The Ghostly Beauty of Victorian Photography

     Imagine looking at old photographs in a family album or while browsing through an antique bookshop. Many of these photos will be black and white or will have a yellowish tint. This type of photograph is often referred to as a “daguerreotype”. The term was coined by entrepreneur, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre (1787-1851), the first person to publicly announce the perfect method of capturing images.  He, along with William Henry Fox Talbot and Frederick Scott Archer, experimented with different methods of photography that would eventually define the aesthetic of the Victorian Age. Invented by Talbot, “calotype” is known as “the ancestor of nearly all photographic methods using chemistry.” The final product of this method was a negative image created by a piece of chemically sensitized paper fixed inside the lens of the camera and later exposed to sunlight for the final effect. This method, like the daguerreotype, was effective yet expensive.

By 1851, Archer presented a new form of photography that incorporated the two methods of his colleagues known as the “wet collodion process”. This would become the foundation of photography for the next 140 years. The technique involved the use of coating images in a chemical, salt-based solution and letting them dry in a dark room for roughly fifteen minutes, which many photographers use to this day. 

Calotype of the Royal Family

     There were several occasions as to which photography in the Victorian Era was taken but the most commonly noted by historians were portraits. These portraits included newlyweds, families, and children. Eventually, Victorian photography would be best known for the Momento Mori movement. This movement marked the beginning of capturing death on camera. The Victorian period was plagued with several illnesses such as cholera, typhus and measles, which lead to a widespread of early deaths. Thus, Victorians used photography as a way to preserve their lost loved ones. Photographs and other trinkets, such as jewelry with locks of hair of a deceased loved one, were kept as memorabilia. Perhaps the most unsettling part of this movement was that the dead themselves, even young children and infants, were the ones photographed. Mothers would pose with their lost infants and corpses in open caskets were printed onto greeting cards sent to family members. Though it is debated by some scholars as a hoax, it has been speculated that photographers even propped up the dead into upright poses to appear alive again. Even if this method was an illusion, it confirms just how fascinated Victorians were with post-mortem imagery.

     This gruesome portraiture became increasingly popular well into the late 1800’s, especially as photography became cheaper and with more advanced methods invented. Looking back on such images, while upsetting to the modern eye, this was a comfort to those during a time when proper healthcare was unavailable, and death was inventible. In fact, Victorian photography was seeing beauty in the darkness of times, staring death in the face without despair, and instead embracing it.

Sources:

Bell, Bethan, “Taken From Life: The Unsettling Art of Death Photography”

https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-36389581

“Victorian Photographic Techniques”, National Museums Scotland

https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/science-and-technology/victorian-photography/victorian-photography/victorian-photographic-techniques/

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