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Taken from life: The unsettling art of death photography – BBC News

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Image caption It was common for families to have lots of children, and also common for them to die before their fifth birthday. In this picture, the youngest child has died and is propped against a stand for the picture

Photographs of loved-ones taken after they died may seem morbid to modern sensibilities. But in Victorian England, they became a way of commemorating the dead and blunting the sharpness of grief.

In images that are both unsettling and strangely poignant, families pose with the dead, infants appear asleep, and consumptive young ladies elegantly recline, the disease not only taking their life but increasing their beauty.

Victorian life was suffused with death. Epidemics such as diphtheria, typhus and cholera scarred the country, and from 1861 the bereaved Queen made mourning fashionable.

Trinkets of memento mori – literally meaning “remember you must die” – took several forms, and existed long before Victorian times.

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Image caption Long exposures when taking photographs meant that the dead were often seen more sharply than the slightly-blurred living, because of their lack of movement
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Image caption Photography studios would take a memento mori picture and print it on cards for the bereaved to give to friends and relatives
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Image caption On some occasions eyes would be painted on to the photograph after it was developed, which was meant to make the deceased more lifelike (left) while other times death was more obvious

Locks of hair cut from the dead were arranged and worn in lockets and rings, death masks were created in wax, and the images and symbols of death appeared in paintings and sculptures.

But in the mid-1800s photography was becoming increasingly popular and affordable – leading to memento mori photographic portraiture.

The first successful form of photography, the daguerreotype – a small, highly detailed picture on polished silver – was an expensive luxury, but not nearly as costly as having a portrait painted, which previously had been the only way of permanently preserving someone’s image.

As the number of photographers increased, the cost of daguerreotypes fell. Less costly procedures were introduced in the 1850s, such as using thin metal, glass or paper rather than silver.

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Image caption In this case, one twin has died while the other survived. The dead baby is surrounded by flowers
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Image caption Two girls pose with their dead mother, while a Victorian father mourns his baby. The woman on the right’s cheeks have been tinted while her deceased toddler remains pale
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Image caption The whole household – including a cat – has gathered round a dead child on the floor, who is posed as if sleeping

Death portraiture became increasing popular. Victorian nurseries were plagued by measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, rubella – all of which could be fatal.

It was often the first time families thought of having a photograph taken – it was the last chance to have a permanent likeness of a beloved child.

But as healthcare improved the life expectancy of children, the demand for death photography diminished.

The advent of snapshots sounded the death knell for the art – as most families would have photographs taken in life.

Now, these images of men, women and children stoically containing their grief in order to preserve the likeness of a taken-too-soon loved one, continue to live up to their name.

Memento mori: remember, you must die.

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Image caption The boy’s eyes have been painted on the photo, while the little girl is arranged upright, as if she’s dropped off to sleep while playing with her favourite dolls
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Image caption The death of a loved one was often the trigger to have a family portrait taken – the last chance to have a permanent record of a beloved child
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Image caption Memento mori photography was not just popular in Europe. These pictures were taken in Australia and are part of a collection at the State Library of South Australia

Read more: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-36389581

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