View Full Version : Let's bring back death portraits....

Frank Petronio
23-Dec-2008, 11:07
Looking at the old timers in Michael Lesy's "Wisconsin Death Trip" makes me think this should be a market photographers should be rekindling and promoting, especially in this struggling economy.

Anyone do any of these lately?

23-Dec-2008, 11:09
You first. :)

23-Dec-2008, 11:24
Sorry Frank, I shouldn't be so flippant.

This is quite common in my wife's family. She has pictures of every deceased relative imaginable in their casket. All amateur, no professional shots.

At the last family funeral I noticed that the funeral parlor guys were a bit miffed at this behavior. But, then again, I found them to be quite odd anyway - in an intolerant sort of way. At the closing of the casket several family members wanted a last picture. I suppose what made the funeral parlor guys upset was when Cousin Millard pulled over a folding chair and hoisted all 300 pounds of himself onto the rickety chair to get a better vantage point.

In terms of professional services I suppose it would be a fairly easy job. I'd get in cahoots with funeral homes and offer the service through them if I were to consider such a thing.

Frank Petronio
23-Dec-2008, 11:36
I got the impression it was a Midwestern - Northern European kind of thing....

23-Dec-2008, 12:48
Southern too.

23-Dec-2008, 12:53
At the funeral of a friend's sister, I was asked,by her mother, (as she handed me a disposable camera) to take some shots for the family that "couldn't be there".
I told the funeral directors what she wanted, & they were very cooperative, we waited til everyone left, they even brought me a stepstool, then left me alone to do my job. I used my own camera, made a nice little album with pics of all the flowers , and the front of the church.
She loved it!
David Silva
Modesto, Ca

23-Dec-2008, 15:18

Get on Amazon and order yourself a copy of James Van Der Zee's "Harlem Book of the Dead". A real treasure and very much in keeping with your idea.

As to my own family, I remember as a kid in the 50's, going through a chest of drawers in my grandmother's house and finding dozens of death portraits of deceased family members ranging from infants to elderly.....all taken by professional portrait studios in the Pittsburg Pa. area in the late 1800's into the 1920's.

Makes me think it was part of the trade in that era and has just faded from being in fashion, possibly with the advent of personal cameras.

Most of these images were absolutely elegant in their attention to composition and lighting. It was obvious that there had been both practice and compassion in the artist.


W K Longcor
23-Dec-2008, 15:41
Back in the sixties, I worked for a fantastic photographer, who quite often would be hired by families to photograph " grandma" in her coffin -- photo to be sent to the old country so that all could see that the family took good care of her.

The boss would take portrait lights and a Linhof hand held camera (4x5) . They would set up two step ladders ( one each side of grandma) with a board across between them. The boss would sit on the board - right over the coffin to do the " portrait".

One time, the family came back to the studio -- exclaiming that grandma had never had a portrait done -- and this was such a good likeness -- could we please open her eyes!!!

The boss's wife who was a wonderful retouch artist preformed the magic.

23-Dec-2008, 16:08
Who did you have in mind?

john collins
23-Dec-2008, 16:14
Good one, Bill.

Andrew O'Neill
23-Dec-2008, 18:28
Two years ago a football player on the high school that I teach at suddenly died on the field during practice. Me being the media arts teacher was asked by the parents to make a video of the funeral for their relatives back in Iran. I'll never do that again as it was just too surreal. Maybe it's an Iranian thing, I don't know. The parents were extremely grateful, but I would not want to make a business out of it. I think people should be remembered for when they're living, not when they're dead.

24-Dec-2008, 00:25
There's not much photographic activity at the extreme ends of human life, well, unless you count "conception" photographs. Eighty bazillion photos of babies, not so many of babies being born, though. Similar thing with the other end, a fair amount of shots of grandma and grandpa being eldery, not so many of grandma and grandpa being stone dead. Even back then there was the same sharp dip in death photos just like birth photos. Better to get cleaned up and dressed first. Nobody wants to document that instant moment of the lights turning on or off.

The dressed up, smirking dead babies in mini coffins are nice, but that one with the half-lidded eyes is really creepy. The skull-headed grandma shot (1893 - no page numbers in this damn book) might as well be a death portrait - yeeowza!

Turner Reich
24-Dec-2008, 00:47
I'm dying to see where this thread goes.

sun of sand
24-Dec-2008, 03:40
knock knock

Bryan Lemasters
24-Dec-2008, 06:46
Who's there?

Dave Jeffery
25-Dec-2008, 04:32

25-Dec-2008, 09:50
Dustin who?

