Halloween and All Souls’ Day seem like a good time to talk about corpses and death rites. People all over the world honor their dead around this time of the year – tending the graves of loved ones, and preparing special foods and decorations.
Post-mortem photography is another tradition centered on the dead. While it might seem morbid according to today’s sensibility, the practice of photographing the dead had less to do with fetishizing death than it did with memorializing loved ones. In the early days of photography having an image of your spouse or your children was a rare and expensive luxury. Photographs of the newly departed were often the last (or only) opportunity to create a memento.
Nineteenth century examples frequently showed the deceased posed in lifelike ways, for example, seated with their eyes open. This type of photograph attempted to capture the spirit of the living person. As time went on the poses became more natural with the body recumbent on a bed or in a coffin with eyes shut. Ironically, the more natural the treatment of the corpse, the more the images seemed to be glorifying death rather than memorializing the departed.
The tradition became less popular as photographs became more obtainable. It lingered on, though, developing a stigma of sentimentality and morbidity. With people having more opportunities to get a photograph of their loved ones while they were alive, the “now or never” mentality necessitating post-mortem photography nearly disappeared. The main exception to this was babies and young children. Many of the later examples of post-mortem photography depict infants, presumably because there had been no opportunity to take a photograph while they lived.
A number of photographs from the Royal Photo Company Collection in our Photographic Archives exemplify this tradition near the end of its popularity. These photos are all of the deceased in a coffin and most of them depict babies or children.
While collectively death photography has a certain creepy morbidity, individually the images show something else. Each one shows somebody who was loved enough to be memorialized.
Today’s guest blogger is Pam Yeager from the University of Louisville Libraries Photographic Archives.
Unidentified images in the Photographic Archives provide me with lots of opportunities to indulge my love of getting the story under the surface. But one well-identified photo from a recent acquisition provided some fun and surprises, as well. The Speed Art Museum recently de-accessioned a small group of Louisville photographs. One of these is a photo of a Louisville mansion at 214 W. Broadway that was identified on the back as belonging to William H. Dillingham. Three people sitting on the front steps are almost invisible in the picture, which includes the entire massive façade of the building. Caron’s City Directory for 1885 tells us that Mr. Dillingham owned a woolen mill supplies company at 421 W. Main St. There’s another figure off to the side of the house and farther back – so I assume she is not part of the family – perhaps an employee?By 1905, the residence is listed as owned by J.C. Lewis, and the company on Main St. is not listed. In 1914, Caron tells us that at 214 W. Broadway, Ms. Mattie B. Russell had furnished rooms to let, one of which was occupied by Pauline Bredelli, a music teacher. Perhaps Ms. Bredelli was the connection that led to 214’s next occupant: In the 1916 Directory,the Louisville Conservatory of Music is listed at the address.
From Robert Bruce French’s article about the Louisville Conservatory of Music in The Encyclopedia of Louisville, I learned that the Conservatory opened on September 7, 1915, “in the former Dillingham mansion at 214 W. Broadway.” The Conservatory was a great success, so much so that another larger school was built on Brook St. in 1926-7. But after the Depression hit, student enrollment dropped and the school ultimately declared bankruptcy and closed in 1932. It then merged with the University of Louisville’s part-time (no degrees granted) Department of Music. Faculty and students from the Louisville Conservatory became U of L teachers and students, and in only four years the School was accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music. French’s article also tells us the Brook St. site is now covered by I 65. And instead of the soaring arches of the Dillingham mansion at 214 W. Broadway, you’ll find a Subway restaurant, across from the more modest golden arches of a McDonalds.
Through October 25, 2012 the photo of the Dillingham mansion is part of Special Collections’ exhibit: “Samuel W. Thomas, Louisville Historian”, in the Photographic Archives gallery. Dr. Thomas used the photograph (when it belonged to the Speed Museum) in his book The Architectural History of Louisville, 1778-1900.
When working with historical photographs of a town or city, it’s exciting to come across images of recognizable buildings. This is partly why so many people visit the Photographic Archives to search for old photos of their home or street – to compare and contrast the now and then; to get a glimpse into the past of something that is familiar. In fact, looking at old photographs is a great way to learn the history of a city like Louisville, and now websites like Historypin make is very easy to compare old photographs with current-day views according to location.
While comparing images of a location from different eras, I often notice significant architectural differences in the buildings. Usually I see a reduction of ornamentation – which coincides with architectural trends through much of the twentieth century; Victorian and Beaux Art architecture is quite ornate, while later styles like Art Deco, International and Modernism favor more streamlined and functional design. Comparing historic photographs with current day views can reveal the removal of decorative elements such as turrets, parapets, finials and cresting (Fig. 1).
Recently I came across an image of a Louisville building from around 1909 that I recognized. I checked the address and indeed the photograph was of a building that I had photographed last year, on South 4th Street, near the UofL Belknap campus (Fig. 2).
Comparing the historical photograph with the Google Street View of the same address revealed a peculiar change in the building from 1909 to present day: the removal of the top floor! Close inspection shows that the building pictured in the historical photo is the same building that stands today. The placement of the windows, flat arches over the windows, structure of the façade, and the columns all match in both images. However, the brick building contained a third floor in the 1909 photograph, and now only shows two floors. Perhaps a fire could be the cause of this, but it’s a brick building and it’s hard to imagine a fire destroying the top floor entirely… Does anyone have any other ideas for why the third floor may have been removed from this building?
