Tag Archives: post-mortem photography

Picturing the dead

International delegate, Siv Jansson, meditates upon the resonances of the striking post-mortem image below, ahead of tomorrow’s discussions of post-mortem portraiture.

I haven’t yet been able to find out the back story to this picture, although I suspect it may be American. For me it is a striking examples of post-mortem photography because the dead girl looks relaxed, rather than stiff, and the pose is natural: the hands look relatively comfortable rather than forcibly linked. If you zoom in the eyes do have a fixed look, but this isn’t obvious from the perspective of the usual size of the photo.  It indicates the ease with death of past generations: there is no repulsion, no recoil from the dead body on show here. The shrouded furniture in the backdrop is far more supernatural than the human beings on display. As with many of these photographs, the corpse is clothed in daywear, rather than a nightdress: this is probably to add to the sense of ‘lifelikeness’, almost ordinariness, of the image, reminding us, perhaps, how familiar death was to nineteenth-century culture. It also speaks to one of the imperatives behind this kind of photography: the image of ‘life’ continuing, even though it is extinguished. Many pictures, of course, actually feature the corpse propped up, or standing, and these do betray an unnaturalness. This photo also indicates the desire to retain the dead girl as a family member, and to fix that in memory through a photograph, rather than memorialise her as explicitly dead, which would have been the effect had she been laid out with her eyes closed.


Conference poster

With an A5 conference poster now available to download, Eoin explores the evocative image at its centre: Julia Margaret Cameron’s ‘Death of Elaine’ (c.1875) © Victoria and Albert Museum.

As an artwork and an image, this haunting photograph might seem incongruous with a conference prompted by the 150th anniversary of Prince Albert’s death. Taken nearly fifteen years after Albert’s death, the photograph seems far removed in time and subject-matter from the culture and society of industrialised Britain in the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet when Claire and I saw the image it seemed curiously appropriate. When divorced from the Arthurian narrative of Elaine’s death, the image shows four people staring at what appears to be a corpse. As in many of Cameron’s photographs, the scene is dramatically foreshortened. Viewers are forced to confront the corpse in front of us, before we look at the gathered figures and think about the narrative they represent. They are cloaked in an array of rich outfits, but the body itself is laid out on an unassuming, undecorated bier. Elaine is dressed in what appears to be a plain white night gown, her hair untended and slightly unkempt. This photograph is as much about our own response to the recumbent figure in front of us, as it is about the literary narrative it represents.

Ultimately, we were struck by the many questions that the photograph provoked, from the processes behind its production, to the costumes, figures, and the narrative they embody. Most important were the questions that surround the recumbent figure, posed as a corpse. Is it an object of sympathy, for the gathered figures and for us as viewers? What would mourners in the Victorian period have thought of this photograph as an image, and how might they have engaged with it as an object? Does the photographic medium have a different power to the painted one? How does this image work within the tradition of actual post-mortem photography? We hope that these will be among the many questions raised by the materials of mourning on 3 December.

To read more about Julia Margaret Cameron and see more of her work, visit the V&A website.

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