by Mark Dery
The traffic in dead babies is booming, on eBay.
There are daguerreotypes of dead babies, ambrotypes of dead babies, tintypes of dead babies, cartes de visite of dead babies, cabinet cards of dead babies; dead babies from the Victorian era, the Edwardian era, the roaring ’20s.
Here’s a listing titled “POST MORTEM DEAD BABY CABINET PHOTO”; in the thumb-nailed image, a little girl in a lacy white burial gown lies propped on a pillow, crowned with a wreath of flowers. Click the ENLARGE button, and you can just make out a sliver of lusterless white peeping from one sunken, slitted eye. Another offering, this one for a daguerreotype of an “Exquisite Post-Mortem Girl,” is accompanied by a description that strikes an uneasy balance between graveside elegy and auctioneer’s patter: “The young girl is surrounded by blankets and quilts. Very dramatic poignant image. Excellent!”
“Poignant” is a pet word in the collectible postmortem photo category. As in: “POIGNANT POST MORTEM BABY,” an antique photograph of an infant, asleep forever in her toy casket. Her arched eyebrows give her a fretful look, querulous but a little quizzical, too, as if she’s startled to realize that death, unlike gas, doesn’t pass. The chrysanthemum-sized bows on her bonnet ties look tragicomically big beside her little doll head.
“Heartbreaking postmortem photo,” notes the item’s description, conceding the obvious. Should we read this as a moment of silence–a brief halt in the hum of commerce, in recognition of the fact that this lugubrious curio was the last, precious glimpse someone had of her child, before the undertaker dropped the lid? Or is it a lucky charm against the charge that buyers and sellers of such artifacts are trafficking in tears? Or just more of the mawkish morbidness that characterizes the American Way of Death?
When Marx wrote, in The Communist Manifesto, that capitalism “has left remaining no other nexus between man and man” than the “naked self-interest” of the cash nexus, he never imagined the eBay listing whose description assures, “You are bidding on a cabinet card measuring 8 X 6 inches of a sweet baby in repose after death. He/she is laid out for viewing on a bed or table covered in lace, and dressed in a long white christening dress. This may have been the only photo taken of this precious child.”
Browsing this obscure corner of eBay feels like wandering through an Orphanage of Ghost Babies, in which the Shirley Temple-esque moppet in the listing for a “POST MORTEM CDV DEAD LITTLE GIRL POIGNANT PORTRAIT!!” (“beautiful portrait of a little girl posed by an window, which bathes her in natural light”) racks up multiple bids while the pitiable “POST MORTEM Dead Child with SUNKEN EYES in COFFIN” languishes unloved by any bidder. After all, who wants a used baby with sunken eyes? Even here, the beautiful command the highest bids while the unlovely dead go for bargain-basement prices.
Fittingly, some sellers court the goth bidder; eschewing Forest Lawn sentimentality, they accentuate the macabre: “Haunting Open Eyes Original Post Mortem Cabinet Card”; “EERIE POST MORTEM MAN Cabinet Card”; “1910s PHOTO! POST MORTEM DEAD WOMAN in GLOWING CASKET!”
Demand for postmortem images is sufficiently high that some sellers, fresh out of dead people, do their best to drum up business for dead-ish people, as in the unwittingly hilarious listing for a carte de visite of “CIVIL WAR ERA 2 WEIRD CADAVER-LOOKING MEN.” Despite their baleful stares and unsmiling rigidity, the two men in the photo are victims of photographic technology in its infancy, nothing more: the long exposure times required by the cameras of the day compelled subjects to assume a rigor-mortis stiffness. At the time of this writing, the item, offered for the BUY IT NOW price of $30, remained unsold.
Still, the trade in darkroom apparitions of the antique dead, whether “poignant” and “heartbreaking” or “eerie” and “weird,” is brisk, attracting eager, sometimes naive buyers and more than a few guileful sellers. As a public service, Jack Mord, an expert on “early postmortem and memorial photography” who maintains a collection of such images at his Thanatos Archive website, has posted a bogus listing for a “SAD and POIGNANT!” Civil War-era carte de visite. The photo, of two little boys in their Sunday best, is innocuous enough; what makes it postmortem is the stranger-than-fiction fact that it was taken by a dead man. “Although you cannot see him in this photo (because he is behind the camera), the photographer is dead and propped up with a stand,” Mord deadpans, in his sales pitch for the item.
