In Victorian times, it was a common practice to photograph the dead, particularly at the end of the 19th century. Post-mortem photography was an inexpensive way for the lower classes to immortalize lost loved ones, especially children and infants. Childhood mortality rates were significantly high during the period, and post-mortem portraits were usually the only portraits a child would have.
The corpses were usually posed into natural positions such as sitting in a chair or on a couch, and the eyes were opened to give the illusion of life.
If the subject was an infant, the mother would often be photographed with the corpse, sometimes even holding the body in her arms. In some circumstances, the corpse’s eyes remained closed, and the corpse was lain in bed, as if they were in a deep sleep.
Despite the morbid nature of the photographs, these portraits were the usually the easiest for a photographer to take. The corpses proved time and again to be suitable subjects, still enough to eliminate the blurred movements of the living and retain the intricate details of the face.
This effect, combined with the lifelike posing of the corpses, sometimes outshined the living in the portraits. However, there were always exceptions. In 1899, for example, a photographer named Louis Desmond had to re-shoot the corpse of a young girl six times.
The girl’s body was propped up in a specially designed chair for the dead, with a hidden frame that keep the corpse absolutely still for the portrait. Yet, despite the elaborate frame and the still clarity of the girl’s face and body, her right hand was always inexplicably blurred.
The photographer blamed the mother for the blur, convinced that her slight movements were making the loose floorboards of the studio tremble and cause the chair to move. The portraits, however, proved otherwise – in the photographs where the mother stood next to the girl’s corpse, the girl’s hand remained perfectly still. Credited to Olivia P.