A History Channel miniseries on the legendary Hatfield and McCoy feud is drawing renewed attention to that chapter in Appalachian history. Many local news outlets have seized this opportunity to promote tourism to the region.
Eastern Kentucky native Jean Thomas (1881-1982) celebrated the musical traditions, dialect, folkways, costumes, legends, and lore of the mountain people through an annual American Folk Song Festival as well as writings and photographs.
Her photo collection, donated to the University of Louisville’s Photographic Archives in 1968, is available online on our Digital Collections website. It includes photos of Hatfield and McCoy descendents as well as kin of the lesser-known Tolliver-Martin Feud of Rowan County, Kentucky. She seemed to enjoy reuniting the formerly feuding families for photo opportunities.
The online finding aid for Jean Thomas’ papers, housed in the University of Louisville’s Dwight Anderson Music Library, reveals that she wrote several pieces about the feuding families, and collected lyrics to songs documenting their stories.
Do you like roadside attractions? Have you ever planned the route of a road trip based solely on stopping to see a bizarre site or oddball statue proclaiming “The World’s Largest (fill-in-the-blank)”? Well I certainly have, and that’s partly why I love the current exhibition up in the Photographic Archives Gallery. All Over the Map: Photographs Across America, 2006-2012 by Steve Plattner includes wonderful photos of some of the most beautiful oddities found along our country’s highways: a tractor-trailer perched high in the air, unique monuments built by dedicated outsiders, giant dinosaurs, a castle constructed of junk, mysterious billboards and other puzzling views. Plattner explains that he is “drawn toward unusual people, places, or things” that he feels “are exceptional, that stand out in some way, that often disappear without a trace.” During a gallery talk, Plattner explained how many of these unique American sites are vanishing and that he is compelled to document them.
Once long distance road travel became popular in the 1930s, businesses sprang up along the stretches of highways to attract the numerous tourists. Many of the businesses added unique attractions such as novelty architecture, colorful monuments, and other features meant to draw in customers. But as air travel surpassed family road trips and many of America’s popular highways, such as Route 66, were passed over for the new Interstate Highway System, the unique mom-and-pop businesses and roadside attractions waned in popularity. Plattner commented that many of the sites in his photographs have changed or even disappeared in the years since he shot them. So… come visit the exhibit before both the photographs and the attractions disappear!
All Over the Map: Photographs Across America, 2006-2012 by Steve Plattner will be on exhibit through June 29, 2012. The University of Louisville Photographic Archives Gallery is located in Ekstrom Library, Lower Level. We are open Monday – Friday, 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM.
I had no idea there was a story behind Abraham Lincoln’s beard. Being a photo archivist, I knew that the well-documented photographs of Lincoln were usually noted as “with beard” or “without beard” though I didn’t think much of it. But while preparing a presentation of Lincoln’s life in photographs, I gained a bit of insight…
As it turns out, Abraham Lincoln had always been clean shaven during his time as an Illinois Congressman, Lawyer, and even most of his time as a Presidential Candidate. It wasn’t until he received a letter in October of 1860, the month before general election, that he decided to grow a beard. The letter was from an 11-year-old girl named Grace Bedell from upstate New York, who wrote:
“I have got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you any way and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote, for you would look a great deal better for your face is so thin. All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President.”
Lincoln’s response to Miss Bedell would lead one to believe that he might brush off the advice: “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now?” But, as it would turn out, Lincoln began growing out his facial hair soon after and was photographed on November 25th 1860 with the beginnings of his famous beard.
Come see the travelling exhibit “Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War” in the Ekstrom Library and view the slide show “Abraham Lincoln’s Life in Photographs” on the adjacent kiosk. This exhibit will be up in the Ekstrom Library, East Wing main floor until April 8th.
I have never seen so many gallery visitors! Of course I haven’t even been working here for very long, but still, our current exhibit in the Photographic Archives is getting anywhere from 15 to 50+ visitors a day! “Louisville’s 1937 Flood: A 75th Anniversary Exhibition” includes 39 photographs showing Louisville’s historic flood of the Ohio River that submerged 70% of Louisville and 90% of Jeffersonville, IN, as well as locations up and down the river from Pennsylvania to Illinois. Photographs by well-known photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who was sent by Life Magazine to shoot views of the flood in Louisville, show a range of scenes from a man on an improvised boat made of washtubs, to water-damaged and discarded pianos sitting in a street. And of course, Bourke-White’s famous “World’s Highest Standard of Living” photograph is most recognizable.
Photos by Corwin Short, the Louisville native who was Bourke-White’s escort during her trip, show the famous photojournalist at work: standing atop a car with her camera, walking the pontoon bridge, and eating lunch on a rowboat. Visitors have also been amazed at the aerial photographs on display that show the far-reaching devastation caused by the flood water. These photos were donated to the archive in 2010 and have never been exhibited here before.
Apparently, the Great Flood is still a big deal to Louisville residents, even 75 years later. It has been quite a learning experience, as many of the gallery visitors are eager to share with us their personal and family stories of the flood. In fact, there is a group of people sitting in the gallery sharing their stories with each other right now!
These photographs will be up until this Friday, March 9th, so hurry down to see them before they’re gone.