Then he steps out of character:
Yes, this is a joke. The lesson is this: NONE of the “standing postmortem” photos you see on eBay that show standing people being “propped up” or “supported” by a stand…are postmortem photos. Not a single one. […] The stand seen behind these people is a posing stand, used by photographers of the time to keep the person still and on mark for the photograph. You can usually see the base of these stands between the person’s feet.
The people you see on eBay who sell these “standing post mortem” photos are scam artists, banking on your ignorance to dupe you into paying them as much as possible for a 50-cent photo of a live person.
To dissuade gullible buyers from taking his instructive hoax seriously, Mord priced the item at a preposterous $500. Naturally, someone bid on it anyway.
In his seminal study, Secure the Shadow: Death and Photography in America, the anthropologist Jay Ruby notes that “the custom of photographing corpses, funerals, and mourners is as old as photography itself.” A direct descendant of the posthumous portraits commissioned in earlier centuries by the well-to-do bereaved, the practice was widespread in 19th century America; “secure the shadow, ere the substance fade” was a popular tagline for photographic studios, exhorting customers to preserve lasting images of the near and dear, even if death had already claimed them. As early as 1846, an ad for the Boston photographers Southworth & Hawes proclaimed,
We make miniatures of children and adults instantly, and of Deceased Persons either at our rooms or at private residences. We take great pains to have Miniatures Of Deceased Persons agreeable and satisfactory, and they are often so natural as to seem, even to Artists, in a deep sleep.
Death was a fact of life in the 19th century. Until 1885, childhood mortality took one out of every five children in her first year, two out of every five by their fifth; children were carried off by cholera, dysentery, diphtheria, typhoid, yellow fever, scarlet fever, or measles. Losing all of one’s children to an epidemic, in a matter of days, was not uncommon. “From [baby] carriage to coffin was the fate of over 30 percent of 19th century children,” writes Stanley Burns, M.D., in his pioneering study, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America.
In the 19th century, especially in rural America, families prepared their own dead for burial by laying the body on a board and washing and dressing it for the wake, traditionally held in the front parlor of the family home. Unlike residents of big cities, people who lived outside urban centers typically had no easy access to a photographer; thus, a postmortem photograph was often the only image kinfolk might have to remember a person by.
This was especially the case with children cut down too soo
n to have had a studio portrait taken. As evidence for the belief that “parents were often desperate to have one picture of their dying child,” Ruby includes a copy of the carte de visite of a baby named Florence May Laser, noting, “An adult hand supports the child while on the back of the image someone has written, ‘Taken while dying.'”
By the first decade of the 20th century, however, death was disappearing from everyday life, swept aside in the cultural housecleaning that would soon be called modernism. The Machine Age had arrived, banishing the lugubrious specter of Victorianism (or so it looked, in retrospect). In modernism’s revisionist vision of the passing era, the late 19th century was the age of the hidebound bourgeois paterfamilias, snug and self-satisfied in his sense of entitlement, ruling his domestic castle in a Lilliputian parody of England ruling the waves. And nothing better served the modern caricature of Victoria’s reign as a time of rigorlike social stiffness, stultifying class consciousness, and tight-lipped prudishness than the Victorian conception of stylish decor: rooms stuffed with hulking furniture and bric-a-brac and plunged into a sepulchral gloom by dark colors and heavy drapes.
Nothing, that is, except what James Stevens Curl, in his book of the same name, calls “the Victorian celebration of death.” Death, for the Victorians, was a subject for polite conversation, and postmortem photographs were prominently displayed in the home. Mourning was a protracted agony, formalized into periods (a premonition of Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of grieving?), each of which required its own expensive wardrobe, accessorized with memento mori in the form of brooches and lockets containing a lock of the deceased’s hair or a photograph. For women of means, widowhood was a two-year sartorial death sentence and, in some cases, a lifestyle: think of the Widow of Windsor, Queen
Victoria herself, who after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 retreated into melancholy seclusion for a decade; after emerging, she wore mourning costume for the rest of her life, inspiring punctilious Englishwomen to follow her example.
