Are photography and death complementary or contradictory?
To be confronted head on with death in any capacity is an exercise in reflection and empathy. These sentiments are complicated when physical deaths from upwards of a century ago have been preserved by photography into the present day, existing outside of time and simultaneously as acute reminders of how little we are actually granted.
Methods of Memorial outlines the visual and physical spaces that death and funerary practice have occupied in Europe and North America. Ranging from the 1840s to 1920s, these nine images track evolving trends in post mortem photography in the Western world. Arranged chronologically, each piece presents a different relationship between the public and private sides of memorial on both an individual and thematic level. Generally, this period saw the push of post mortem photography increasingly into the public realm, which reflected sentiments that sought an expanded distance from the intimacy of death. From the celebration of public figures to nameless individuals, photography became an integral tool for participating in the memorial process.
Death is a challenging subject. The inspiration for Methods of Memorial originates from a 1919 family photograph of my own great-great-grandmother at her husband’s funeral. This personal nature drove my desire to curate an exhibition that would encourage an ongoing visual dialogue between the present and past, living and dead. I have included questions throughout the labels as prompts for how you might begin to think about this exhibition, though these are suggestions that do not dictate how it should necessarily be interpreted. Whether this contextualizes the viewer’s own family photographs, satisfies a morbid curiosity, or introduces them to something new, my ultimate goal is connection between viewer and artwork.
I would like to thank Professor Hostetler for serving as my internship advisor, as well as Professors Blick, Ozerkevich, and the rest of the Art History faculty for their assistance with my research. In addition to Olivia Rataezyk, Alice Riley, and fellow Spring 2023 intern Zoe Grayer, I would like to extend my gratitude to Professor Eugene Dwyer, Claire Koelling, and Chalmers Library Special Collections & Archives. It has been an honor and a pleasure to collaborate with everyone who has made this exhibition possible.
Ferris, Stephen James (American, 1835-1915)
Washington & Lincoln, Apotheosis, 1865
3 ¾ × 2 ¼ in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2015.103
In this print, George Washington welcomes Abraham Lincoln into heaven with an embrace and a wreath placed onto his head. The term “apotheosis” refers to the ascension of an individual to a divine status, elevating Lincoln as a biblical-like martyr as beloved and revered as Washington. Originating from the Roman period, the use of the term alludes to nineteenth-century America’s broader revival of classical motifs in art and architecture. A reproduction of an original image by Stephen James Ferris, cartes-de-visite such as this were distributed widely following Lincoln’s assassination and allowed Americans to partake in mourning the sudden death of a prominent public figure. Collecting and carrying these cards might have eased grief and provided a sense of larger community in the wake of national tragedy.
Why might an artistic print be more successful than a photograph of this subject?
Sarah Chase and Baby
American, c. 1859
3 ⅝ × 3 ⅛ in.
Chalmers Library, Special Collections & Archives, 2018.0.10
Sarah Griffith Wells Chase was the wife of Dudley Chase, Philander Chase’s son. She is pictured here holding a baby, likely Frank Wharton Chase, who appears upon first glance to be asleep. However, this is sadly a memorial portrait taken after he had passed away. Post mortem photographs of “sleeping” individuals were especially common for babies and young children during the mid-nineteenth century, which gave family members a peaceful (and oftentimes the only) image commemorating their child. Not only could death occur easily during this period, but individuals also usually died in their home, making death and memorial an intensely personal process that had little separation from daily life.
What is changed when a photograph such as this is displayed in a public museum setting and not the home?
Memorial Locket with Hair
Late 19th century
Metal, glass, hair, photographic print
1 ⅜ × 1 ½ × ¼ in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2017.21
Opening up this small locket reveals a photograph of a young man on one side and a lock of his hair on the other. Like medieval reliquaries that house the bodily remains of a holy person, hair jewelry was revived in the nineteenth century and became a common yet distinct way to mourn individuals. Capturing one’s spiritual essence in physical remains, the inclusion of hair attaches a personal materiality to memorial and allows the dead to live on in close proximity to the wearer. This particular locket is inscribed with the initials “HJ” on its outside, which could have either referred to the object’s owner or the man himself. The rise of photography largely phased out the popularity of hair jewelry by the end of the nineteenth century, so this locket is an especially unique example of overlap between the two that captures both visual and tangible likeness.
