C19th Mortuary Photography – The Illusion of Sleep.

Postmortem Photograph of a Child

Postmortem photograph of unidentified child. Harrison, Lock Heaven, Pa., ca. 1890-1910. Tinted gelatin silver print on cardboard mount, carte de visite. Courtesy, Center for Visual Communication, Mifflintown, Pa.

The enduring tradition of painted mortuary portraits precedes Nineteenth century mortuary photography. Jay Ruby writes, “The association of death and sleep is as old as Western culture itself. In classical Greece, the sons of the night were Hypnos, god of sleep, and his twin, Thanatos, god of death.” (1)

The denial of death was a pictorial convention that prevailed during the Nineteenth century. “People did not die. They went to sleep.” (2) The “last sleep” was a popular theme in mortuary photography because it beautified death by creating the illusion of sleep. With the high infant mortality rates during this time, mourning was a normal part of life. Memorialising the deceased was common and mortuary photographs were often displayed in the home.

A photograph retained the memory of the deceased and was also a lasting reminder that we have no power over death, a memento mori. The young boy (pictured above) is dressed in his Sunday best and it was probably the first and last time he was photographed. The photographer has adhered to the prevailing ideology of the day, and the boy appears to be sleeping. The photograph is a carte de visite, a small photograph that was relatively inexpensive to produce. The carte de visite was hugely popular and people would collect, trade or send them to loved ones. I cannot help asking whether his mother still carried him, even after his death, in her pocket.


1. J Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, Twelvetrees Press, 1990, p. 63.

2. ibid.


J Ruby, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, Twelvetrees Press, 1990, p. 66.

Eadweard Muybridge – Inventor, Photographer, Traveller, Murderer..

The Magic Image describes Eadweard Muybridge as an, “Inventor, traveller, photographer, murderer…” he shot and killed his wife’s lover. (1)


Jean Louis Théodore Géricault, The Epsom Derby, 1821, Oil on canvas, 92cm X 122cm

A former governor of California, Leland Stanford, commissioned Muybridge to settle the dispute over whether a trotting horse, ever had all four of its feet off the ground. The artist at the time believed it was an impossible task. (2) With the support of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Muybridge produced over 100,000 images of humans and animals in motion. Muybridge arranged twelve cameras beside the track, “Strings attached to electric switches were stretched across the track; the horse, rushing past, breasted the strings and broke them, one after the other; the shutters were released by an electromagnetic control, and a series of negatives made.” (3)


Eadweard Muybridge, First published in Animal Locomotion in 1887. Collotype.


Horse galloping animated.


Eadweard Muybridge, Plate 766, First published in Animal Locomotion in 1887. Collotype.

The results were astounding and proved that a galloping horse did at some point have all four feet off the ground. But not in the way that Jean Louis Théodore Géricault’s, The Epsom Derby had depicted. Muybridge had captured what the eye alone could not distinguish. The compilations of his studies greatly influenced artists and the advancement of industrial and scientific photography.

His inventiveness “nearly led to the invention, not just of the ‘movies’, but of the ‘talking picture’ itself. (4) The pictures in strips could be viewed in a zoetrope, which twirled the images, merging them so quickly that it produced the illusion of motion. In 1880 he projected his pictures onto a screen at the California School of Fine Arts, using a device he invented called a zoogyroscope. 


Zoetrope advertisement.


1. C Beaton, G Buckland, The Magic Image, Little, Brown & Company, 1975, p. 76.

2. B Newhall, The History of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1982, p. 119.

3. ibid.

4. A Scharf, Pioneers of Photography, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1975, p. 141.


Vultures flying http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Animal_locomotion._Plate_766_(Boston_Public_Library).jpg

Jean Louis Théodore Géricault file:///Users/skontos/Desktop/File:Théodore%20Géricault%20-%20The%20Epsom%20Derby%20-%20WGA08637.jpg%20-%20Wikipedia,%20the%20free%20encyclopedia.webarchive

Horse jumping http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Muybridge_horse_jumping_1.jpg

Horse galloping animated http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Muybridge_horse_gallop_animated.gif

Zoetrope advertisement http://www.thebigcamera.com.au/Zoetrope.html



Fredrick Holland Day – Seven Words in Seven Days in Seven Photographs.

Fredrick Holland Day

Fredrick Holland Day, The Seven Words, 1898Platinum print, each image 13.3 X 10.8 cm.

Born in Massachusetts, Fredrick Holland Day, was considered an eccentric of wealthy means. He was the first to recognize the work of John Keats. Before he died in 1933, Day donated his immense “collection of Keat’s letters, manuscripts and first editions that [was] the finest harvest of Keatsiana in existence,” to the poet’s museum in Hampstead. (1)

Day recognized the efforts of Alfred Stieglitz and the Photo-Secession group in its fight for photography to be recognized as an art form. In order to prove that photography could compete with painting, Day decided to portray the last seven days of Christ’s life.

Fredrick Holland Day  Fredrick Holland Day

Every detail was taken into consideration. Clothing and sandals were meticulously made. Day starved himself for a year and let his hair and beard grow so that he could pose as Christ. He photographed for three months during the summer and made hundreds of platinum negatives.

“When the results- printed on terracotta-coloured paper… were secretly shown to a few privileged friends, the response was enthusiastic. Steichen even wrote: ‘Few paintings contain as much that is spiritual and sacred in them.'” (2)  Day was also concerned with the presentation of the work and designed the frame for The Seven Words. (3)

Bernini  teresa ecstasy bernini saint st theresa  Bernini

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, 1647–1652, Marble, 150 cm.

