The Inevitability of Death


Photograph by: Thomas Richard Williams Image Source: The J. Paul Getty Museum

The tradition of memento mori, a literal translation of which is “remember that you must die” has its roots in 17th century Dutch paintings where objects, for instance, a skull, was used as a reminder of the inevitability of death. It existed long before the Victorian era, a time during which it became even more popular. These artworks were specifically made with the intention to prompt viewers to consider their own mortality. This photograph, titled The Sands of Time by Thomas Richard Williams is a very early example of a visual depicting memento mori.

When the daguerreotype process first came about, it served a practical purpose—to create faithful records of people and places. Monuments, cityscapes and portraits became its primary subjects. However, it wasn’t until photographers like Williams that daguerreotypes began to be used for more artistic endeavours, like photographing still life in the studio with subsidiary meanings.

When Williams created The Sands of Time, he was until then a daguerreotype portraitist and was well known for the same. He was in fact known for his stereoscopic 3-D portraits, an attempt on his part to come into his own artistic vision of what photography could and would become. When he began shooting still life, they became popular and set the stage for other photographers to follow suit.

A description of The Sands of Time, which was shot somewhere between 1850-52, reads, “An assemblage of a human skull, an hour glass with the sand running out, an extended compass, and a book abandoned mid-read with eyeglasses placed upside down on the page, the image wokes the temporary nature of mortal life and the inevitability of death. The objects also refer to intellectual pursuits and to the inevitable triumph of the soul over the mind.”