All of which has fostered the inextirpable myth that postmortem photography died with the Victorians, a fiction encouraged by Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip. Woven from 19th-century newspaper clippings and photos, some postmortems among them, Lesy’s poetic history of the aptly named Black River Falls mythologizes late Victorian America as a comic-gothic nightmare of morbidity and depravity. Darkly satirical in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Wisconsin Death Trip helped cement the popular perception of the Victorians as death cultists, a vision symbolized by the postmortem photograph. “Some of the most affecting [images] show dead infants in their coffins,” writes the visual-culture critic Rick Poynor, in a Design Observer essay on the cultural impact of Lesy’s book. “Such photographs were commonplace then, but many viewers, including me, saw them here for the first time.” To be sure, formal postmortem photography did indeed disappear “in mainstream middle-class America” in the 1920s, as Burns points out. But as he also stresses, amateur postmortem photography persisted, most commonly among so-called ethnic groups, as it does to this day. Of course, given the prevailing view of postmortem mementos as morbid, “people who want to photograph their deceased loved ones do so surreptitiously.” Wary of social taboos, families take covert photos at funerals, to be circulated among a trusted few to help heal what Ruby calls “the social wound of death.” (In the flashbulb era, funeral directors often found spent flashbulbs in the wake of a wake.)
In his discussion of the contemporary perception of postmortem or funeral photography as morbid, Ruby notes that “even the idea of collecting 19th-century examples of these images upsets some people and causes them to assume the collector has a morbid, unhealthy fascination with death.”
Before we ask why people traffic in such images, let’s consider the easier question: when did the subculture of collectors whose obscure passion is antique postmortem photography emerge?
The historian of photography Geoffrey Batchen speculated in an interview for this article that “the traffic in postmortem photographs probably picked up at roughly the same time that the trade in photographs as collectibles began to accelerate, sometime in the 1970s”–an uptick in collector activity that coincides with the publication of Wisconsin Death Trip in 1973. Batchen agrees that books like Levy’s and, later, Burns’s, “probably stimulated the market.” Even so, he points out, “there have always been private collectors who specialize in such things. It may seem strange to non-collectors, but it’s not nearly as strange as collecting, say, lynching photos, which some people also do.”
Jack Mord believes that eBay played a pivotal role in ginning up interest in the genre. “In my 12 years as a member of eBay,” he told me, “I have seen the number of postmortem photos for auction there–as well as their prices–skyrocket.” Spiking collector interest in postmortem images has given rise, in turn, to niche obsessions, he says–“collectors who tend to collect only a certain type of postmortem image–a mother holding a baby, for example–and are willing to pay plenty for them.”
As well, says Paul Frecker, “serious collectors” of “PMs” (postmortems) will pay top dollar for “anything out of the ordinary.” A collector and seller of 19th century photography who maintains an extensive archive of postmortem photographs at PaulFrecker.com, he notes that postmortem photographs of children posed to look as if they’re asleep are dime-a-dozen common. Many of the antique postmortems for sale on eBay are paper prints such as cartes de visite and cabinet cards, dating from the latter half of the 19th century, when the aesthetic of the day euphemized death as “eternal sleep.” Deceased children were often posed with a favorite toy, as if they’d dozed off while playing; deceased adults were posed with open books on their laps. At the dawn of the daguerreotype era, by contrast, no attempt was made to conceal the cold, hard fact that the sitter was a cadaver. Its title notwithstanding, Sleeping Beauty includes ghastly images from the 1840s–shocking by today’s standards–of corpses, neatly attired and ceremonially laid out, but with blood oozing from their noses that no one had bothered to wipe away before the photo was taken. “The terror of death was still taught by some religious sects,” writes Burns, “and little attempt was made to beautify the image.”
