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Old 22 May 2013, 06:50 AM
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Default 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.
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Old 22 May 2013, 11:06 AM
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damian damian is offline
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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.
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Old 22 May 2013, 01:38 PM
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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.
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Old 22 May 2013, 02:21 PM
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Morrigan Morrigan is offline
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There are several books of photographs of PM photographs. Some with the standing adults/children.
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Old 22 May 2013, 03:09 PM
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A Turtle Named Mack A Turtle Named Mack is offline
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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).
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Old 22 May 2013, 06:15 PM
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Ali Infree Ali Infree is offline
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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?

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Old 29 May 2013, 01:40 AM
Jim18655 Jim18655 is offline
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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.
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Old 22 June 2013, 02:16 AM
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Jefuemon Jefuemon is offline
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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.
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Old 22 June 2013, 03:19 AM
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ganzfeld ganzfeld is offline
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I've never heard or seen that. Are you sure it wasn't just a particular family?
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Old 24 June 2013, 02:46 PM
overyonder overyonder is offline
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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.

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Old 24 June 2013, 05:08 PM
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Hero_Mike Hero_Mike is offline
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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.
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Old 29 June 2013, 04:05 AM
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Jefuemon Jefuemon is offline
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Originally Posted by ganzfeld View Post
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.
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Old 29 June 2013, 08:29 AM
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ganzfeld ganzfeld is offline
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Originally Posted by Jefuemon View Post
You don't actually see inside the coffin.
Ah, I guess I thought by "similar" you meant similar.
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