Fair warning: Most people on the pictures of this post are dead, and not because these are rather old pictures.
This is a photo of a photographer, fussing with his equipment while taking a picture of a young man or, rather, a corpse of a young man, made up to look alive and even lively. Lovely, isn’t it?
Mid-XIX century, after the invention of first daguerreotypy and then photography, Europeans rushed to make use of the fascinating new media. Soon enough, some entrepreneurial photo-artist came up with a brilliant idea. “Have no portrait of your dearly departed? No worries! We’ll help you create an eternal memory…” It’s OK if your dearly departed is a stiff… as long as the adorable corpse still holds its shape.
The business took off. In no time, many funeral homes started offering services of photo-artists. Morticians dressed up and made up their breathless “subjects” to look alive — eyes opened and moistened to liven up “stares of death”, lips stretched into smiles, postures held upright with various mechanical devises.
This morbid necrophilia was superimposed on yet another Victorian-era fashion: everything associated with death was considered romantic and poetic. Coffins became more elegant, funerals — scenic, crypts — elaborate. Cemeteries turned into favorite spots for picnics, melancholy promenades, places for lovers’ clandestine meetings. Books for children often featured untimely deaths of either the evilest or the most angelic kid in the story.
In the collection below, the authenticity of only one picture — that of a young woman-vamp — is disputed. It is believed to be a fake. Nowadays, Victorian “postmortem” photographs became highly desirable collector items for fans of the macabre.
The Spanish movie Snow White (2012) by Pablo Berger has the scene where Snow White’s father has died (mind you, he was a toreador — a very “Spanish” occupation), and the mourning family immortalized their grief in a group photo with his corpse.
The “dead people posing for pretty pictures” trend persisted for quite a long time and faded sometime in the second decade of the twentieth century. Has grief become more civilized? Perhaps, but most likely the fashion came to an end because photography became more common and widely available — more people left some pre-mortem pictures of themselves behind. Death, too, largely lost its romantic appeal…
XIX century Russians seem to have never caught up with the Victorian-era European fascination with dressing up their dead and snapping pictures of them. Pictures of coffins — well, yes, but cadavers propped up to look undead — no. In 1924, however, Russians made a tremendous leap toward closing this cultural gap and in doing so outdid them all, creating the “living dead” of their own. This relic, however, harks back much farther than the Victorian necrophilia, to the times truly immemorial… The embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin was transformed into a permanent installation and put to rest in the Lenin’s Mausoleum, in Moscow.
I won’t go into a lengthy discourse about ritualistic adoration of human remains, or V. I. Lenin, or the factoids about the Mausoleum. I’ll just briefly mention that “un-interred” Vladimir Lenin was the first “live” corpse I’ve seen in my life. I was a child then, my age being somewhere in the high single digit. Earlier the same year, to protect me from emotional trauma, my parents disallowed me to get anywhere near my grandmother’s coffin. “Stuffed” Lenin, on the other hand, was — and remains to this day — a tourist attraction.
I remember the long, slow-crawling line along the Kremlin’s walls, hundreds of appropriately somber people… Lenin’s head looked like a non-too-brightly illuminated ball, his hands, too, were illuminated. Granted, there were no pictures of the body available anywhere to prepare first-time visitors for the effect. Eerie but fascinating sight it was, really, given the wait and the anticipation… The candid camera snapshot of people, waiting in line to “visit with Lenin” below, is neither mine nor of me but taken round about the same time I described, give and take a few years. Except for the season — it was summer then…