The images are haunting. This was partially achieved by the uncorrected lens Day used which was made by the Boston firm, Pinkham and Smith. It “produced a sharp image with a halo around the highlights.” (4)  Day’s expression is reminiscent of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa, (1647-52). It is a dichotomous awe-inspiring agony and painful ecstasy. Scholars now see the work as a coupling of religious subject matter with an eroticism of the male body. This sexualization of the body of Christ is also imbued with homoerotic themes.

In 1904 a fire destroyed Day’s great collection of negatives and prints. After the fire Day ceased making photographs. In 1917, he retreated to his bed, remaining there until his death some sixteen years later.


1. C Beaton, G Buckland, The Magic Image, Little, Brown & Company, 1975, p. 97.

2. ibid., p. 96.

3. R Marshall, Robert Mapplethorpe, Secker & Warburg, London, 1988, p. 12.

4. Beaton, Buckland, op.cit., p. 93.


Fredrick Holland Day http://www.artnet.com/galleries/artwork_detail.asp?gid=423818140&cid=237234&aid=673995&wid=426148344&source=exhibitions

detail http://www.geh.org/taschen/htmlsrc6/m197300270004_ful.html

detail http://www.geh.org/taschen/m197300270003.jpg

Gian Lorenzo Bernini http://www.google.com.au/imgres?imgurl=http://www.students.sbc.edu/oneal08/Images/Close%2520on%2520angel%2520and%2520her.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.students.sbc.edu/oneal08/St.%2520Theresa%2520in%2520Ecstasy.html&h=815&w=565&sz=87&tbnid=q0-4ytZaaf-tIM:&tbnh=105&tbnw=73&zoom=1&usg=__J0FVAPtAPP8ecQ9BX4mq7zMyJTQ=&docid=0RHHX-YHyE45BM&sa=X&ei=ICcUUYe9EYSaiAePioGgCw&ved=0CDUQ9QEwAQ&dur=420

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (detail) http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_36fIdp8zWiQ/S44VPLXY3YI/AAAAAAAABGs/QPuKlzyb8SM/s800/teresa+ecstasy+bernini+saint+st+theresa.jpg

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (detail) http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-kMMfBHH4Sho/TbnXjsIk7VI/AAAAAAAAESE/gBzMt7ee7_8/s1600/bernini-ecstasy-of-st-teresa-s.jpg

William Henry Fox Talbot – Lace Imprinting its own Picture.

Lace, Plate XX

William Henry Fox Talbot, Lace, Plate XX, First published in The Pencil of Nature, 1844.

Scientific innovation and the knowledge of William Henry Fox Talbot’s fastidious photographic inventory of his possessions qualifies his place as one of my favourite photographers. His photographs in The Pencil of Nature, not only establish his ability to compose a picture but also chronicle the scope of what the camera was capable of. (1)

In The Magic Image, Fox Talbot is described as “a man blessed with an unusual imagination, uncommon knowledge and a wide range of interests.” (2) Fox Talbot’s technique produced a paper negative; at first, although mottled and not as defined as the Daguerreotype, it was a superior process because copies could be made. Aaron Scharf describes the poetic elements of the paper negative process, the “… fibrous structure of the negative… softening all contours of the image, diffusing the light, and imbuing all forms with a suggestive power.” (3) Later Fox Talbot refined his technique by replacing the paper supporting the negative emulsion with glass plates coated with collodion, he named it “the calotype process.” In 1840 by rendering silver chloride crystals to silver by chemical means, Fox Talbot further revolutionized photography with reduced exposure times.

“He called the hidden, invisible images “latent.” (4) Suggesting that the images existed but lay dormant until revealed by the chemical process. Geoffery Batchen writes of Talbot’s uncertain statements regarding photography’s “generative power.” (5) Talbot questions whether a photograph was the combination of camera and chemistry or “nature drawing its own picture.” (6)

The Pencil of Nature, was the first book illustrated with photographs and the first mass produced book. Beaumont Newhall describes the operation of the “Talbotype Establishment” which printed over 2000 paper negatives for the series in the sun, thus making it “the first mass production photofinishing laboratory in the world.” (7)

Lace, plate XX in The Pencil of Nature, is an example of a negative image. The lace was placed upon sensitized paper allowing an image to be “directly taken from the lace itself.” (8) It is this “touching” that appeals and the intricate detailed patterning of the lace. Charles Babbage, the English philosopher and mathematician, believed that Talbot’s lacework photograms were “mathematics made visible.” (9) Today we liken the patterns to the structure of cells & the pixelation of digital images.


1. C Beaton, G Buckland, The Magic Image, Little, Brown & Company, 1975, p. 35.

2. ibid., p.10.

3. A Scharf, Pioneers of Photography, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1975, p. 12.

4. W Talbot, The Pencil of Nature, Da Capo Press, New York, 1969, p. 4.

5. G Batchen, Each Wild Idea, Cambridge Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2001, p. 166.

6. ibid.

7. Talbot, op.cit., p. 5.

8. ibid., Plate XX.

9. Batchen, op.cit., p. 169.


William Henry Fox Talbot http://www.google.com.au/imgres?imgurl=http://www.masters-of-photography.com/images/screen/talbot/talbot_lace.jpg&imgrefurl=http://www.masters-of-photography.com/T/talbot/talbot_lace.html&h=275&w=330&sz=36&tbnid=WWGVECH1q9RHUM:&tbnh=96&tbnw=115&zoom=1&usg=__jj3pDLMlVvco8EoJiVvBxdRQ9HA=&docid=k-VQBbQuUTQn-M&sa=X&ei=jGwTUcX0OZCXiAftxYHwCg&ved=0CDIQ9QEwAA&dur=2599