Rummaging through flea markets this summer, I came upon the portrait of the child above. The picture is a tintype, which was most likely taken in the mid to late 1800s (c.1850 to 1880s). To have a child sitting this still, with such clarity and no movement in the eyes could only mean that the child, at the time when the photograph was taken, was deceased. This was not uncommon during the 19th century. Taking pictures of the deceased was a way to remember and to have something physical that represented the person. The photographs at that time could be seen more as mementos, contradictory of how we use vernacular photography today, which is more about remembering a moment rather than specifically remembering or immortalizing a single person.
Images like the one above were most likely to be well thought out and prepared. There is a reason that this child is wearing the garments that she is dressed in, maybe her mother or aunt made it. Most often the objects and environment that the people were photographed with or in would be significant to how the family and friends would remember them. There was not much candid captured for these types of photographs.
Geoffrey Batchen in his essay Vernacular Photographies (I believe this is from his book Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance) when writing about the photographs as a memento mori and this photographic period, puts it perfectly when he writes that “Photography insisted that if one wanted to look lifelike in the eventual photograph, one first had to pose as if dead.” (p.62) Because everybody seems absent and expressionless, the dead babies with painted pink on their cheeks, seem alive and well. The Tantos Archive has a selection of deceased photography on their site.
It might be difficult for some to grasp the idea of it being ok to photograph the dead and I think it has become quite taboo to show the dying or the dead through photographic imagery. Today we have albums and hard drives filled with pictures of our friends and family and we rather, quire normally, not remember them at the point of death but rather alive and happy. The technology that we have today permits us to see our past through thousands of photographs, unlike having ones picture taken once in their lifetime. When doing a little research for this post I came across this interview. A Mother that had lost her child at birth was asked by the hospital if she wanted pictures of her son and she refused but the nurses took the photos regardless and sent them to her. I don’t agree or disagree with the interview but what I find interesting is comparing this problem with photography of the late 1800s and how the process and the meaning of a photograph has changed drastically.