Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Death Portraits: How to tell who is really, really dead

Portrait shot by Kerry Goodwin Photography. Kerry prefers to shoot live people.


This was the death portrait photoshoot I did for the launch of They Lost Their Heads: What Happened to George Washington's Teeth, Einstein's Brain and Other Famous Body Parts. Bloomsbury decided not to use it because….well, I am “dead” and that might creep some people out. Still, I have always been fascinated by this macabre Victorian practice. I wrote about death portraits in the book, but here are a few fun facts regurgitated without editing: 

Death portraits or post-mortem photography is the practice of photographing the recently deceased. Recently, post mortem pictures of Emiliano Sala were shared on Facebook leading to a criminal investigation into the two workers from a British CCTV firm who took the photos. Obviously, the people who shared the photos without the family's consent should be prosecuted, but the Victorians would have found such photos commonplace. 

While it may seem lurid to modern eyes, post-mortem photography was a very natural way for Victorians to honor the dead. We must remember that most people could only afford a couple of daguerreotypes throughout their lives so a death portrait might be one of the few captured images. Although less expensive than portrait painting, the first daguerreotypes were still costly due to being backed by silver. 

This sad little girl is obviously deceased because she is holding flowers and her eyes are closed. The photos from the Burns Archive are all legitimate death portraits. 

Now imagine losing a loved one or even worse… a child which was all too common in the pre-antibiotic age. You do not have a single portrait to remember that child. Of course, you would fork over your last shilling for some physical reminder of your lost loved one. Often this became a moment to capture the whole family so the deceased were posed with living relatives. Strangely, this often makes it difficult to tell who is actually dead in a death portrait. 

Here are a few clues: 
First off, you might think you can see death in the eyes but live subjects were told to stay very, very still which makes for an unnatural blank stare in both the living and the dead. The pose can also be tricky because even live subjects were placed in restraints. Such at these:
You can see the restraint at the back of his head to hold it in place. These were used with live people too so I cannot tell if this person is dead, but he looks a, stiff.
The slightest movement could blur a photo. In looking through far too many death portraits while researching my book, I found the most accurate indicator of death was the corners of the mouth slightly darker due to purge fluid. Another easier clue to spot is darkened fingers because of the blood pooling in the outer extremities after death. 

This is an example of purge fluid in the corners of the mouth. Ya, I warned you.

This is Sarah Bernhardt. Don't worry. She is NOT dead. Sarah liked to sleep in a coffin with some token skulls. It does look kind of comfy. You can read more about her in They Lost Their Heads...

Enjoy. And Momento Mori…. 

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