Who Were They?

Lost and forgotten photos from the past

This 1860s vintage CdV has some distinguishing characteristics of early CdV portraiture. The image itself is small and masked in an oval shape in the center of the print. Second, there is no photographer information, the card is hand cut and flimsy, and the corners are square. These all point to the early 1860s. More captivating however is the actual subject of the photograph. This child has an expression that I termed slack mouthed, but at times I wonder if this is a memento mori because it is such an odd expression. The child is seated on a chair, and a parent or brace is hiding behind the drape directly behind the child. The style of dress suggests that this was a girl child. Early memento mori photographs attempted to put the subject into the most natural positions as possible, so that the loved ones could remember their dear departed as they were in life. Particularly in the early days of photography, this might be the only time a person was photographed, and with the staggeringly high childhood mortality rates of the time, there’s no wonder why families had these photos made. While we might consider even taking photos in a graveyard to be uncomfortable, our ancestors had a much different relationship with death, and so were not as reluctant to have these types of photos made.

What do you think? Was the child a simpleton or is this a memento mori?

This is a proud Sepia Saturday submission. Please click through and check out happier photos from around the world!

UPDATE: The consensus is that this is NOT a memento mori photograph, but instead an uncooperative subject. Thanks all!

28 thoughts on “Slack mouthed

  1. gluepot says:

    My view, for what it’s worth – the child is neither a simpleton nor dead. To be honest I am dubious about a good number of purported memento mori photos. It makes a good selling point on eBay, but I’m not convinced it was as common a practice as is made out. Think of how many modern photos turn out showing someone’s mouth open, or in an awkward pose, most subsequently discarded. The same is likely to have been the case back then, particularly from photographers who were not very skilled, such as this one who doesn’t appear to have had sufficient business to have card mounts printed. Thank you for sharing it – very interesting. Another point – the vignetting was often used to hide unwanted or unattractive surroundings in a portrait, and thius case used to good adevantage to mask the child’s mother.


  2. I agree with gluepot. It just looks like a child in the middle of saying something perhaps.


  3. Christine says:

    O.K., fair enough, though my first reaction was that she was dead.


  4. Little Nell says:

    Well, you people are the experts, but as someone who has worked with young children all my life, I’d keep an open mind. When the school photographer came to visit, there would still be a handful of children, who, despite his best efforts, just couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hold a decent pose.

    On a technical point, I’m interested in what Gluepot is saying. I’ve seen a lot of these so-called memento mori pictures, supposedly posed after death, and I have to ask (Look away now if you are the queasy type) – how do they do it when rigor mortis sets in so rapidly? Sorry, to be bit grisly.


  5. postcardy says:

    At first I thought she looked dead, but it looks more like she just opened her mouth.


  6. Bob Scotney says:

    Not for me this one; I would have thought a parent would have thrown it away as one not to keep.


  7. Not dead, I don’t think- but definitely being a typical kid- probably complaining about having to sit still.


  8. I’ve seen many a child with that expression. To answer Little Nell’s technical point, (keep looking away, queasy types) rigor mortis goes away again after a time – three days! Yikes!


  9. Mrs Marvel says:

    I definitely appreciate the input! I wasn’t sure what to think.


  10. Alan Burnett says:

    Now that is a perfect example of a cracking good old photograph giving rise to a first rate blog post which is then supplemented by a fascinating discussion via other peoples inputs. This is the area where blogging can do so much more than any other media.


  11. Little Nell says:

    I agree with Alan, which is why always return after a few days to see what other people’s comments are, especially when I’ve posed a technical question. Thank you for the answer, but now I’m worried about the smell of decomposition…sorry, I hope you haven’t just eaten!


  12. My first thought is it was a Mori photo also, I have been starring at it a bit and it is a creepy shot, regardless. Now if she is a little blondie of a child she will have a ghostly appearance if shes a blonde fair skinned girl with that washed out look with her complexion and hair. I also notice her neck looks kind of thick, as if she could possibly be propped up, but then again how old do we think she could be, could be baby fat. I find her dress interesting for a small child, off the shoulder like that, do we see many photos in that style on a child, let a lone an adult? Yes there are some oddities to it, Her dress looks a little ruffled up on the one side so perhaps she wouldnt sit still, they literally just plunked her down and backed up, but her arms dangling perfectly down usually is not a normal pose either, so unless they set her down and quickly backed away. Ahhh cant imagine being a photographer or small kids back in the day.


