Dia de los Muertos
What it is:
Two tintypes (approx. 2.5 x 2 inches each) mounted into cardboard frames (approx. 2.25 x 3.75 inches each).
What I know about it:
Photographer of the first one is Bon Ton of Potter (Wisconsin?). Otherwise both are undated and unidentified, though both are from an album from which I’ve posted photos previously.
Happy Day of the Dead! I think it’s safe to assume that most of the people pictured in this blog are now dead, but here are a couple of photos of people who were dead when the photos were taken. These are called post mortem photos (also spelled post-mortem; also called memorial portraits, or memento mori). These were relatively common in the 1800s, and while the practice still exists (a coworker showed me photos that were taken at his father’s funeral just last year), it has fallen out of favor as our culture has grown more squeamish about photos of the dead. But back in the day, such photos were welcomed as final images of loved ones. Not that people in the 1800s felt less horror and dismay over death, just that they didn’t feel the corpse itself was something to be shunned in the way we do now. So they took photos of them. The deceased were dressed and groomed, and laid out like they were asleep, as above. Sometimes they were propped up in lifelike poses, even going so far as to have their eyes open (I’ll admit, the open-eyed ones look spooky to me). Sometimes they were lying in a coffin, but just as often they’d be seated in a chair. And they posed with the living, with surviving parents holding dead children, and remaining relatives posed around a corpse. Even the old practice of tinting the cheeks was applied to these photos. As far as I know, the above photos are the only two post mortem photos I have, though others are easily found online if you want to see more examples. I treasure them, partly because tintypes are one-of-a-kind, and also because these are likely the only photos ever taken of these children. (It was often the case that post mortem photos were the only photos ever taken of the subject, even with adults, back when getting your photo taken was a special occasion, which was part of the motivation behind taking them in the first place.) And if you consider that over the last 150 years the courthouse records may have burned, the family Bibles may have been lost, and the tombstones may have eroded, these two photos may be the only remaining evidence that these two children ever existed at all. So as we celebrate the departed today, we’ll spare a thought for them and whatever little lives they managed to have had all those generations ago.