A Haunting Victorian-Era Photography Trend Known as Memento Mori

There have been all sorts of strange trends in photography throughout its vast history. Some of those trends raise the question, where would you draw the line when it comes to taking on commissioned work? Would posing and photographing the dead be considered too taboo in today's society? 

There were all sorts of strange practices during the Victorian Era. Memento mori photography was a trend that came to be in the 1850s as camera technology was becoming more affordable and widespread. Memento mori, which translates to “remember you must die,” was supported by photographers being commissioned at the time by families to photograph their deceased loved ones as a way to memorialize them. 

The commissioned photographers would pose and photograph the bodies within the first 24 hours following death, before decomposition set in. Oftentimes the subjects were infants and children whom the photographers would pose with things like their favorite toys and sometimes their living relatives. As a way add life to the photographs, eyes and pupils would sometimes be painted on the images. 

These images wouldn’t have have been as creepy or taboo at the time as they may be considered today, and society has become rather sensitive in terms of dealing with death and other realities of life. Can you think of any recent trends in photography that may be viewed as taboo in the future?

[via History]

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10 Comments

Can I think of any recent trends in photography that may be viewed as taboo in the future? Yeah, lifted blacks. I can't wait for people to start paying to have their Instagram filter "removed" from their old photos so they look like regular photos. Enough of this faded blacks stuff. LOL

Anonymous's picture

"Memento Tone Curve"

About 40 years ago, I was working for a studio doing promotional photography, shooting anything that moved and had money. Since I had been a combat photographer and chased ambulances earlier, the owner figured I was just fine with taking pictures of dead people. So he, without talking to me, worked out a deal with the owner of the funeral home across the street. When they got in a customer who's family had money, they would embalm them quickly, I would go over and take their portrait, and then we would replace out the coffin for an old masters background and paint in their eyes. Shoot that and pass the proofs at the funeral - last chance for a portrait.

So here I was, having this out-of-body experience, where I am looking down at myself standing up on a step ladder with my RB67 pointed down at this dead guy and doing the standard sitting room patter, trying to get him to smile.

And this loud deep voice says, "Time to do something else for a living!"

I gave up photography, sold all my gear, and refused to touch a camera at all for about 10 years. About 25 years later, we bought a house that came with a darkroom and I got back into it again. Now, I shoot primarily landscapes and musicians. I create art, not commerce. I'm starting to sell my work again, but it will be on my terms and it will not compromise my moral obligations as an artist. I'm not going back into prostitution again.

Elan Govan's picture

Morbid really...

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Elan Govan's picture

Funny...but a good comprehension of idiotic human activities.

Today there is a charity photographing portraits of new born babies who have been born 'sleeping' or babies with a life limiting condition. https://www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org/ The idea is that it helps the parents in that they have a memento of their child.

A volunteer photographer is contacted by the charity and the photographer does a family portrait session in the maternity hospital. It helps a lot with the healing process.

Studio 403's picture

Yikes, my ex wanted to have our dog taking to a taxidermist after “what’s her name” died. That damn dog lived 19 years,. I resented that dog. It got more attention than me. So happy not to have to look at a stuff dog I hated. That’s my rant today. Now a stuffed camera sounds like a nice idea

chris bryant's picture

Dead interesting article. I certainly hope this trend doesn't come back from the grave. If it does return, it will be Hell. I can see it now, Uncle has just died so we'll have to do a Facebook post-mortem. And they'll have to change the term "live feed". I couldn't shoot a corpse, I'll be scared stiff. I am fed up with photography, if this catches on I will quit, it'll be the last nail in the coffin. Shooting a wedding is bad enough but I'll never shoot a corpse, over my dead body.

Antonio Miguel Junior's picture

I was hired once, many years ago, to take a picture of a dead infant. The family told me they had not had the chance to take a picture of him while he was living, and wanted something to remember him by. I took some pictures of the baby in the little white coffin. It still makes me sad today, 30+ years later...