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“Secure the Shadow E’re the Substance Fade”: How Post-Mortem Photography Captures and Evades

2018 Symposium Papers

“Secure the Shadow E’re the Substance Fade”: How Post-Mortem Photography Captures and Evades


by Brenna Goodwin-McCabe


Death is a visceral and visual subject, one which filters through the historiography of art and photography. By navigating mortality, deathly imagery serves multiple social purposes; to remind, to negotiate, and to elude death. In art, these memento mori subjects present death within the frame, and in doing so externalize the suppressed or societal fear of the viewer. Responding to this cultural fixation, the invention of photography allowed the recently deceased to be captured before decomposition. Marketing the camera as a rapid, accessible, and affordable medium, photography became a way of stopping time and securing a person’s substance or soul. By archiving the body, and accessing the photo retrospectively, patrons adjusted the appearance of death through the frame. Morbid, unnerving, and yet sentimental, this genre is known as post-mortem photography. Through manipulations of subject and camera, the genre shifts between documentation and superstition, while navigating both realism and a legacy of religious visual culture. Thereby, its images assert the innate relationship between mortality and art. Similarly by challenging viewers to contextualize its subjects, these produced images are contradictory, problematic, and fascinating insights into a culture haunted by impermanence.

By examining two types of Victorian post-mortem photography, this paper explores the camera’s ability to construct death, both metaphorically and socially. Investigating the genre’s theoretical position and domestic function, in reference to authors such as Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, this essay likewise explores how gaze creates its subject. These post-mortem works are thus consciously rendered, by the photographer and patron, and communicate specific narratives about Victorian society and the desire to immortalize death.