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Post Mortem Negativity

Posted by Ryan Piccirillo on

I want to write about this photograph, but it feels wrong to write a blog post at this time and not acknowledge and offer public support to the people of color and their allies who are flooding the streets every day to shout the truth that black lives matter.

Things are slowly creeping back to normal, and a sign of that is the return of some of my favorite auctions, first online, and next week, in person as well. One of my favorite auction houses, Trudel's Auction Gallery, in Bellingham, Mass., held an auction this past Saturday and there were many eye catching and exciting items, some of which I was fortunate enough to take home. One lot stood out to me - a mixed lot of dagguereotype and ambrotype photographs from the mid-1800s. Antique photography was one of the first categories of antiques that I started carrying at Memory Hole back when I opened in 2016. I started out with tintypes, but have since worked my way up to dags and ambrotypes, earlier forms of the art.

The lot of seven photographs at Trudel's was pretty typical - an old lady, a couple younger ladies, and a dashing looking dude. But one photo stood out to me, which I thought might be something special. Take a look at the bottom photo on this picture from the auction listing:

The photo doesn't look to be in great shape, and its a little unclear what it is. But if you look closely you can see strong borders at an angle within the frame, and what looks to hands clutching a flower toward the center. I wasn't convinced, but I thought there was a possibility that this might be a post mortem photograph, a highly collectible form of Victorian photography wherein photographs of deceased loved ones would be captured. I figured that even if its not what I though it was, the lot was still worth bidding on, because I could make my money back on the other photos.

I did end up winning the lot (for $80 plus a hefty online buyer's premium of 23%). Once I had the photo in my hand, I was convinced - it was a post mortem. But why did it look so strange?

Ambrotype photographs are translucent negatives, and when placed against a black background, the white portions on the glass plate pop and a positive image appears. I thought that's what this was, albeit considerably faded and worn. Here's a close up shot of the image outside of the case:

I still wasn't exactly sure what the deal was, but I was pretty sure it was an ambrotype, so when I listed it on the website and on eBay, that's how I described it.

Then I got a message from a helpful eBayer with an alternative theory - the image is actually a negative. He attached the picture below, and indeed, he seemed to be right.

As you can see, the picture is much more clear. Why this negative was housed in a full case is still a mystery, though. I determined that a white coating on the back plate of this photo had faded, so I added an archival backing board behind the glass negative. Here is the result:

My thinking was that with a restored white background, a negative of this image would be clear as day. After running it through a negative image processor, here is the result:

And there it is, clear as day, with no doubt at all - an antique post mortem photograph of a poor, deceased child. Hauntingly beautiful, terribly sad.

This item sold very quickly, but there are lots more antique photographs available on the website that I totally encourage you to check out!

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