It is fairly easy to find photos online that have been intentionally altered. People use Photoshop to remove the background of a photo and replace it with another. Or, they can add a person to a photo. In the 19th century, people were able to do photo tricks of a different kind. In short, if you happen to find a photo of an ancestor who appears to be headless – don’t worry! What you are seeing is an altered photo.
Trick photography existed long before Photoshop. Some genealogists might be unaware of that. As such, they could find themselves shocked and disturbed after discovering a photo of a headless ancestor. In some cases, the person was seen holding their own head in their hands. In others, another relative in the photo held the head.
Today, these photos are passed around online – and many people take them at face value. They believe what they are seeing is what really took place. Part of the confusion, of course, comes from being unaware that it was possible to do photo tricks before the digital age of photography. Another type of photo adds to the confusion. There was a time when it wasn’t unusual to take a photo of a deceased relative, dressed up and seated, as if they were still alive. Those are called “post-mortem photos”.
Victorian photographers used cameras that required film. After a photo was taken, the photographer had to carefully develop the photos. It was a skill that we overlook today, when we can take a photo, alter it, and put it on Facebook in a matter of minutes. Back then, someone realized that they could take two photos and use the negatives in a creative way.
As a result, there were photographers who could offer “novelty photos”. The headless photos were popular! Individuals could take a photo that looked as though they were holding their own head in their hand, on their lap, tucked underneath their arm, or even on a platter. Sometimes, more than one family member joined in on the fun. This resulted in photos were one person appears to be headless, and the other person appeared to be holding that person’s head.
Why were these photos, which can seem quite gruesome, popular? The “shock value” probably had something to do with it. All these years later, people still find these photos to be disturbing. It was also trendy to take a photo that was altered by the photographer to make it look like something other than what the camera really saw. Altered photos were new and exciting.
Of course, the biggest reason was probably because it was fun! In other words, the existence of a headless photo of your ancestors means that they had a sense of humor.
Image by Mary Margret on Flickr.
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