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      I don’t know why the dresses were made that way – with the wide open neck that fell off the shoulders – but I know they were. I have seen many museum and heirloom pieces with that neckline.


  13. IntenseGuy says:

    I understand the practice of “death” photos was more common than I expected…

    …its just this photo makes me just want to look away. There are so many photos that are … compelling – like the one of the old battery service station that makes one just want to look and explore… this one isn’t one of them!



  14. Tattered and Lost says:

    I’m thinking it was a tough shoot for the photographer who had an assistant madly trying to get the child’s attention. Whatever the assistant finally did it fascinated the child, the photographer got the shot, and the mother was relieved she could now go home.


  15. Liz Stratton says:

    Great discussion! I learned a lot not only from your post on the analysis and dating of the photo but also the opinions of all the experts.


  16. I think it is the blonde quality that makes the child appear as in death. The little retouching to highlight the eyes. But is this a girl or possibly a boy? I can imagine a boy with that open mouth. Some families kept toddler boys in dresses.


  17. Pat says:

    Dresses were quite common for the younger boy babies too. I tend to think there were not so many mori photos as claimed of the children at these times, agreeing with Gluepot, the first comment. . While mortality was high many families simply did not have the money to spare to get such portraits of their dead children. It is interesting how the photo can be dated by the techniques. Slack mouthed is a good term, I don’t think its a mori as how could they have kept the babe’s eyes open?


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      In my research on mori photos I learned that sometimes the photographer would (shudder) paint eyes onto the subject or onto the glass. Yikes!


  18. I am not convinced either way..it seems an odd photo. I have several death photos..I am trying to collect enough for a week..I think I have four or five now. Sometimes death photos were the only photo they had of a loved one, and they mailed them to relatives far away or back over seas.
    There is a blog dedicated to old death photos…I cannot recall the name of it:(


  19. Yes we so often have photos of loved ones, but imagine losing one and having nothing, I can understand the difference back then. Its all they have left to hang on too if they had no photo prior to that.


  20. My first thought was: she is dead as a doornail. But when I take a closer look I can imagine it is just a childish expression, and she is alive. If you forget about modern ideas and look at these pictures with the eye of someone from the 19th century then it’s quite normal to take pictures of dead people.


  21. Browser says:

    This child is is female, and she is deceased in the photo. Vacant/unnatural expression, the upper body shown appears to be propped up (chin slightly up along with possible disguise with the material behind the body), and something all has failed to mention above–a most obvious sign–discoloration on the hands from decomposition.


  22. becca says:

    Gotta disagree victorian,tin types etc had to be done with a subject sitting immobile for up to a minute for the photo to be visible, in lots of old photos u’ll see people who are blurred because they moved,that’s why there aren’t any ‘candid’ shots only posed shots. And photos back then were extremely expensive sometimes up to two months pay!


  23. becca says:

    Gotta disagree victorian,tin types etc had to be done with a subject sitting immobile for up to a minute for the photo to be visible, in lots of old photos u’ll see people who are blurred because they moved,that’s why there aren’t any ‘candid’ shots only posed shots. And photos back then were extremely expensive sometimes up to two months pay! Thinkin it a real mori pic.


  24. What if this kid had some sinus issues? You’re not going to get her to keep her mouth shut for a minute! What if this kid were simply awed by the whole process? You’ve been trying for 15 minutes and to get her to sit still you have to strike awe into her very soul!

    We are thinking in the digital/cheap photography modern age. I take an ugly photo and I delete it. Pre digital I took 3 or 4 photos and chucked the ugly ones with hardly a qualm. Back then, when getting your photo done was rare and it cost hard earned money, you kept the ugly photos. I have one photo of one of my kids with Santa. Nasty photo-he is obviously a bit freaked out. But you didn’t get several shots with Santa in those days and you paid a fortune for it. I kept it and I say this is a memory of when Santa freaked him out.

    A lot of the post mortum shots I have seen, the person is laying down decked out for the burial. Rigger is not an issue then. I think some of the natural posses are done very quickly after death. The photographer may have been on call…just like the doctor was.


  25. eurijahs says:

    The dark marks on her hands and the slack jawed expression, along with the fact that the “background” happens to go to the side of her head (to hide someone holding her head up) all point to this poor child being dead. A complaining child of this age would be squirming, and the photos taken in this time period took a while to process, so the image would be blurred had she been alive and squirming. I would have to say the child is most definitely dead.


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