At the time of the birth of photography in 1839, death was widely considered a part of everyday life. People used photography to memorialize their dead loved ones with a reverence little understood today. Often these images were the only photograph taken. These photographs were a normal part of the culture, and are a testament to a time when the magic of photography offered the hope of extending relationships. At the moment people were most vulnerable, photography offered a memento that seemed real — a tangible visual object that allowed continued closeness to the deceased. We can feel the power of these photographs generations after the images were made. We relate to these pictures of strangers because they speak a universal language of emotions — tenderness, affection, need, hope, loss, and despair — uniting the human family in common experience.
ELIZABETH A. BURNS is the Creative and Operations Director of The Burns Archive, which houses over one million historic photographs from the birth of photography through the atomic age. She co-authored Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement & The Family in Memorial Photography, American and European Traditions produced in conjunction with the Musée d’Orsay exhibition, Le Dernier Portrait. She has curated and worked on hundreds of exhibits, publications, and films on memorial photography. Liz lives in New York City and actively promotes history and photography through publications, exhibitions, and events.