Monday, February 1, 2010

Sleeping Beauties

One of the seeds of my interest in postmortem portraiture was planted when I saw the book Sleeping Beauties: Memorial Photography in America. This beautiful hard-cover collection was edited from the Dr. Stanley Burns Archive and published in 1990 by TwelveTrees Press. The first edition is now quite valuable. It was followed in 2002 with Sleeping Beauties II: Grief, Bereavement and the Family in Memorial Photography. American and European Traditions published by the Burns Archive Press. Both fairly large books have gilt text on the plain black cover. The photograph collections within are among the best examples of postmortem portraiture you will find anywhere.

An excerpt from the Burns Archive Website describes Dr. Burns and his collection's origin below:
In 1975, Dr. Stanley B. Burns, an eye surgeon and vision specialist practicing in New York City, became interested in daguerreotypes and other early photographs. By 1978, Dr. Burns had acquired, through aggressive buying and connoisseurship, one of America's most important collections of early photography. 
In 1988, the Burns Archive moved into its permanent headquarters, a New York townhouse built in 1890, at 140 East 38th Street.

My own collection was in response to these. It is important to consider that all of these images are virtually one-of-a-kind. Literally so for the daguerreotypes, ambrotypes and tintypes. Most likely so for cartes-des-visite and cabinet cards because of the small chance of duplicates surviving so long. Even other prints were likely in the personal collections of the immediate family, so only rarely do I come across more than one copy. So, like the Sleeping Beauties books, here are more examples from:

The Post-Mortem Portrait Archive
From my postmortem collection, these examples are among my favorites. The first is a 1860-65 tintype in a daguerreotype case in which the face was slightly hand-tinted. An amazing photo, equally as good as any in the Burns Archive.
An interesting trend for some early 20th Century examples, is the vertical format baby wearing a white Christening gown. There seems to be an attempt to make the child look angelic and serene. These three similar Edwardian examples are printed 12-13 cm by 9-10 cm and mounted onto embossed card stock.


This one had written on the back: "Lester L. Shire, 3 mos. 5 dys".


These two little cartes-des-visite from the 1870's(?) are also amazing in their sensitivity and elegance.

The little girl in the chair seems to be watching the camera, but the tell-tale signs of death make it clear that she is not seeing anything. One of the saddest revelations from looking at these images is the reality of the death of these children. One sometimes forgets this when we are distracted by the beauty of the work.


  1. hello! I have only now just come across your blog, very interesting. I have yet to read through all your posts, but I was curious if you knew that in some of these photos (and other similar photos of live babies from the same time) the baby's mother would actually be holding the infant for the photograph but covered in a sheet so they looked like furniture. I can't be certain but the photo of "lester" above could be one done that way. Given how long photographs took it just adds another dimension to these photographs, the dead children, the covered ghostly mothers...

  2. Wonderful work

  3. Wonderful work.


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