Sunday, 6 December 2009

postmortem photography accounts

just read some really interesting accounts of postmortem photography from photographers working in the 1800s in America.
These two accounts are very different, but equally as interesting -
"When i began to take pictures, twenty or thirty years ago, i had to make pictures of the dead. We had to go out then more than we do now, and this is a matter that is not easy to manage; but if you work carefully over the various difficulties you will learn very soon how to take pictures of dead bodies, arranging them just as you please. When you have done that the way is clear, and your task easy. The way i did it was just to have them dressed and laid on the sofa. Just lay them down asif they were in a sleep. That was my first effort. It was with a little boy, a dozen years old. It took a great while to get them to let me do it, still they did let me do it. I will say at this point, because it is a very important one, that you may do just as you please so far as the handling and bending of corpses is concerned. You can bend them till the joints are pliable, and make them assume a natrual and easy position. If a person has died, and the friends are afraid that there will be a liquid ejected from the mouth, you can carefully turn them over just as though they were under the operation of an emetic. You can do that in less than one single minute, and every single thing will pass out, and you can wipe the mouth and wash off the face, and handle them just as though they were well persons. Arrange them in this position, or bend them into this position. Then place your camera and take your pictures just as they would look in life, as if standing up before you. You don't go down to the foot of the sofa and shoot up this way. Go up on the side of the head and take the picture so that part of the picture that comes off from you will come off above the horizontal line. So it would be as if in a natural position, as if standing or sitting before you. There is another thing which will be useful to you in carrying out your operation, and that is a french style mirror about four feet and not very wide. This will suit some cameras, arranging the mirror so the reflection of the party will be thrown upon it in an easy, gracefull, natrual way, and then take your pictures from the mirror without much trouble. I make these remarks because i think that they may be very valuable to somebody."
(Josiah Southworth, of Southworth and hawes in 1873)

"The sun rose gloomily, no bright birds with their sweet music appeared to herald in the day, no aqua fontana sparkled in in the sun beams, for a bleak north-west wind, and dark fleeting clouds gave token of a wintry approach. and oh! how sad was the face of the first customer who saluted me on entering the Gallery.
Her pale lips, though motionless, spoke despair, her dark sunken eyes told of intense suffering, and her black tresses raggedly gathered over her broad white temples indicating the agitation of her mind. Her garments coarse, but neat, loosely encircling her well shaped frame. When she spoke, her tremulous, anxious voice sent a thrill like an electric shock through me. In wild accents she addressed me.
"Oh! sir, my child Armenia is dead, and i have no likeness of her, won't you come immediately and take her picture."
The number and place were taken and in a few minutes I was at her door. The house was an old, dilapidated frame building on Elm street. I gently knocked at the door and it soon opened.
"Does Mrs G_____, live here?" I asked.
"No Sir; down in the Basement."
Into a deep cellar basement i descended, the door was partly open, I walked in and what a mournful scene entered my gaze; the dying embers in the grate gave more light than the heavenly rays which entered through the low windows. On a scantily furnished couch lay the victim of the foul destroyer, marble-like and cold, the mother, on her knees beside the bed leaned over her darling, her only child, with her face buried in her hands, and giving away to low heart rendering choking sobs. For a moment i dared not disturb that mothers anguish.
"you are here," she said, as she started to her feet. "Oh a thousand, thousand thanks."
Gently we moved the death couch to the window in order to get the best light, though but a ray. What a face! What a picture did it reveal. Though the hand of God is the most skillful, yet i thought the sculptor had been there to chisel out that round forehead, to form that exquisite shoulder, to mark the playful smile about those thin lips, and to give the graceful curves of those full arms that lay across her now motionless heart, what a beautiful creation would come from his hands.
The mother held up a white cloth to give me reflecred light to subdue the shadows. All was still, I took the cap from the camera. About two minutes had elapsed, when a bright sun ray broke through the clouds, dashed its bright beams upon the reflector, and shedding, as it were, a supernatrual light. I was startled, the mother riveted with frightful gaze, for at the same moment we beheld the muscles about the mouth of the child move, and her eyes partially open, a smile played upon her lips, a long gentle sigh heaved her bosom, and as i replaced the cap, her head fell over to one side. The mother screamed.
"She lives! She lives!" and fell upon her knees by the side of the couch.
"No" was my reply. "she is dead now, the web of life is broken."
The camera was doing its work as the cord that bound the gentle being to earth snapped and loosened the spirit for another and better world. If the earth lost a flower, Heaven gained an angel.
(Gabriel Harrison 1851)
both extracts from, secure the shadow, Jay Ruby

1 comment:

  1. Hi pleased to meet you

    Great blog

    Come pay a visit some time