bioephemera

Postmortem sleeping beauties

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Through the end of May, UMBC’s Albin O Kuhn gallery is hosting a large exhibition of postmortem daguerreotypes, death masks, coffin plates, etc. from the collection of Dr. Stanley Burns.

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Medical ephemera always have an emotional valence, because they represent patients who suffered, struggled and eventually lost their physical battles. But this collection of memorials are about the survivors’ needs, not the dead, and are thus particularly eerie and wrenching.

From the curator:

Trace the evolution of postmortem photography through 19th-century daguerreotypes and prints from Sleeping Beauty book series as well as contemporary images by Todd Hochberg. The Burns Archive will be displaying examples of postmortem photographs, antique coffin plates, death announcements, mourning pins and other funerary ephemera. With over 300 linear feet of paper images and 6 cases containing ambrotypes, tintypes, daguerreotypes- it is the largest postmortem photography exhibit to date.

For as much as people of the 21st century avoid the subjects of death and postmortem photography, those of the 19th century embraced it. The living were depicted with their deceased loved ones with whom they were often not portrayed previously. The personal nature of postmortem imagery frequently makes it difficult for us to view memorial images from the past much less from our own time. This exhibition will survey memorial photography from the 19th through 21st centuries and show how the artistic efforts of the photographers contributed to the emotional qualities of the images. The imagery connects us across the generations to those who would have died unnoticed had they not been given by photographic means a kind of immortality.

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The show runs through May 31, 2011, at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, UMBC, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Baltimore, MD 21250.

More:

The Burns Archive blog (lots of vintage medical images)

The Albin O Kuhn gallery
Selected images from the Burns Archive’s Sleeping Beauty books. (The first two books are very expensive secondhand, although you may be able to get them directly from the Burns Archive. A few copies of the third are available through Amazon: Sleeping Beauty III: Memorial Photography: The Children)