There's often quite a bit of controversy around post-mortem photography. Given how stoic and unhappy many people looked in early photos, many individuals mistakenly identify a photo as being of a deceased person. Standard photo processes came out in 1839, and given how common infant deaths were in the following years, many families opted to have photos of the recently-deceased taken rather than have no photo at all.
So while there are indeed many death photos out there from the 1800s and even early 1900s, many are mistakenly identified as such. The styles of these photos evolved over time, so we wanted to share a few of the authentic photos to show you how to identify them in the future. This is of course a difficult and emotional subject, so feel free to move on to this story if you find this type of thing upsetting.
There are a few well-known collections of the earliest death photos, among them the Burns Collection. This 1848 photo from the collection is the first-known photo of this kind, and set up for what the type of photo would look like in the following years, with the child dressed in his or her nicest outfit and the parents dressed up, often visiting a local studio in town.
Here is an early 1860s photo showing the mother with a recently-passed child. This type of tintype photo was often colored by hand after it was produced to provide a bit more color to the subjects cheeks.
One of the biggest points of confusion about this type of photography has come from what was known as the Brady Stand, which was a firm iron stand used in studios. This often had extensions that enabled neck braces or small clamps.
The confusion comes from the fact that while many photos used these Brady Stands, not all of them were death photos. This means that not all photos where someone looks posed in a studio are these types of photos at all; however, some indeed are.
During the 1880s, many photographers began to take their studios on the road. This early 1890s cabinet card photo is an example of when a photographer would travel to a home to take a photo of the recently deceased.
Toward the end of the century, a new genre of post-mortem photography developed where subjects were posed inside their homes recently after death. The photo above shows a recently-passed daughter with her parents as she remains in her sick bed. One way to register these types of photos is if the exposure of the deceased person is markedly more clear than the people around him or her.
This is one of the more interesting types of this genre of photography. This 1880s photo shows the photographer's attempt to post the individual in as much of a lifelike manner as possible.
Toward the turn of the century, as communities began to thrive and memorial services and wakes began being held at homes, the genre of photo often morphed to showing the deceased on their death bed, surrounded by the flowers and gifts dropped off by visiting families.
These photos provided great value to the families as they helped them grieve and remember the lives of their loved ones. Many families in the day were very large and these photos often introduced siblings to one another and preserved a history that would otherwise be lost.
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