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Victorian ‘Post-Mortem’ Photographs: truth or myth?

4 min read

There are lot of stories about dead people being propped up on stands to seem alive and photographed. But the reality was different….
As we know, victorian England had a particular relationship with death. Do you remember the funeral for pets? Because Victorians often died young, quickly, especially for injuries and infections, people invented elaborate grieving rituals to give meaning to their loved ones’ ephemeral lives. All of this happening at the same time with advances in photography, that led to the prevalence of post-mortem photos, where Victorians would take their dead, prop them up on pedestals or supports, and the picture was taken. These supports helped corpses to seems alive, and allowed them to pose with their still-alive family members. At least, according to the story.

Fake post-mortem photos, categorized for error or intentionally sell for a profit, have in recent years are all the rage on the Internet. They fill online galleries of Victorian oddities and accumulate on website like Pinterest and Instagram that, with other reputable websites, have fueled the myths.
In truth, the people on the supports in Victorian “post-mortems” photographies look alive for a much simpler reason: because they are. Posing stands were used to help living models hold still for that era’s longer exposures. “Long exposure” in photography is a misleading term. Initially exposure time could be half an hour or an hour, especially for landscapes, but by 1839, the longest exposures were a minute and a half. By the 1850s, they were three to eight seconds. When people talk about long exposure, it sounds like people had to wait for a hour. It isn’t true, but an exposure of even one second is long enough to allow for blurring, epecially with old equipments. So they had posing with supports or pedestals.

In one of the most famous Victorian post-mortem photos, there is a man reclines in a chair, his face resting on his hand. The photo is of author Lewis Carroll, taken years before he died.
Other so-called post-mortems are often assumed to be of dead people because something appears too “spooky”, for example too-stiff posture, unnatural eyes, or eerie shadows are details that easily start a photo’s post-mortem career, and this is only the evidence, again, of an older photography system: old chemical processes made colors appear differently (blue eyes could come out as white) and exposure might leave limbs dark in order to make the face clear. Posing pedestals were similar to microphone or guitar supports. Even if they were made of cast iron, they were not particularly heavy, and not counterbalanced. So, they weren’t made sturdy enough to actually hold up the weight of a dead body! If you set a corpse on a posing stand, it would certainly topple over…..

A funny thing about the Victorian-era death myths is that we are not speaking about ancient history: the 1800s are not so far away, and we have patent descriptions, images, illustrations, and photographies from that era, that can tell us everything about how Victorians actually cared for their dead to practices and inventions in photography. We can read the real words of the people who invented the supports and how they were used. Or, if we get informed, we have the catalogs, the illustrations, the documents.

Leo, my friend and our collaborator, told me about a 2009 movie “The Haunting In Connecticut”, which perfectly shows my point of view: a good story that spreads with the help of capitalism. The movie’s post-mortem photos appeared in Victorian-style, but were taken specifically for production, to prevent fans from contacting the studio and demanding money, claiming to be the descendants of the people in the photos. Some of these photos are still today circulating on the same blogs and websites that claim pedestals were used to support the dead.
It’s easy, today, with the endless power of the media: people want to create a fake history and to believe it (and they also want to profit from it, of course).
But the story of post-mortem photographies is as simple as it sounds: the big general rule is if they look alive…..they’re alive!

Images from the web // Public demain
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