portrait photography’s macabre origins: victorian death photography


Hey there, it’s your favorite spooky photographer here. Happy Halloween month! Given the time of year, I figured it’d be a good time to talk about something completely unrelated to elopements… death! And Victorian death photography 🪦

Photography is often referred to as an art form, a way of capturing a moment in time that can be preserved for eternity. But what many people don’t realize is that photography also has a dark side, a macabre history that dates back to the Victorian era. (*cue menacing organ music and lightning flashes*)

During the 19th century, photography became a popular way of commemorating important events and people in one’s life. However, it also became a tool for capturing images of death and mourning. This trend, known as “death photography,” was a way for people to memorialize their loved ones after death. Today, these images may seem strange or unsettling, but they offer a unique glimpse into the way people viewed death during this time period when photography was still a new phenomenon.

In this article, let’s explore the origins of photography and how it became intertwined with death in the Victorian era, including the cultural and societal influences that led to the rise of death photography and the ethical questions it raises.

Origins of Photography

Photography, as we know it today, was invented in the early 19th century. The first photographic image was created by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, using a camera obscura and a photosensitive plate. The image (which took eight hours to expose!) was of the view outside his window.

The first-ever photo – we’ve come a long way, haven’t we? Photo courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center.

Unremarkable as it may look today, Niépce’s invention was a breakthrough in the field of optics, but it was not until the development of the daguerreotype by Louis Daguerre in 1839 that photography became a practical tool for capturing images. The daguerreotype was a type of photograph made on a silver-coated copper plate, which produced a highly detailed and permanent image.

Edwin H. Manchester, Edgar Allan Poe, daguerreotype, 1848.

The invention of photography had a profound impact on society, as it allowed people to capture images of the world around them in ways that had never been possible before! For the first time, people could see themselves and their surroundings in a completely new light. Pretty cool, right?

Cultural and Societal Influences

The rise of death photography in the Victorian era was influenced by a number of cultural and societal factors. At the time, death was an ever-present part of life, with high mortality rates due to disease, war, and other causes. (If you’ve ever seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail and the “bring out your dead” scene, you’re not far off – minus the black plague, of course.) Death was seen as a natural and inevitable part of the cycle of life, and people had a different relationship with death than we do today – they’d even go for picnics in the local graveyard, the same way you or I would at a park. Spiritualism – a movement based on the idea that the dead can be contacted – brought with it seances, talking boards, and mediums and was all the rage at the time.

Film still from Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler, Fritz Lang, 1922.

The Victorians also had a strong belief in the power of visual images to convey meaning and emotion. This was reflected in the popularity of mourning jewelry and other memorial objects that featured hair or photographs of the deceased. Photography was a natural extension of this trend, as it allowed people to capture and preserve images of their loved ones after death.

Another factor that contributed to the rise of death photography was the development of photography as a mass medium. With the introduction of cheaper photographic techniques such as the tintype and the carte de visite, photography was more accessible to the general public. This made it easier for people to have their portraits taken, including those of the deceased.

Death Photography

Death photography, also known as post-mortem photography or mourning photography, was a common practice in the Victorian era. These photographs were typically taken within days of the person’s death and were often the only visual record of the deceased.

There were a few different types of death photographs. The most common type was a portrait of the deceased, which was often taken while the person was lying in state or on a bed. The person would be posed in a way that made them look as if they were sleeping or at peace. Other times, the corpse would be propped up with a stand, and glass eyes were used if open eyes were requested.

Complex bracing devices were devised to support the dead.

In some cases, the family members would be included in the photograph, either standing around the bed or holding the deceased’s hand. These photographs were meant to capture the family’s grief and to serve as a reminder of the deceased.

Another type of death photograph was a memorial portrait. These were often taken after the funeral and would feature a photograph of the deceased, along with other objects such as flowers, books, or religious symbols. The memorial portrait was intended to be displayed in the home as a reminder of the deceased.

Circa 1870: A Victorian family pose for the camera. (Photo by H. H. Davies/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There were also more elaborate death photographs, which were often staged in a way that would depict a scene from the deceased’s life. For example, a child might be photographed in a crib with toys or a woman might be posed with a book or sewing kit. These photographs were intended to capture the essence of the person and their life, even in death. Really creepy but also kind of beautiful, right?

Ethical Questions

The practice of death photography raises a number of ethical questions, both in the Victorian era and today. One of the main concerns is the exploitation of the deceased. Critics argue that the practice of photographing the dead for public consumption is disrespectful and goes against the dignity of the deceased.

There is also the question of consent. In some cases, the deceased may have consented to being photographed before their death. However, in many cases, family members would make the decision to have their loved one photographed without their consent. This raises questions about who has the right to make decisions about a person’s body after death.

Another ethical concern is the potential for these photographs to be used for voyeuristic or fetishistic purposes. Some people collect death photographs as a form of morbid fascination, which can be seen as exploitative and inappropriate.


Death photography is a fascinating and complex topic, one that offers a unique glimpse into the Victorian era and the way people viewed death and mourning. While the practice of death photography may seem strange or unsettling to us today, it was a common and accepted part of life in the 19th century.

The rise of death photography was influenced by a number of cultural and societal factors, including the belief in the power of visual images to convey meaning and emotion, the high mortality rates of the time, and the accessibility of photography as a mass medium.

While the practice of death photography raises a number of ethical questions, it is important to remember that it was a reflection of the way people viewed death and mourning at the time. These photographs offer a valuable historical record of the way people lived and died during the Victorian era, and they continue to captivate and intrigue us today. 👻

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