Memento Mori - Photography and Loss in the 19th century - p.1

This is the first page of memorial photography and objects in our collection. Additional pages of memorial photographs, mementos, and other photographic items related to mourning follow and are linked at the bottom of this page.
Some Cased Daguerreotype and Ambrotype Post Mortem Photographs in our collection

The 1/4 plate daguerreotype above is of a beautiful infant on a curved back sofa. The coral necklace and object in the hand (a toy?) are tinted pink.

"Blessed be the inventor of photography! I set him above even the inventor of chloroform! It has given more positive pleasure to poor suffering humanity than anything else that has cast up in my time or is like to -- this art by which even the poor can possess themselves of tolerable likenesses of their absent dear ones."
from a letter by Jane Welsh Carlyle, 1860

From our place in the early 21st century it is difficult to imagine what the world was like in the second half of the 19th century. Infant mortality was very high and many children were lost before a photograph could be made. Childbirth took many young women and epidemics of disease could decimate entire families. It was not uncommon for the photographer to be called when a family member was near death or had died. Some photographers advertised a specialty in "Post Mortem Photographs".

We did not set out to collect post mortems but over the years we have found some haunting, compelling images. They are such an important part of photography's impact on the 19th century world that we have collected some. Here we share a selection of these images.

A young woman in a cap and nightdress lies with a quilt and pillows. The suggestion that the subject is only sleeping is found in many post mortem photographs. The daguerreotype, in an early style octagonal mat with no binder, shows blue patches of solarization that are caused by overexposure of the plate.

We called the daguerreotype below the "pre mortem" photograph because the eyes were so strange. We assumed the woman was either very ill or, if deceased, has been photographed with her eyes open.We have sinced learned that sometimes the eyes were painted on closed lids for post mortem photographs. She is propped up on a flower printed pillow and holds a book in her hands. The white area in the lower right of the plate is a milky area that appears to be a coating problem but adds to the strange feeling of the image.

This photograph seems more disturbing and less peaceful than those that appear to be sleeping.

This daguerreotype of a "sleeping" man has an early mat with no binding. He wears a high collar and large white neck tie.
The sunken eyes and gaunt face make the post mortem below haunting. The profile view is unique in our collection.
The haunting cased ambrotype below is unflinching in its acceptance of the the baby's death. No attempt has been made to suggest the infant is only asleep. Inside the tiny coffin the baby is surrounded by flowers that are delicately hand colored pink and green. A 1/6 plate ambrotype below is of a small girl propped up in a chair. This and the patterned curtain behind her suggest that it was made in the home and not a studio. A strange note is the string wrapped around the chair arm on the left side and stretching across the lower portion of the image. Since it did not appear to be holding the child in place we wondered about its purpose. On examination we wonder if the chair might be a rocking chair and the string was used to keep it from moving during exposure.

Memento Mori p.1: Post Mortem Daguerreotypes and Ambrotypes * You are here
Memento Mori p.2: More Post Mortem and Memorial Photographs
Memento Mori p.3: Memorial Objects with Photographs
Memento Mori p.4: Absent Dear Ones

Related interests of the Victorian Era in our collection:
Spirit Photography - The photography of ghosts and spirits
Mesmerism - "Flint the Mesmerist"
Phrenology - The study of human personality from the shape of the head

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**NOTE** All items on the Collection of Collections web site are in our private collection and are NOT for sale. From time to time duplicate items from our collection will be offered for sale in the Do You Remember This? shop on the GoAntiques cyber mall. Visit the Do You Remember This? inventory page for photographica and toaster related collectibles.

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Updated on 4/2012