memento mori

Memento mori

All photographs are memento mori.

Memento mori-

Memento Mori is Latin for reminder of death. Skulls which are represented in Northern European portraits and still lifes, and South European depictions of saints, of the 16th and 17th centuries are perhaps the most obvious examples of such subjects.

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Such elements are painted as a reminder that death is the great leveller, which puts an end to all worldly achievements.

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old collection of mourning pins

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The advent of photography in the Victoria era provided an important new way for the bereaved to remember their dead.

In many cases, poverty stood squarely in the way of obtaining expensive painted portraits capturing loved ones in the prime of their lives.

Hence cheaper photography sessions began to grow in popularity – especially among bereaved families, whom in many cases, were finally able to obtain the only image they had of the deceased.

The earliest images of this trend rarely featured coffins and would often see the deceased posed in an everyday position in an attempt to capture their essence during life.

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At no other time in history than in the Victorian era have people been so preoccupied with the dead . It was during the Victorian era that post-mortem photography (also known as memorial portraiture, mourning photography, or memento mori ) thrived. Post-mortem photography, the practice of photographing the newly deceased, was an extremely prevalent form of photography in the Victorian era. more photographs of this type were taken, than of any other single type of photography in that era.

The clergy of the sixteenth century were often painted immediately following death, usually sitting up, or lying, in bed. In the early nineteenth century, it was customary to paint the portraits of wealthy young children who had died, usually posed in an every day position.

Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the daguerreotype process. The daguerreotype process was the first practicable method of obtaining permanent images with a camera.

now more people could afford  to memorialize their was not as expensive as commissioning a portrait of them, and it was much quicker.

the daguerreotype photograph was a  detailed image on a sheet of copper plated with a thin coat of silver. Although daguerreotypes are unique images, they could be copied by daguerreotyping the original. Copies were also produced by lithography or engraving. These photographs  served to preserve the image of the deceased in a way that had not previously been available to the majority of Victorians.

In most cases, a post-mortem photograph might be the only image of the deceased that the family ever had. The most common post-mortem photographs ate those of infants and young children.  childhood mortality rates were very high in that era. memorial portraits were the only image most families would have had to remember their lost child by.


photography took on colour-tinted ambrotypes in 1854, thin negative images on glass made to appear as a positive by showing them against a black background. Ambrotypes were half the price of sold at less than half the price of daguerreotypes . Tintypes,  in 1856  were cheaper yet. tintypes made photography universally available.

while the costs involved with photography decreased, the price for a post-mortem photograph actually increased, indicating its value and continued popularity.

Eventually, technology allowed for multiple copies of the same print to be enjoyed by relatives. This was close to the turn of the 20th century

By 1859, a new photographic process, producing the carte de visite or CDV became popular. The CDV was a small  thin paper photograph mounted on a thicker paper card. With a CDV, multiple prints could be made from a single negative. Copies of the post-mortem photograph could be sent to relatives. Surviving family members would hanging them in their homes, send copies to friends and relatives. wear them as lockets, or carry them as pocket mirrors.

The official practice of postmortem photography began to fade in the early twentieth century.when  Kodak introduced the Brownie camera and “snapshot” photography became a mass phenomenon.

Art in Bristol: Memento Mori from Friday, March 29 to Thursday, May 2, at Bristol Folk House
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