 2013 05:15 PM

My understanding of the reason why people didn't smile was in part cultural. The photo was meant to be a record of that person and that called for a serious expression. It may have been that holding a smile for even a minute was more difficult and expensive for tintype and early materials used. Or that people believed a serious look was required. How many painted portraits show the subject with a big old smile on their face?


erwins 22 May 2013 07:40 PM

The "creepy eyes" thing is often explained by the long exposure times. If a person blinked a couple of times or was looking around, their eyes could look all white, or otherwise odd. And the photographer could also have done an odd or poor job of retouching them.

Horse Chestnut 22 May 2013 11:47 PM

I'm at work so I can't research it, but I swear I have seen the photo of the fireman before in documentaries or books, and it was not labeled as a post-mortem photo.

Little Pink Pill 23 May 2013 12:02 AM


Originally Posted by Ali Infree (Post 1738417)
How many painted portraits show the subject with a big old smile on their face?

Don't forget poor about poor dental hygiene. People with crooked, decayed, or missing teeth probably didn't want that image preserved for posterity.

Blatherskite 23 May 2013 11:10 PM

Here is what seems to be a legitimate post-mortem funeral photograph (don't worry, it's tacky but it's not gory), however it's from the 1940s rather than the 19th Century and the dead guy is seated rather than standing. I say it's legitimate because the subject definitely seems to be presented for a funeral and because he looks pretty, well, dead.

I suspect that of your links, only the photo of the little girl and little boy actually depicts a corpse (the boy, obviously). In the ebay links, it's likely the sellers thought they would get more interest and money by appealing to morbid curiosity.


Originally Posted by Little Pink Pill (Post 1738485)
Don't forget poor about poor dental hygiene. People with crooked, decayed, or missing teeth probably didn't want that image preserved for posterity.

You can smile without showing any teeth, though.

Here's a gallery of smiling Victorians if anybody's as interested as I am (scroll down to see all of them). My favourite is the little boy in the top hat!

Richard W 23 May 2013 11:40 PM


Originally Posted by Blatherskite (Post 1738733)
Here's a gallery of smiling Victorians if anybody's as interested as I am (scroll down to see all of them). My favourite is the little boy in the top hat!

OMG - some of them are dead and smiling! Look at the women on the beach - they're lying down and they have their eyes shut and everything! In the strip of four "photo booth" style pictures at the bottom, the woman is alive for the first two, then she dies abruptly and the man poses her differently in each of the last two, to make it appear that she's still alive!

I agree, though - there seems very little reason to think that any of the people in the original links are dead. Did the photos have an original caption claiming that the person in them was dead? If so, then perhaps - but if it's based on the extremely tenuous notion that the pose is a bit awkward or the eyes look funny, then no.

In the "ken_ashford" link, in the last picture, claimed to be "particularly disturbing", I couldn't even work out which of the three people was meant to be dead. All of them? Then I realised the clue was that the writer claimed that the pupils had been painted on the closed eyelids (what? Victorians weren't stupid or incapable of seeing things - as an idea for making somebody look like their eyes were open, that would have made no more sense then than it does now) and the girl's pupils appear to have been retouched on the plate itself, not by painting them on her closed eyelids. Seriously, do these people have any evidence for their claims? Some of them even put "post mortem?" with a question mark - obviously just to make them more interesting. I've never read of this practice elsewhere, although I've heard of it on-line a few times.

marrya 24 May 2013 12:17 AM

Actually, that would be the easier way to make the photos look real, Richard! [painting onto the eyelids rather than onto the plates after the photos were taken]

Which makes [in my mind, anyway, and that's all that matters] it even less plausible that the painted on eyes is a pointer to post-mortem photos. Why do things the more difficult way?!

Little Pink Pill 24 May 2013 02:52 AM


Originally Posted by Blatherskite (Post 1738733)
Here's a gallery of smiling Victorians if anybody's as interested as I am (scroll down to see all of them). My favourite is the little boy in the top hat!

I loved those, thanks for that link. It's good to see life wasn't always as severe as their portraits.

Jim18655 29 May 2013 12:40 AM

My wife had a picture of a dead Uncle. He was in a casket leaning up in the corner of a room. He died in 1917 at an army camp in Texas from the flue. I think the picture was taken before the body was shipped home.

Jefuemon 22 June 2013 01:16 AM

This book has a section on postmortem photography.

They kind of do a similar thing in Japan, where all of the immediate family gather around the coffin for a group photo.

ganzfeld 22 June 2013 02:19 AM

I've never heard or seen that. Are you sure it wasn't just a particular family?

overyonder 24 June 2013 01:46 PM

I think that there's something generally viewed as taboo to take pictures of a dead person.

My uncle passed away last year, while my mom was in the hospital after having had surgery for cancer. We all gathered at my uncle's bedside for a final prayer (post-mortem). I asked my aunts (mom's sisters) if I should take a picture for mom, since she was bed-ridden at the time. They all agreed NOT to take a picture. I certainly didn't see anything wrong with it myself, seeing that mom couldn't have been there and she still would have have the choice to see the picture or not later on.


Hero_Mike 24 June 2013 04:08 PM

I was always surprised at how my mother's relatives would send her photos from funerals back in the 70's and early 80's, from behind the Iron Curtain. Then again, there were photos taken at my grandfather's funeral back in 1980 - I don't know who took them (because everyone from the family is in the photos) but the whole collection seemed to in our photo album, and the photos weren't "posed" but taken from a respectful distance, showing the pallbearers carrying the casket out of the church and at the cemetery.

Back in the mid 80's, my great aunt passed away and her grieving sister insisted that we take pictures of all the flowers at the funeral home. The casket lid was closed for that - but she wanted the photos because she was deeply touched by the number and quality of flowers sent by her friends and acquaintances, and wanted some remembrance of that.

Jefuemon 29 June 2013 03:05 AM


Originally Posted by ganzfeld (Post 1746540)
I've never heard or seen that. Are you sure it wasn't just a particular family?

Been to 2 funerals on my wife's side of the family, and they've taken a group photo. One was a father's side relative, the other was a mother's side.

You don't actually see inside the coffin. Everyone just stands, with the coffin in the center. Kind of like the group wedding photo, but naturally no one is smiling.

ganzfeld 29 June 2013 07:29 AM


Originally Posted by Jefuemon (Post 1748681)
You don't actually see inside the coffin.

Ah, I guess I thought by "similar" you meant similar. ;)

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