Sunday, October 3, 2010

We found a very interesting photograph yesterday at the MN Antique Show at the State Fairgrounds.

As you can imagine, what initially drew me to it was the Post-Mortem subject matter. Though the more I looked, the more I discovered some incredibly unique features.

Off the bat the Pallbearers were not in the scene with the actual casket, instead they seemed to be pasted on top of the image. Although in actuality it was done in the darkroom as the final image was just one photograph.

Even more interesting is that the cut marks on the pallbearer's images seemed to mirrored, so with little effort I was able to attach them and see that they were standing shoulder to shoulder in reality.

More notable features of the image are these scratches or smudges hanging in the air.

In itself the marks are probably innocuous, but there is something so sculpted about them that points toward them being deliberate. Now it should be noted that this image is most likely an albumen print, meaning it's a contact print on paper using a glass collodion negative. It's well known how easily collodion can be scratched off the glass surface, especially when dried and with age. But these marks don't look like they were made when the plate was dry, or else they would look like these damaged E.J. Bellocq images:

Because again these were contact prints, it's unlikely that the marks appeared after the fact, they had to be on the glass plate. Surely such a fine photographer would not overlook a damaged plate, so there had to be a reason. Could these scratches have been the beginnings of a drawing of a spirit or ectoplasm within the image? It was definitely not uncommon for praticitioners to mix illustration with Photography, especially when it came to spirit photography.

William H. Mumler, Moses A. Dow, 1871

Mrs. Thorn, Date Unknown

Even the inclusion of floating ectoplasm was common practice, though admittedly Our example is much rougher...maybe it was an idea abandoned half way through?

Now for the most fascinating feature beyond the Post-mortem, beyond the addition of bearers, and beyond the ectoplasm is the presence of a fourth figure. In the middle of the image stands a transparent man holding the coffin lid.

This eerie character's identity is a mystery indeed. At first I thought it was the left bearer, but when I scanned it, it became clear the face and mustache were different. So who could it be? The Mortician? Or perhaps even more amazing, could it be the man in the coffin?

When you place the faces side by side, the "ghost" figure and the deceased share similar characteristics.

Left bearer, Man in back, Man in the Casket, Right Bearer

In the end there are definitely more questions that answers. At minimum this a unique example of Post-mortem photography. Not only does it serve its purpose as a memorial image, but it also attempts to commemorate those who were in attendance at the services. Could the bearers be the deceased's brothers, maybe the younger was his son?

Lets also dissect the apparition behind the coffin. Could it be the departed? Perhaps the photographer usurped an image of him, then included it to show his ever living soul? But then what the chances that the man had a picture taken of himself with such a macabre item as a coffin lid? One can see the transparent man is holding a sold Coffin Lid, whereas the casket is equipped with an open faced one.

Could it maybe be the Mortician displaying his artistry? Maybe the whole image is an artistic display of the Photographer's talents, showing potential clients all the features he could include in one image?

Maybe it was a staged fine art photograph.

Maybe it was a series of flukes and mistakes.

Maybe it was a ghost.

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