- Historic Sites
May/June 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 3
Some years back when our senior editor Carla Davidson was a picture editor, she cultivated the busman’s holiday hobby of collecting daguerreotypes. I liked to go with her to antiques shows and help look for them, because there is something immediate about this particular kind of photograph. The silver glitter of the surface has the flash of sunlight to it; the outdoor scenes are full of weather; there is a shining clarity that makes it easy to feel close to the people for all their strange, complex neckwear and gloomy dresses and clamped, rigid postures.
This made it all the more startling when I would open the gutta-percha case and find myself staring into the face of a dead child.
These mortuary photographs were quite common, but I never got used to them. It is—or should be—one of the guiding truisms that human beings remain basically the same from one generation to the next, but this custom of photographing corpses made me feel that the people who practiced it were ghouls. Carla had the same reaction; she never wanted one in her collection.
Stanley Burns did. He bought up memorial photographs for years and recently published them in Sleeping Beauty , the book from which we drew the portfolio introduced by John Updike in this issue. “These pictures were tough to look at,” Mr. Updike said in a note that accompanied his essay, “and tough to write about; but they had to be faced, I think.”
I think so too, although my initial response to Dr. Burns’s book of corpses was the same as it had been to the daguerreotypes when I’d come across them fifteen years ago: slam it shut and drop it. But as I leafed through the book—squinting, at first, as though I were peering into a strong light—I found my feelings shifting. The pictures speak of a time before George Eastman had made it possible for every family on the continent to keep a visual record of itself. The people who hired the photographer to visit their mourning household knew that this was the only way they could protect the face of a child or a husband from the inevitable fading of memory. So these mementos were not merely morbid peculiarities of an inscrutable civilization.
Looking at them, I was finally reminded of another antique photographic technique: stereography. Stereo views are drab twin photos pasted to a piece of cardboard. But put one in a viewer, squint it into focus, and the two pictures merge into a living moment: the trees are round and solid, their leaves shot through with sunshine; the train is small in the distant meadow; people, standing closer, hold their hats as they watch its progress; the empty air between you and them and it vibrates; and the scene is full of the weight and clutter of the present. I believe these pictures of the dead can work the same casual miracle—that if you can peer in past the somberness, you’ll summon up the warmth and intimacy of a lost emotional landscape, one that links us momentarily with those who have gone before.