What is the value of holding onto physical remains or reminders of loved ones?
Hagman, Anton (Swedish, 1854-1943)
Swedish Family Portrait, c. 1900
3 ¾ × 2 ¼ in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2015.114
Death does not always have to be physically present in photographs for it to still be a relevant subject. Although not explicitly funerary, this image of three Swedish women highlights many of the broader themes surrounding nineteenth-century portrait photography. Only the middle to upper classes could afford studio portraits, meaning that few early funerary photographs from the working class exist. The popularity of photo studios and the prevalence of death resulted in photographers who specialized in post mortem photography, marking the first business efforts to profit off of memorial work. Even regular images such as this carried underlying associations with death: at their core, portrait photographs commemorated one’s likeness and preserved their existence long after they died.
What do explicit post mortem images emphasize that other family photographs do not?
The Funeral of Tilda Aronson
Photographic print on cardboard
8 ⅞ × 10 ⅞ in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2015.195
The Funeral of Anders Gustav Aronson
Photographic print on cardboard
7 ⅞ × 10 in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2015.192.1
The Funerals of Tilda Aronson & Anders Gustav Aronson
Anders Gustav Aronson and Katarina Mathilda Carlsten were a husband and wife who lived in Duluth, Minnesota after emigrating from Sweden. Each of their funerals were photographed after they died—Katarina (who went by Tilda) died in 1901, and Anders in 1908. Both of these images are representative of a shifting sentiment seeking more of an impersonal distance from the dead, which was largely caused by the movement of death into public spaces such as funeral homes and churches. This meant that images of caskets became the new standard over lifelike post mortem portraits: rather than portraying intimate familial closeness, “sleeping” photographs such as Anders’ focused as much on the ceremony of the funeral itself as the individual being mourned. Flower arrangements became a new popular material symbol of life, serving as a decorative barrier to distract viewers from the physicality of their deceased loved ones.
What do you notice about these images that play into the visual spectacle of funerals?
Postcard with Field of Dead Soldiers
3 ⅞ × 5 ⅞ in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2015.244
Trench with Skeletal Remains
3 ⅞ × 5 ⅜ in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2015.323
Post Mortem Photography and World War I
Spurred by the media’s publication of increasingly graphic news, the First World War pushed death to the forefront of the public’s mind. Postcards were cheap to mass produce and also served a utilitarian function, circulating visual propaganda alongside the written messages they carried. Most of the postcards in this collection were never used, demonstrating their importance solely as collectible images in addition to their initial correspondence purpose. Depending on the subject, images of wartime death generally served one of two functions: the death of an enemy promoted a country’s strength, while the death of an ally instilled shock and anger. Without knowing the nationality of either of these postcards, it is difficult to tell if they were meant to prompt celebration or mourning. What is certain is that each of these images emphasize the violent horror of death without any of the personal care that had previously been characteristic of post mortem photography. The loss of life is no longer portrayed with respect, dignity, or individuality, but instead serves as subject matter for public motivation.
Should images of death be used to underline political messages?
Manuel, Henri (French, 1874-1947)
The Funeral of Ferdinand Foch, 1929
3 ½ × 5 ¾ in.
Kenyon College, Blick-Harris Study Collection, 2015.307
This postcard captures the funeral of Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander during the First World War. Text on the back notes “… the body of the Marshal exposed under the Arc de Triomphe,” which became the site of France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1920. Similar to the Apotheosis, the public could personally mourn and memorialize Foch by collecting images of his funeral, which was an early example of one that was filmed as well. Explicit post mortem photography became a much less common tradition after WWI, disappearing almost completely as a mass cultural phenomenon. Funerals continued to be photographed, but the role of the image changed from capturing an individual to preserving a fleeting event.
What is the relationship between death and photography like in the present day?
About the Curator: Willow Baker ’25 is an Art History major from the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to their work in curation and collections, they have been a stage manager for several productions both on campus and back home. Emphasizing storytelling and queer representation in their studies, Willow hopes to continue to pursue museum work in the future.