My Favorite Holiday: Spirit Photography, Memento Mori, and creepy Old Costumes
October is one of my favorite months – the oppressive heat and humidity of the summer finally start to wane, leaves (well in some areas) begin to change colours, and almost the entire month is dedicated to all things scary, spooky, creepy and crawly. And I get to eat as much candy as I want, under the pretext that I save enough for Halloween Night.
I have to admit that this entire post was inspired by this recent webpage I ran across. The Retronaut website has become my daily obsession – it combines culture, fashion, architecture, social psychology and most of all photography – all within eras I’ve never been a part of and therefore want to learn more about.
Spirit photography was first used by William H. Mumler in the 1860′s. What is really just a double exposure in a photograph was turned into a lucrative business in the Victorian Era. He acted as a medium, taking photos of people and them doctoring the negatives with images of deceased loved ones. He was eventually found out as a fraud when he doctored in a living person (oops!).
Running with the theme of hanging onto loved ones and the long obsession with the afterlife, I move onto Memento Mori. Literally translating to “Remember you must die,” memento mori classifies an entire artistic genre stretching back to ancient Greece. It has been prevalent in art work throughout the ages and is a reminder that life is transient. It features prominently during the Medieval Ages, particularly around the time of the Black Death (bubonic plaque) which ravished the European populous. It has a history in battles, religions, architecture and transcends rich and poor, male and female, young and old. The artwork is a reminder that no matter who you are, we must all one day die. Whether you take that as a terrifying message or an edifying one, it’s display of impermanence has been painted, sculpted, and written about for centuries.
On a darker side, the documentation of post-mortem photographytook off in the Victorian era with the creation of the 1st camera, the daguerreotype. Photography was such a new and elusive technology that grief stricken families used it to immortalize their loved ones. What we consider creepy and macabre, they saw as a means to keep their loved ones images with them for a lifetime. Painted portraits were very expensive, so the relatively cheap method of photography opened up a way for the middle class to memorialize their recently deceased. It was often used for children as the infant morality rate very high in the Victorian era. I find it interesting that as a culture, we tend to shun anything to do with death – we think we’re immortal, always striving for unattainable youth, and when we get old, society forgets about us. But for centuries death was just a fact of life and in the Victoria era, it was literally embraced. Maybe taking photos of your recently deceased isn’t as creepy as it seems at first – imagine if you lost someone and realized you had no photo of them, no painting, no way to remember their face other than your memory which would one day consume that loved one’s memory. I think it was more out of respect, love and loss that people chose to photograph their dead. I think it’s an interesting medium in photography that is sometimes overlooked.
And finally (on a lighter note), I found this awesome book’s website on old Halloween costumes (there’s actually lots of website on this). Before we could buy them over the counter at big box stores… when our parents still made them for us, Halloween costumes came in all shapes, sizes and materials. It’s interesting to see how costumes have changed over the years. Where once a white sheet would suffice, we now need to be characters from popular culture or slutty versions of hard-working professions. But there is something about these old photos that is definitely creepy. Made from household objects and masks made from gauze, there’s no doubt that these kids loved Halloween just as much as I do.
So to all my readers: Happy Halloween!
Posted on October 26, 2011, in Photography, Ramblings and tagged costumes, dead, death, halloween, holiday, momento mori, photography, post-mortem, scary, vintage. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.