The dageurrotype photographic process democratized portraiture, a
genre once reserved for the wealthy. Post-mortem daguerrotypes were often
made when no previous portrait of the subject, especially a child, had been
taken, as part of a mourning and memorialization process. The photograph
was a tangible object that represented the lost person, meeting the need to
"keep the dead alive."
In this selection of post-mortem dageurrotypes, several of the subjects
are shown as if in sleep. Stanley B. Burns, M.D., writes that the discovery of
anesthesia in 1846 allowed the concepts of death and sleep to meet, marking a
turning point in the concept of death. Other images show a parent cradling
or mourning over a dead child. One post-mortem of a boy is enclosed in a
double case with the image of his family.
The post-mortem photography best known today is James Van Der
Zee's work from 1920 on, published as _The Harlem Book of the Dead_.
Today, these popular nineteenth century and early twentieth century genre
photographs are little known and "there is no culturally normative response
to postmortem photographs."
Drawn and cited from Stanley B. Burns, M.D., In _Sleeping Beauty:
Memorial Photography in America (Twelvetrees Press, 1990)_, preface and
Announced on January 7, 1839, the dageurrotype process enjoyed
widespread popularity for the next two decades. The image on polished
silver plate became known as "a mirror with a memory." Each image is
unique in and of itself and reversed left to right. Highlights are fixed in an
amalgam of silver and mercury, while shadows are represented by the
polished surface of the plate itself, making the angle of view a critical factor
in perceiving the image. The process is known for its clarity of detail and
excellent range of tones.
Paraphrased from Camfield and Deirdre Wills, History of Photography:
Techniques and Equipment (New York: Hamlyn, 1980), pp. 12-15.
Dageurrotypes from the collection of Graham Pilecki of Pilecki's Antique
Camera and Image Exchange, Albany, California