The Smithsonian has millions of pictures organized in hundreds of subject based collections. If you have been reading any of my Bigger Picture posts you’ve heard it before: photographs of bridges and buildings in the Division of Work & Industry; fish photos in the Division of Fishes; famous Americans in the photography collection of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. But, as far as I know, there is no collection labeled, “dead.” However, postmortem images, photographs of the recently deceased, have been a part of photography from the beginning.
In an era marked by early death, especially of infants and children, the nineteenth-century photographer was as frequent a deathbed participant as the doctor or the coroner. In rural areas, often the same person performed the duties of all three. In cities, photo studios advertised their skill at picturing the recently departed. The history of photography is full of heartbreaking portraits of children who have just died, lying in their beds, surrounded by their toys, or in the arms of their parents. These images provided a final visual record of the deceased with the power to preserve the memory of the mind’s eye. In the 1840s and 1850s in America, where a growing population was increasingly on the move, portraits were a means of bringing loved ones, dead or distant, near again. By the late nineteenth century, our comfort with death as a part of life changed and the photography of recent death became the territory of photojournalists who produced images of anonymous, even if harsher realities of war. Sandy Puc’s recent photographs of the death of newborns, made at the invitation of parents, are a powerful reminder of how intimate images provide a tool to grieve and then remember. But in a sense, all photographs after a while end up being memorials to their subjects. A new grieving ritual seemed to emerge after the post-September 11th terrorist attack. Remember all those “Have you seen this person” photographs that were posted on the storefront windows of lower Manhattan as relative and friends searched for the missing? Photographs that often sadly turned into photographs of the dead. Modern rituals reflect the continued need to memorialize our loved ones using a cherished keepsake, souvenir, or memento, most often a photograph. Perhaps too this is why when those evacuated from a place of natural disaster return home, it is to search among the rubble for their family photographs.
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.