According to Frecker, “There are umpteen PMs available of children that have been posed to look as if there asleep. But a photograph of a dead child with a trickle of dried blood running out of the corner of its mouth would be in a different league altogether, not because it’s grotesque but because it’s so much more unusual and the photograph has a punctum, a hook that draws you in and establishes a personal relationship with the image and generates a bigger emotional response.”
Frecker uses the term “punctum,” Roland Barthes’s coinage in Camera Lucida for that aspect of an image (often a seemingly incidental detail) that “pierces” the viewer emotionally, charging the photograph with a significance unique to that viewer. In so doing, he directs our attention to the deeper question: what is it about antique postmortem photographs that casts such an uncanny spell on collectors?
For Frecker, such images “resonate in a way that not many other genres do. These are photographs of dead people, yes, but someone loved them and wanted to commemorate their life–to have one last (or perhaps an on
ly) portrait of them before putting them in the earth. One simply doesn’t get that level of emotion in a view of Brighton pier. The message of any photographic portrait is ‘I was here’; with a PM, that message becomes all the more poignant.” In psychoanalytic terms, the image is cathected–charged with emotions so deeply felt they still reverberate in the viewer’s mind, a century or more later.
Unsurprisingly, such photographs strike a responsive chord in viewers who’ve lost a child. “Sadness is definitely part of their appeal,” says Jack Mord. “Many postmortem collectors are mothers who’ve lost children of their own. Their own sadness draws them to these photos, which in some way comfort them.” Grieving mothers who take cold comfort in these images are close kin to the women who find some measure of consolation in the “memorial dolls” sculpted by Jennifer Stocks-Dearborn–commissioned reproductions of babies who died, disconcertingly photorealistic down to the last hair on their little clay heads. Like postmortem photos of dead children, Stocks-Dearborn’s dolls flicker irresolvably between pathos and uncanniness, an unsettling ambiguity that seems to divide the minds of many–including the artist herself.
On her website, My Tangible Peace, Stocks-Dearborn (who lost her own infant daughter to SIDS) speaks earnestly of using her talent “to create portrait pieces for families who have lost children in pregnancy, birth, to SIDS, or other illness,” one-of-a-kind simulacra “small enough to be tucked away in a drawer and kept private until an emotional collapse.” In interviews, however, she swerves into dead-baby-joke territory, referring to her sculptures as “creepy, naked babies” and wisecracking that, because the final stage in her production process involves baking Mohair or Tibetan lamb’s hair onto their heads, “I always have a baby in the oven.”
Similarly, comments in an online discussion about her memorial dolls give voice to a wide range of reactions, from shudders of revulsion (“Burn the abominations”) to heartsick tendresse (“I requested one of these ‘creepy’ babies in memory of my daughter who passed away at 23 days old. If you think that these dolls are creepy, [you] obviously haven’t experienced the death of a child”) to profound ambivalence (“This is very morbid. And disturbing. Not unlike the photobooks of the dead. Having had three miscarriages, however, I would have wanted to have had something-anything-like a baby, at least to bury”).
Likewise, postmortem photographs, especially those of babies and children, inspire radically different reactions, inflected by the viewer’s experiences with death. As Mord observes, such images may trigger sympathetic emotional vibrations in mothers who’ve lost children. But for palely loitering souls who wave their fascination with the macabre as a flag of transgression—codeword: goth, a demographic whose youth more or less ensures that it hasn’t experienced death up close and personal—a postmortem photograph, prominently displayed, is subcultural shorthand for conscientious objection to Middle America, with its Julia Roberts smile and its power-of-positive-thinking homilies. The artist Edward Gorey, the unwitting granddaddy of goth, was fond of postmortem photos.
