I have always been drawn to old photography. In my collection, (dis)organised into dozens of boxes, there are two main themes: communion photography prior to the Spanish Civil War and post-mortem photography. I’m used to most people, when they come to my home and see my communion photos, trying in vain to hide a rictus of rejection. There is something in those windows of a sepia past, in the serious faces of the children and their embroidered fabrics, that seems sinister to them and relates to the aesthetics of Victorian horror, the finitude of life and the fear that rigid religiousness instils. “Well, wait until you see my other collection.” I tell them.
Post-mortem photography was common practice from the mid-19th century up to the first third of the 20th century, although it continued for several decades after that. I discovered its existence thanks to the film, The Others, by Alejandro Amenábar. “Death of a loved one can lead people to do the strangest things.”, the enigmatic Mrs Mills answered a disturbed Grace upon being shown an album of “sleeping people”. Until then I, like Grace, had never imagine that a deceased person’s relatives would want to keep such a macabre memento. I was completely mistaken. What my eyes turned into macabre was nothing but a display of infinite affection, the need to reaffirm the life footprint of a dear one, the wish to strengthen the memory of someone they loved. From our modern-day perspective, this is difficult to understand.
We have technological means that allow us to physically store any given moment. We find it hard to put ourselves in the place of those late 19th century parents who wanted to keep a memento of their child who had never been photographed while living, even if it meant delaying the burial until the photographer was available to do it. It should also be noted that death is much less common and visible in our society than back then: life expectancy was lower, infant mortality was much higher and contact with the deceased was a daily reality: the wake was at home, children posed with them, the neighbour women dressed them and the whole village came by to touch them and kiss them for the last time.
Considering that death forms an inevitable part of our life cycle, this normalization makes sense. Yet nowadays we hide death, we pretend that it doesn’t exist. We consider it bad taste. Cinema has contributed to our perception of it as something terrible and alien to our experience, only applied as punishment: the baddie dies, the goodie survives.
That was the case with me. When my father died, the first thing I asked for was to hold the wake with the coffin closed. I had actually already seen him dead.
Barely half an hour after her father. It was someone much smaller and with ashen features who looked as if he had always been inanimate. I wonder if those 19th century relatives who ordered post-mortem photos at times had the same feeling.
I refused to see him like that again. And I will avoid, as much as is possible, seeing anyone I have loved lifeless. Perhaps because of my Sesame Street generation sensitivity, I find it hard to fit death into my world as something normal and acceptable. However, that doesn’t stop me from being able to appreciate the extreme and particular beauty of post-mortem photography. Bit by bit, by means of flea markets and sales pages, I have managed to compile this peculiar collection presented in, as far as I’m concerned, the best edition there has ever been for a book of these characteristics. I hope that you find, as I have, a fascinating universe; complex and shocking yet frankly beautiful.
– Carlos Areces