Why Did Victorians Take Creepy Headless Portraits?
December 18, 2017|Sara Araujo
Long before digital world existed, photographers experimented with editing techniques that resulted in very creepy results.
You might be thinking that the following image has been digitally retouched in some way. But actually, the photographs included in this article are all real images from the Victorian era. When I found out these pictures were a popular trend back in the day, I was shocked too. How come entire families would pose so elegant, just to end up in headless portraits? It seemed like complete madness, but once I found out the reason behind these gloomy portraits, everything began to make sense. And soon, you’ll find out too.
It all goes back to the nineteenth century, way back before Photoshop could make people look flawless in a matter of minutes. By that time, photographers had to deal with the challenging task of delivering the best pictures using very simple tools (or none at all). Nevertheless, the lack of modern editing programs didn’t stop these artists from experimenting and exploiting their own creativity. While working with the pictures’ negatives and experimenting with “cut and paste” techniques, photographers found out that taking a photo was just half the fun. The other half was making it original. Deep down, experimenting with photography was destined to happen at some point. There was a very limited number of things you could do while doing portraits at that time. And we thought our Photoshop game was strong. Boy we were wrong. But then again, why on earth would they want to try out headless photos?
To understand a little better this matter, we would have to go back in time, right in the Victorian era, to experience death and other eerie topics the way they did. During the second half of the nineteenth century, people were fascinated with death, not in the emo kind of way, though. Far from wanting to die or romanticizing death, they praised it, developing a culture and special rituals around this phenomenon (emo doesn’t sound that bad after all, right?). But really, could you blame them? At that time, modern medicine didn’t exist, and people died a lot more often than now. They were practically surrounded by death. Even little kids had to witness gruesome death scenes on a daily basis. Since no one could fully understand what death entailed, people became quickly interested in it. Hence the obsession with death and the afterlife.
And when the time came to get creative, Victorian photographers couldn’t help but be deeply influenced by this huge death culture. The result ended in gaining a little extra money by taking photos of apparently dead people. Being drawn to the macabre and unknown, these artists also offered other kinds of editions that included dwarves, giants, and flying spirit photographs (photos of people floating in the air). And how were these photos made?
Well, they used different negatives from other pictures. Photographers would combine images by cutting and pasting them into one final picture, making them look as if they were originally taken this way. Sounds pretty easy, but in reality it took a lot of hard work to cut the pieces and put them together to make the people look as if they were truly decapitated. It was a completely admirable work that required high skills of craftsmanship. I can't help but wonder if people commissioned specific editions to these artists. I don't know, something like, "Please, make me look like I'm holding my mom's head" or, "Can it look like we're using the head as a ball?"
The first person to ever try this kind of editing was Oscar Rejlander, a Swedish photographer whose work became popular very quickly because he was a pioneer in terms of photomontage and printing. Besides his weird and original edits, Rejlander was also popular for his controversial erotic work, since he used circus girls, children from the streets, and child prostitutes for models. However, many Victorian photographers felt inspired by Rejlander’s advanced techniques, and this creepy photography technique became a trend.
Gruesome but original, headless portraits were a remarkable example of how creativity can work its ways even with just a few tools. Sure, the historical context had a lot to do with the number of photos we can find. I mean, can you imagine how popular a headless selfie was by that time? I’m so sorry Insta-community, but the Victorian photographers have won the photography game, by far.
Oh, wait, wait... group shot!
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