Then, too, postmortem photographs reverberate with uncanniness because their dead are doubly dead, –done in by disease or wrongful death, then killed again by the camera–trapped by the wink of a shutter in a moment that will last forever. (Not for nothing do they call it “shooting.”)– Yet the human subjects of such photographs, or for that matter of any photograph, are simultaneously undead, and therefore uncanny–phantoms materialized in darkrooms, on glass plates, and given ageless immortality as images, images that stare back at us across the gulf of time. Spectrum, spectacle, specter: the common root is instructive. Barthes called photography the flat death; Sontag called it the soft death; Derrida believed that film is “the art of ghosts, a battle of phantoms.” All photography is necromancy, raising the dead or, put another way, embalming the present. Barthes speaks, in Camera Lucida, of “that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead.” No wonder, then, that he finds photographs of the corpses especially ghoulish: because photography, like formaldehyde, fixes life–that is to say, it preserves “the presence of the thing (at a certain past moment)”–yet the subject, in this instance, is dead. “If the photograph then becomes horrible,” he reasons, “it is because it certifies, so to speak, that the corpse is alive, as corpse: it is the living image of a dead thing.”
Daguerreotypes of Victorians–who, with apologies to Baudrillard, seem in their photos to be Always Already dead–embody these qualities par excellence. Alejandro Amenábar’s movie The Others, a ghost story with a Henry Jamesian plot twist, exploits this uncanniness to spooky effect. The scene in which the lady of the house discovers, by stumbling on a photo album of postmortem daguerreotypes, that her servants are ghosts, is a study in sepia-toned horror.
In the here and now, antique postmortem images are riveting because they emblematize the Authentic in an ever more mediated world. In a time when we interact, more and more, through Tweets, text messages, and Facebook pokes and likes, the black-and-white dead of the 19th Century condense raw emotions; at a moment when the here-and-now seems increasingly like a fading afterimage of our vivid imaginative lives on the other side of the screen, they confront us with the inescapable fact of embodiment, more corporeal for the dead weight of death, more real for the trickling blood, blood that dried 100 years ago but through the necromancy of photography looks blackly wet all over again, every time we look at it.
“The post mortem photograph is a relic of a past that has been erased by modernity,” says Michael Sappol, author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. “And in that lost world, people had more direct and less mediated experiences of shit/sweat/blood/piss/grime/dust/phlegm/pus. And less mediated (less medicated) experiences of death, with a lot more suffering.”
Postmortem photos force us to look death in the face, up close and personal. Irony of ironies, the 20th century–one of, if not the, bloodiest in history, when the Nazis applied the logic of Henry Ford’s assembly line to genocide and the Americans brought their genius for push-button solutions to the vaporization of whole cities at Hiroshima and Nagasaki–bore witness to the medicalization of dying, the professionalization of funeral rituals, and the repression of death in everyday life. Death decamped to the hospital, and the ritualized leave-taking of the Loved One moved from its traditional domestic theater–the front parlor–to the funeral parlor, stage-managed not by the eerily named undertaker but by the more antiseptic-sounding funeral director. (This, by the way, is why the front parlor was transformed, by the emphatic decree of a Ladies’ Home Journal editor in 1910, into a living room.)
As the cultural critic Mikita Brottman told me, “There’s something fascinating about the juxtaposition of home and death” in postmortem photos. “Those things just don’t go together any more. Home is the realm of shelter magazines and Sunday supplements, and death is the realm of sterile drips, hospital beds, heart monitors, health insurance. To see a corpse in the home is now a jolting juxtaposition.”
Our plasma-screen TVs, videogame consoles, and multiplexes are awash in CGI gore, yet few in the so-called first world, where medical advances have made the science-fictional Right to Die movement a reality, have ever looked into eyes of a dead man, trying to meet the gaze that—in the memorable words of the hardboiled novelist Raymond Chandler—you can never quite meet.
Except in a photo
Mark Dery (markdery.com) is a cultural critic. His byline has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to Rolling Stone, Bookforum to Cabinet; his books include Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. In 2013, the University of Minnesota Press is bringing out his essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts. He is currently at work on a biography of the artist, writer, and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey.
Images courtesy of The Jeffrey Kraus Collection and Shorpy archive. Typeface: Mike Allard (Note: This essay is an extensively revised version of a piece previously published in the Australian magazine Photofile and subsequently reprinted in the technoculture webzine 21.c.Many thanks to Ashley Crawford, editor of both publications, for commissioning and editing the original version of “Ghost Babies.”)