Victorian Post-Mortem Photography
Of all the shocking images available online, one of the strangest and most unsettling phenomena dates back to Victorian times. In the 19th century, post-mortem photography thrived when families who could not afford a painted portrait of a lost loved one could opt for a quicker and less expensive option. The images helped families immortalize the dearly departed in a number of ways.
The poses of the deceased depend on the subject’s age and the family’s personal preference. For instance, younger children were often portrayed in a deep sleep in a crib or on a couch while adults were propped up as if alive with their eyes open or sometimes captured inside their coffins.
Ghosts of the Past - Decayed Daguerreotypes from the Matthew Brady Studio, 1844-1860
Daguerreotype portraits were made by the model posing (often with head fixed in place with a clamp to keep it still the few minutes required) before an exposed light-sensitive silvered copper plate, which was then developed by mercury fumes and fixed with salts. This fixing however was far from permanent – like the people they captured the images too were subject to change and decay. They were extremely sensitive to scratches, dust, hair, etc, and particularly the rubbing of the glass cover if the glue holding it in place deteriorated. As well as rubbing, the glass itself can also deteriorate and bubbles of solvent explode upon the image.
The daguerreotypes above are from the studio of Matthew Brady, one of the most celebrated 19th century American photographers, best known for his portraits of celebrities and his documentation of the American Civil War which earned him the title of “father of photojournalism”. The Library of Congress received the majority of the Brady daguerreotypes as a gift from the Army War College in 1920.