this is how the tradition of portraying death for posterity has evolved

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Death is painful and few people think of photographing it in the 21st century. The newspapers do not want to publish them and a warning appears on the networks so as not to hurt the spectators. But from the 19th century to the mid-20th century, the dead were photographed to preserve their memory. Let’s talk about postmortem photography and check everything that we have changed.


Death has always been present in all civilizations. In fact, making burials is one of the things that differentiates us from animals. We can’t forget that the life of the egyptians revolved around the afterlife and that a much closer religion turns death into one more step to eternal life. And the churches are full of images of the dead.

Post-mortem photography made death visible in a direct way. and gave rise to some disturbing portraits for our current mentality. Since photography was introduced to the world until the middle of the 20th century, the tradition was maintained, with more or less intensity, in the Western world.

Post Mortem Photography Collection Carlos Areces Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

The photographs that illustrate this article are from the personal collection of Carlos Areces, which we can see in the book ‘Post mortem, collected by Carlos Areces’ by Titilante Ediciones, written by Virginia de la Cruz Lichet, Ph.D. in History of Art. Join us in this world by the hand of a collector and one of the greatest experts in the world.

What is post mortem photography?

Many people learned about post-mortem photography thanks to the film by Alejandro Amenábar ‘The others’. In one scene, the protagonist finds an album of photographs of the dead. Some thought it was artistic license. But it was an entrenched custom from the 19th century.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

Carlos Areces He started his very personal collection as a result of this moment. And she went from seeing a macabre custom to a show of affection for those who had left.

Post-mortem photography gathers a pictorial and sculptural tradition of centuries inspired by the ‘Ars moriendi’, some texts that explained to the good Christian how to die and that ended up giving a specific iconography of death that was adopted by photography. is the representation of the body of the deceased with the intention, at first especially, of ‘camouflaging’ the nature of what we are seeing.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

Until the 19th century, only the high nobility who could afford to pay artists for the realization of a painting or a sculpture to pass on to posterity could portray their dead. But the camera changed everything.

Photography, much cheaper, allowed all social classes to have a memory of their dead.

It is true that we can find portraits of people from a lower social scale, as for example in ‘anatomy lesson’ of Rembrandt. In this case we see Aris Kindt, a thief who was hanged for his crime. And I imagine that they did not ask permission to go down to posterity.

Photography, much cheaper, allowed all social classes to have a memory of their dead. Until his arrival we only knew, in a profuse and idealized way, the kings and nobles. This is one of the reasons why there is talk of the democratization of photography.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

The tradition of post mortem photography

The Victorian age It was the perfect spur for post-mortem photography. The relationship they established with death made it possible to move naturally from the pictorial portrait to the daguerreotype. Many painters abandoned brushes for cameras and brought the entire composition to this new art.

Many artists, to save time, preferred to take a photograph of the deceased and then use it as a sketch for a painting. But realism and speed ended up prevailing. It soon became a tradition in the US, in Europe and of course in Spain.where this activity can still be found in the 80s of the 20th century, in rural areas.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

Virginia de la Cruz Lichet, one of the greatest specialists in post-mortem photography, analyzes in her thesis ‘Post-mortem photographic portraits in Galicia (19th and 20th centuries)‘ and in the book ‘Post mortem. Collectio Carlos Areces’, the whole history of this custom that makes our hair stand on end today.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

As he tells us, he began to discover this world through his relationship with Virxilio Vieitez, one of the best Spanish photographers who toured the Galician villages for baptisms, weddings and of course funerals. There he began a passion that he maintains today.

She prefers to talk about photography of the deceased, where the corpse appears within a funerary rite, an important nuance. He sees it simply as a concern of the human being in the face of the phenomenon of death and photography was a new artistic medium to represent it, inheriting everything that had been done throughout history.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

It is very curious to see the evolution of the way of representing the deceased, and it is possible to establish three main typologieswhich we can see in the photographs that accompany the article, which are part of the Carlos Areces collection:

  • as asleep
  • how i live
  • as dead
Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

The photographer went to the house of the deceased and took advantage of the light of the place to achieve the most idealized representation. At first they sought life in dead faces (even with gimmicks to get your eyes open), but it didn’t look good, so little by little the image that we all have of the ‘asleep’ was triumphing.

Why were they taking these photos?

Carlos Areces tells us a curious anecdote, when he bought one of these photographs, the owner of the store in Bilbao was very surprised to have it. And the expletives that he released because there were people capable of making such an image surprised the collector.

Nothing can be judged without placing oneself in the context of the time in which it occurred.. Post-mortem photography was the only way to have a memory of someone who had never taken a portrait in his life. Sometimes it was the only way to get the issue of inheritance going, especially if they were elderly.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

It was pure social interaction, a cult of memory that could never have been reached in any other way. This is how they integrated these people into the family history, because if not, their image would have been lost forever. We cannot forget that infant mortality was very high in those times and they could only be remembered that way.

Today death hides. Everything is aseptic and society does not want to know anything. Our relationship with her has totally changed. That is why it seems to many an aberration and it is difficult for them to look directly at death. They never cease to impress because their authors sought excellence in their work.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

Photographs of children, mothers and elderly people abound. And in all of them a respect for the deceased is distilled that can make our blood run cold because it represents something that we no longer want to see. Both Carlos Areces and Virginia de la Cruz Lichet agree that the image that most impresses them is that of girls around the body of a deceased girl. It would probably be the only memory they would have of her.

Photography Photograph ‘Post Mortem Collection Carlos Areces’

Postmortem photography is the perfect example of how society has changed. Death was part of life and the body rested in the house, the family fixed the body and waited for the photographer to have a memory. And life went on. But not anymore, we don’t want to see her.

As we can see in the film ‘The strange case of Angélica’ (2010) by Manoel de Oliveira, based on a personal anecdote, the photographer could place the body, but normally he directed the family to achieve the best effect. He was in charge of the light and returned the copy to perpetuate the memory. Sometimes in a decorated case that he might remind of a coffin. Everything was different and not so long ago.

Many of those stories may seem macabre to us today, such as that of the Galician photographer who broke the plate where he had photographed a deceased girl and chose to photograph his niece to give it to the relatives. Her mother said: ‘“What an artist, Mr. Dionisio! She turned out so well the poor thing that it seems that they take her alive and that she wants to run away from the box! ”.

hidden spain

Photography of the exhibition ‘Hidden Spain’ by Cristina García Rodero

In the book ‘Hidden Spain’ by Cristina García Rodero we can see what death was like in the 80s, how some Galician processions carry the coffins that will collect their bodies as a promise… There is also the photograph of Eugene Smith in Delightful where he portrayed the duel of one of the elders of the place.

There is very little published on post-mortem photography, both in the world and in Spain; That is why the thesis and the book that we have indicated stand out, where we can find all these stories about a way of thinking that we no longer understand. But that perfectly reminds us of who we are and where we are going. And photography became the best witness in those times.

Death is painful and few people think of photographing it in the 21st century. The newspapers do not want to…

Death is painful and few people think of photographing it in the 21st century. The newspapers do not want to…

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