Out of all the mysterious death rituals popular during the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century, the practice of death photography remains one of the most fascinating.
Victorian death photography was the practice of taking a picture of a dead person soon after their final breath.
A popular subject around Halloween time, Winnipeg-based photographer Leif Norman gave a lecture on the practice of death photography to a packed lecture theatre at the Dalnavert Museum Oct. 20. The lecture — titled “Death Photography in the Victorian Era: A Talk in Pictures” — was part of the Dalnavert Museum’s Exploring Victorians Lecture Series.
Norman is a self-proclaimed Victorian photograph rescuer whose drive to work through the entire history of photography led him to the world of Victorian death photography.
“I have hundreds of books either about the history of photography or literally from the history of photography,” he said in an interview.
Equipped with a chemistry degree, Norman is “going to try to make every single type of photographic making process, every chemical process.”
“I’m working my way through the history of photography so that I can look at almost anything and then go, ‘Yeah I know how that works,’” he said.
Norman said what surprised him most when researching death photography was “the theoretical Photoshopping of painting the eyes on.”
“That’s the weirdest thing, is the fact that someone would paint on open eyes on a closed eyed person,” he said.
“It’s taking a picture of a person who is dead, you know they’re dead […] but then trying to make them alive, when we all know they’re dead. That’s just one step too far.
“That fakery, that insincerity, […] it’s as if they think it’s real, like they’re fooling themselves. It’s as if they can somehow bring the person back in the photo.”
“If we’re going to draw a line somewhere, I believe that’s probably where you draw it,” he said.
When asked if he sees any parallels between Victorian photography practices and today’s photography practices, Norman said that “everything’s a little performative.”
“We can make fun of those old Victorians […] but we all have these rules too and the performativeness of ‘Hey, I’m on the beach at Malibu,’ that’s a total performative thing […] [Victorians] are very easily in the same realm as that,” he said.
“In a weird way, maybe 2019 is not any different than the Victorians because people are doing that showiness, it’s just showiness in a different manner.”
“That’s what all the selfie stuff is […] It’s oversharing.”
During his lecture, Norman reminded the audience that for the Victorians death was not as behind closed doors as it is today.
“People didn’t die in hospitals back then,” he said, “they died in a bedroom upstairs.”
“The bodies were laid out on the kitchen table — literally — and the women of the household would wash the bodies in preparation for public display which would also usually be in the home.”
Death photography, Norman said, was “how [Victorians] remembered people.”
During his lecture, Norman posed the question: “Why would you photograph a dead body?”
“People are sentimental,” he said.
“They were desperate to hold on.”
“It seems morbid, but I feel that they were obviously doing it out of love.”
Norman said that in the 21st century, “we are so image literate now we don’t even realize it.”
“We are not as desperate to cling on to every single moment,” he said.
“We very easily forget that we have so many pictures of our grandparents, or our fathers or things like that […] Back then cameras were not cheap and plentiful […] Photographs themselves [were] very special and precious.”
Since photographs were a method to capture the final moment spent with a deceased loved one, Norman explained that Victorians saw photographs as “a miracle,” even if that meant using the new technology to take pictures of things we would find strange today, like a photograph of a dead body.
In fact, Victorian death photography was intertwined with the birth and development of photography. Photography originated around 1840 during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. By the time of Victoria’s death in 1901, “it was basically done,” Norman said.
“[Photography was] the way we know it now, just minus the digital part. All the chemicals [you] could get prepackaged. Everything was done for you.”
Though Victorian death photography sticks out as the most morbid of early photographical practices, what appears to get lost in the conversation is the idea of photography and the camera itself as a macabre device.
“Photography itself can be considered inherently morbid,” Norman said, “because cameras stop time but we move on.”
The Exploring Victorians Lecture Series runs until May 10, 2020. For more information visit www.friendsofdalnavert.ca.