Photography was originally a philosophical discussion and mathematical concept explored by the likes of Mo Di and Aristotle since the 4th Century. The development of camera-produced photography, however, did not occur until the early 19th century when chemical photography was developed from the 1820s onwards, introducing monochromatic and eventually colour photographs (Lumière brothers, 1907). Since the emergence of commercial photography two centuries ago, the notion of capturing life through a lens and preserving a single moment in print has been one of the most popular and enduring trends in Western society. However, whilst modern photography focuses on seizing the living moment, containing the essence of life and all its finer details in a single image, the early days of photography found themselves filled with a much more morbid use of the artistic practice.
Memorial portraiture, often known as post-mortem photography or mourning portraits, was a popular practice in the Victorian era, though some modern cultures and religions continue the practice today. Due to the expense of photography, though cheaper and more accessible than traditional painted portraits, a photographed portrait was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for most people in the 1800s and many families chose to have those loved who had passed immortalised by the camera post-mortem, rather than have them lost forever and subject only to unreliable memories.
The corpse would be positioned in a lifelike pose, or at least in a pose that was not overtly cadaverous; they would often be sat in a specially-designed frame in a chair or amongst relativeswho would prop them up. For those unable to be staged realistically, photographs would be taken to give the impression that the deceased was merely in a deep sleep and for those who wished to further soften the image, flowers tended to be the most popular prop.These memorial portraits began to become unpopular and taboo in much of Europe and America around the turn of the 20th century, increasingly seen as distasteful and disrespectful, but the sentiment behind the photos is still understood and appreciated; to immortalise a loved one, their face and their self, by capturing them on camera as a prompt and testament to your memory of them.
Thankfully, photography these days has taken a cheerier turn with digital cameras in charge of capturing the everyday and family gatherings lending themselves to more entertaining pursuits such as candid moments and comedy gold, thanks to things like photo booth hire, handheld video cameras and karaoke. Even so, the next time you have your picture taken by a smartphone, a digital camera or even a good old brownie, don’t preoccupy yourself with a caption or scoff and moan about your ‘bad side’ – remember what the act of taking and being in a photograph really means – immortalising the self, capturing and preserving the living moment and connecting the present (which itself will become the past) with the generations too far in the future to think of. Photography means immortality.
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