25-Dec-2008, 10:37
The wind.

25-Dec-2008, 11:45
I have been asked on numerous occasions to do death shots, after shooting as a forensic photographer for the police for many years, I have declined every single time, I have spent to much time around death, both in the service as well as working with the police, I prefer to photograph the living and leave the sad shots to those who have the ability to view things in a different light.

25-Dec-2008, 15:09

Justin Cormack
28-Dec-2008, 11:26
They do seem to have been more common in the past. Here is one from a half plate glass negative I came across, I presume late Victorian, from England, although there isnt much to identify it.


Richard Wasserman
28-Dec-2008, 11:59

28-Dec-2008, 17:29
Fabulous idea! I really want permanent momentos of my loved ones being :eek: DEAD. Having to endure the Catholic services is bad enough.

Scott Davis
29-Dec-2008, 08:36
I have a postmortem daguerreotype as part of my cased images collection. You see a lot of them (both tins and dags) of children, less of adults. I suppose you could explain the phenomenon by the fact that the extended family would have been less likely to have seen/met the child, and more likely to want to get a picture of what the child was like.

29-Dec-2008, 14:23
I have a good friend who had a very preemie child. Born several months early he had lots of problems. I did many portraits of him in the hospital, and was asked to come back and take more when he was in the process of dying. For the first (and only) time in his few months on this earth he was not hooked up to tubes and wires and could just be held by mommy and daddy. They were both the saddest and most rewarding pictures I have ever shot. Once he passed I was asked to take a few more of him "sleeping" which I also shot.

Several years later the parents have a very nice memory of a very difficult time, for they had a living breathing child if for only a few hours.

I also shot the funeral for them.

Santo Roman
30-Dec-2008, 02:22
Strange this was brought up, but before my grandfather died and he was laying in front of his TV a few hours from his deep sleep, people were stopping by to have their picture taken with him. At first I was pissed but then honored. Once he did go there were a few of us hanging around talking about gramps and all the trouble he got us into with grandma and a relative snapped a few shots. Weeks later I looked at them, it was like he was asleep and was in no pain. One of the better shots of him in the last few years since I knew he was no longer in pain and was at ease. I say bring back the death pics.


30-Dec-2008, 09:01
Some of my relatives are looking pretty grim...and they're still alive!
I'm not going to be a customer of this sort of service.

Darryl Baird
30-Dec-2008, 21:41

30-Dec-2008, 22:05
at least you can use a slow shutter speed and not worry about
the person moving ... unless it is harold or maude ...

John Kasaian
30-Dec-2008, 22:15
What is really an art is making portraits that can be placed on headstones and that will withstand the elements. There used to be a company in Italy that could do this (the original print was destroyed in the process though) I haven't seen any on the newer headstones but I always thought it was a cool idea.

I went to a funeral a few years ago, and the family of the deceased was into the open casket snap-shot thing. It struck me as a bit creepy.

Of course these days lots of folks want to make an ash out of themselves. When I was flying I had to obliged some customers wishes. There was a thingly known as the "ash-hole" ---a short length of core tubing scavanged from a roll of carpet. Stick it out the window of a Cessna until you felt the venturi effect & bombs away! Sure beats getting the cremains sucked back into the cockpit! :eek:

Frank Petronio
31-Dec-2008, 00:04
My Dad and his friends tried to dump a buddy's ashes out of a Cessna and they blew all over the interior. So while they comforted his widow by telling her that he was at peace out over the lake, the reality is that a goodly portion of him got sucked into a vacuum cleaner bag and sent to a landfill....

John Kasaian
31-Dec-2008, 02:33
True grit! Reminds me of an episode from the series "Wings" when cremains were sucked up in a Dust Buster and the whole Dust Buster was dropped out and sank some poor guys boat.

Of course when the weather would sock us in we were responsible for the cremains until the sortie. One passenger accompanied me on a pub crawl one evening. Since Fresno was the car theft capital back then I couldn't very well have him wait for me in the parking lot and risk loosing him along with the Chevrolet.

It sure creeped out the bar tenders as I recollect.

31-Dec-2008, 03:33

Joe Smigiel
31-Dec-2008, 07:55

Thanks for posting that link Darryl. It looks like a very worthwhile cause.


31-Dec-2008, 17:56
As humans, we obsess over death way too much...we have to learn to let go. I would never do a death portrait.

John Kasaian
31-Dec-2008, 19:45
As humans, we obsess over death way too much...we have to learn to let go. I would never do a death portrait.

Why not?