Having access to modern technology sometimes never helps. In fact, it became easier than ever to mislead the public with hoaxes and pranks. I mean just look at the stuffs we find in the bowels of internet. Yes, the net came in handy when we want to learn something. But the fact that there are jokers out there means that we should be cautious on what we find. Make sure that the website is reputable, not a page managed by a basement wannabe. Or else we might find ourselves trying to treat gunshot wounds with cabbages.
Admittedly, even I was fooled by online hoaxers. I wholeheartedly lapped at the so called “bizarre practices” these website sells as historical truth. One time, these pages claimed that there is a strange Victorian tradition of hauling the corpses of their loved ones in a life-like poses for a post-mortem photography. These people from the past were said to have a unique relationship with death, so much so that taking pictures of their recently diseased will give deeper meaning to life. Fast forward to the age of the internet, and people’s fascinations with death, and the fact that Victorian photos are creepy draw them to these pictures. And some websites capitalized on these fascinations by giving people what they wanted. And right now, we have a lot of so-called post-mortem photos circulation on the image search, with some creepier than the rest.
But the problem with these death photos is that the people here were not dead.
How Victorian England Really Take Post-Mortem Photos
Before we move on, Victorian people do take pictures of their dead, but not in a way that webpages today claimed.
Before photography became available, the tradition of making a portrait of the dead goes back even further. Without films and cameras, people employed artist to render the mortal likeness of their recently departed. These are the mourning portraits, and even painted pictures looked unsettling enough with details added like deathly pale skin and discolored fingers. They are even laid in catalfaques. These deathly portraits were popular after the Protestant Reformation, and the tradition continued when photography was invented. During the nineteenth century, snapping pictures of corpses were cheaper than hiring an artist. And the middle class now had an affordable means to immortalize their dead.
These photos are keepsakes for the family members, sort of as a tangible remnant of their recently departed. But do note that these post-mortem photos involved the corpses lying down or seated in chairs or inside the coffins (much to the fascinations and horrors of the viewers). And with that mentioned, this should give you a clue why online Victorian death photos are mostly fakes.
The So Called “Death Photos”
Websites selling what they claimed as “real” Victorian photos of the dead often feature black and white portraits of presumably dead people in a life-like posture. They were often presented standing up, eyes opened, fully dressed, and posing in a manner as if they were alive. In some cases, a family member, friends, or other love ones accompanied them in the portrait, as if pretending their dead still breathed mortal air. According to these websites, they appeared alive and healthy in their post-mortem portraits thanks to some contraptions that kept them upright. These are posing stands, metallic bars that supported the limp body of the corpse as the living posed them for their last photoshoot. With that, dead corpses could be posed in different manners like a macabre mannequin.
Or so the story goes.
But experts who collected genuine Victorian post-mortem photos are quick to remind the curious that standing portraits of the dead simply do not exist. For one thing, dead bodies behaved differently, and no contraptions could pull-off such life-like postures shown in alleged Victorian death photos. In fact, even today, there are still no means to pose the dead in such a way. I mean there are modern death photos of people posing their dead in a life-like manner, a macabre practice in Latin America. But even that do not come close to the upright and lively stances of the Victorian photos.
That’s because the standing Victorian “death” photos are not death photos. The people peering out from those pictures were alive and healthy when they were taken. And we need to understand how photography were done in those days, so we won’t fall for those fake post-mortem portraits again.
The Truth about Victorian Photography
To begin with, photography during the Victorian ages were not that expensive, and middle-class people could avail them. In fact, as what’s mentioned above, they are more affordable than calling a professional artist to paint those dead faces.
And obviously, picture taking was not exclusive to the dead.
Photography was for everything and everyone, from landscapes to live people. And for someone to get those perfect shots, striking a post is not enough. Getting your pretty face and handsome demeanor were done differently during those days. Taking pictures meant long exposures. And when we mean long, we don’t mean half an hour or so. Although it could take more than an hour of exposure for landscapes, exposures for portraits were quicker. In the age of daguerreotype (1839), the longest exposures could take a minute and a half. Things improved by the 1850s, when exposures sped up to only eight seconds. Sometimes three.
But even quick exposures of one second is enough for blurring. Hence people getting their pictures must stay still as possible, so they won’t waste films.
And this is where the posing stands came into play.
They are not meant for the dead. The stands were to help the living maintain a post as they get their photos. These stands were like mike stands and they were not sturdy enough to support dead weight. Hence it was bad idea to apply them to non-living corpses. And historical evidence never mentioned the use of these stands for the photoshoot of cadavers.
Some Online Examples
And of course, websites have favorites when it comes to photo sharing. To make their stories believable, they pointed how the subjects had too stiff postures, unnatural looking eyes, and shadows. But it was the Victorian age when these aged photos were taken. Taking pictures and photo development were different back then. Chemical processes could make eye color appear lighter, while exposures will focus on the face and could leave the limbs darker.
The picture of two lovely ladies was frequently shared in social media and various website. And yes, it was sold as Victorian post-mortem. They claimed that only one breathed mortal air, though further research proved that both were alive and well when it was taken.
Another good example is this man, which turned out to be author Lewis Carroll and he was pretty much alive here (just striking a post).
And just to remind everyone, the baby here was just snoozing when they took the picture.
1. Vatomsky, Sonya (27 November 2017). "Clearing up Some Myths About 'Post-Mortem" Photographs." Atlas Obscura.
2. Clint, Edward (19, June 2016). "Myths of Victorian Post-Mortem Photography" Skepticink.
Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on November 02, 2020:
This was very interesting to read. It's amazing how even in those days photography could trick people.