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.

Adam Fuss – The Mirrored Surface; Daguerreotypes in the Digital Age.


Adam Fuss, My Ghost, 2001. Daguerreotype, 27.9 x 35.6 cm.

Sekula’s claim, that the history of photography is haunted by “two chattering ghosts,” seems a perfect statement when discussing My Ghost by Adam Fuss, 2001. Fuss liberally and literally draws on the pictorial and technological history of photography in this series of images. The image in the Art Gallery of New South Wales’ collection, is a sumptuous and ephemeral milky blue daguerreotype of a wing spanned white swan. The polished plate creates a mesmerizing otherworldly image coupled with the fact that symbolically, “The swan can be read historically as a mythical creature alluding to love and death…”  (1)

Even today, a daguerreotype holds the viewer, it is a magical experience to see one up close. I now comprehend how powerful these images would have originally been to a Victorian audience. Immediately I think to myself, is this Zeus, disguised as a swan descending from the heavens to seduce Leda? No, it is Fuss, captivating his audience, creating a little yelp in the minds and hearts of those of us obsessed with the history of photography and alternative analogue printing processes.

According to Sekula, every photograph is sending a message. So what message is Fuss sending the viewer? In 1840, Edgar Allen Poe described the daguerreotype thus, “In truth the daguerreotype plate is infinitely more accurate than any painting by human hands… the photographic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented.” (2)  This is one of the ghosts that Sekula speaks of, the ghost of objectivity. Sekula writes of photographic discourse and the authoritative voice of photography as evidence, truth and of affirmation. (3)  For Sekula photographic meaning is linked to context. Fuss draws on these definitions inherent in photography’s history in My Ghost.


William Henry Talbot, Articles of China, c. 1844. Salt print from a Calotype paper negative printed image, 13.4 X 18 cm.

Fuss documents the swan in a scientific way. Similarly, in ‘The Pencil of Nature,’ William Henry Talbot employed the objective photographic eye to compile an inventory of the china and glass cabinets in his home at Lacock Abbey. Yet at the same time, Talbot recognized the capabilities this new technology had upon representation and art. This is Sekula’s opposing ghost, the ghost of aestheticism.

In this age of digital imaging, to come across images produced in this labour intensive process is so very rare and even more exciting. Grundberg writes, “It’s easy to see Fuss’s cameraless photograms and latter-day daguerreotypes as reactions to our digital era, in which photography’s ring of truth has a hollow sound.” (4)  A daguerreotype is a “unique-and-precious-object” that cannot be reproduced unlike proceeding photographic processes.  (5)

Fuss titles the series, My Ghost, effectively alluding to the history of mortuary photography and the photograph as a memento mori. In a singular image, Fuss has captured both these ghosts. The clinical pose of the dead swan is set free, imbued with a spiritual quality as it floats hauntingly in a milky blue sky. Grundberg writes, “Fuss’s photographs might be said to superimpose the presence of absence on the absence of presence.”  (6)

V&A Channel. Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography. Adam Fuss – This is a revealing and evocative look at Adam’s Fuss’s working environment and an insight into his creative ideas.



1. Art Gallery of New South Wales, 20 December 2012, <http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/work/156.2001/&gt;

2. A. Sekula, ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’ in Thinking Photography, ed. Victor Burgin, London: Macmillan, 1982, p. 87.

3. ibid., p. 85.

4. A. Grundberg, ‘Adam Fuss’. Artforum, Vol. 41, Issue 1, September 2002, viewed 20 December 2012, <http://search.proquest.com.wwwproxy0.library.unsw.edu.au/docview/214348639?accountid=12763&gt;

5. Sekula, op.cit., p. 95.

6. A. Grundberg, ‘My Ghost’. Artforum, Vol. 9, Issue 2, Summer 2002, viewed on 20 December 2012, <http://search.proquest.com.wwwproxy0.library.unsw.edu.au/docview/214350852accountid=12763&gt;


Adam Fuss http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/works/156.2001/

William Henry Talbot http://cs.nga.gov.au/Detail-LRG.cfm?IRN=106520