Understanding the Camera

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Carrie Pollitzer portrait, circa 1905. Courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society via the South Carolina Digital Library.

Despite the complexities of image development, photography became popular very quickly, due in part to its lower cost compared to that of the formal painted or sculpted portraits of the time. However, hiring an expert with the proper equipment was still a costly process, which mean that those who could afford photography services typically only did so for special occasions, like weddings and engagements. Photographs were also often taken to create commemorative keepsakes of young men before they went off to war.

During the Victorian era in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, photography was also employed to capture images of the recently deceased. This practice, known as memento mori, was a way for the bereaved to memorialize loved ones, and often served as the only visual keepsake of a lost family member. In particular, infants and children were most often subjects of post-mortem photography, as child mortality rates were high during the development and rise of early photography. Most subjects were posed in seated, lifelike positions, although rarely subjects were photographed in coffins. Children were often posed with their surviving family members (sometimes in the only portrait of the full family together) or with toys and flowers. Sometimes, daguerreotypes were edited with a rose-hued tint, adding color to the cheeks of the subjects. As it became possible to produce multiple copies of an image, post-mortem images were commonly sent as keepsakes to extended family members.