The Eccentricities of the Victorian Era
Conchita Fernandes tells you why the Victorian era was a bizarre time for photography.
This article was originally published in March 2016.
When you think about the Victorian era (1837–1901), you immediately visualise the elaborate and extravagant clothes and tea parties. In fact, it is reminiscent of the characters from any Brontë sister’s novels. However, hiding behind this facade of normalcy was a series of peculiar rituals. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Young children are fidgety little beings. Getting them to remain still even for a minute is a mountainous task! So you can imagine the plight of the Victorian era mothers, who wished to have a portrait of their toddlers made.
The camera technology at the time was at its very nascent stage. Making a photograph was an affair that would involve hours of exposure time and one more thing, the individual to be photographed had to sit in a statue-esque pose for a long time. But this obstacle did not deter the Victorian mothers from making photographs of their children.
However, the solution that was sought at the time would hardly make it to a family album if it were shot today. The mothers resorted to covering themselves entirely with black cloth or a curtain, while the child would be either standing and holding her hand, or she would be holding the young baby on her lap. The expression of the children also don’t help and only goes on to exemplify the uneasy nature of the photograph. In the end, the families received photos that contained an eerie looking figure in the background, which was perfectly normal. Maybe the Victorians were never really good at playing hide-and-seek!
Death is an unfortunate moment. Funerals allow families to grieve for their loss. Photographs are made at this time but are not necessarily things that relatives would like to repeatedly look at. However, this was not the case during the Victorian era. Post-mortem photography, the practice of photographing the deceased, was a popular trend back then. It was a quicker and cheaper way of creating a memory of a person because creating a painting was a time consuming process, especially when one of your subjects is a corpse. Also, the photographs in all likelihood were the only images that families would have to remember their loved ones by.
The earliest post-mortem photos were either close-ups of the person’s face or a shot of the entire body. It was common to surround the deceased with flowers, while children on the other hand, were usually surrounded by their favorite toys. The departed were made to look like they were resting, or they were propped up on a chair to make them appear more lively. In the case of children, a rosy tint was applied to their cheeks in the touch-up stage, to restore a small part of their liveliness and innocence.
The portrait-making process was seen as a means of making a memento. However, its portrayal today is associated with morbidity. One of the reasons could be the social and cultural shift since then, that has turned death into a morbid and discomforting topic. Additionally, it also does not help that the family members appear to be calm and almost posing with their deceased child or relative.
For the Love of Decapitation!
It is quite fun to see what Victorian people liked to amuse themselves with. A traditional portrait might have been just a tad bit too drab for them, which is why decapitations the most sought after thins! Wait, don’t worry. No one went around chopping off people’s heads. In fact, headless portraits of people where they nestle their heads in their arms or on the table, was quite a normal thing to do!
You can blame Swedish photographer Oscar Rejlander for popularising this idea. The technique which was introduced in 1856, employed ‘trick photography’ where different sections of several negatives were joined to produce a single photograph. But of course it did not stop at this. The Victorians had to travel the extra mile and experiment with double exposures too, but not in the way we use it today. To amuse themselves, they would dress dress up as absurd inexplainable characters or white floating ghostly figures, where they would appear to be attacking their human counterparts.
Tags: portrait, long exposures, Conchita Fernandes, may 2014, Death, Victorian Era, Eccentric, Bizarre, Ghost mothers, Post-mortem photography, Rememberance, Decapitation, Trick Photography, Oscar Rejlander, Headless, Swedish