Photoshopping the Dead
Since I began writing a memoir about my mother, I’ve spent a lot of time going through old family photographs and letters. Some of the material I’ve found is unfamiliar. Over the years, since I left home, albums and letters have come down to my mother from grandparents and other relatives. Among these I came across the strange photograph of a girl who I presumed was one of my great aunts. My grandmother was originally one of five daughters, but three of her sisters died of tuberculosis between the ages of twelve and twenty.
They were a working-class family, living in a two-up-two-down terraced house in Denton Holme, Carlisle, in the shadow of Dixon’s Mill, where their father worked as a pattern maker. I knew very little about the girls who died – my Carlisle grandmother didn’t talk much about intimate things. One of them, my father understood, had lived to become a welder during WW1 and I found a photograph of her dressed for war work in a kind of mob cap and all in one ‘boiler’ suit. Another, with pretty curly hair, appears in a group photo with her two surviving sisters, aged about sixteen. This is Aunt Etty in her boiler suit.
The photograph that caught my attention was of a schoolgirl, about eleven or twelve, standing in an awkward pose, leaning against a plant stand draped with trailing greenery. Something about the way she was standing wasn’t quite right – the way the dress hung on her, one arm stiffly by her side with the hand at a strange angle. It was only then that I realised what I was looking at.
The Victorians were very keen on post-mortem photography. It seems ghoulish to us now, but many lower-middle or working-class families couldn’t afford to have photographs taken. So, when a beloved member of the family died suddenly, a photograph would be taken as a memento mori. The first one I ever saw, was in the Katherine Mansfield archives in New Zealand. Katherine’s baby sister, Gwen, died of cholera at a few months old and there’s a poignant photograph of their grandmother sitting in the nursery in front of the doll’s house, holding the dead baby who is immaculately laid out in what looks like a christening dress.
Then I went to a reading by a poet called Jennifer Copley, who had written a series of poems using these post mortem images as a starting point. I was surprised (though I shouldn’t have been) to find that there was a huge archive on the web for this genre. Jennifer explained the process in detail, and it was one of the most interesting poetry readings I’ve ever been to, and also one of the saddest.
The Victorians had lots of clever technology to enable them to take life-like photographs – not just of the loved one lying sleeping, like Katherine Mansfield’s baby sister, but of them standing up in a natural pose as if they were still living. Iron braces were used to support the body, before it was dressed and arranged, often using pieces of furniture as props to enhance the effect. After the photograph was taken, the face would be expertly touched up and the eyes painted to give the impression of life.
It may seem strange to us now, but earlier generations were less squeamish about death than we are. And we still take photographs of stillborn babies in their mother’s arms to give comfort to bereaved families.
You never know what is in your family album until you look. I just wish there was someone still alive to tell me the stories behind the faces.