Saturday, 31 October 2009

Dead Woman Walking

This photograph shows my great-great-grandparents Albert Barker and Ellen Culpan with their children Mary Ellen, Louisa and Arnold. At first glance it's a pretty ordinary family portrait. However, there is something a little unusual about it.

It depicts a scene that never actually took place as, according to family story, it was created after Ellen's death. The surviving family posed for the photo and then Ellen was added in. Luckily for me, the story of the photo, and the original portrait of Ellen from which the image was created, were passed down through the family, as otherwise I think it would be quite easy to take it at face value.

There is a definite outline around the girl on the right which continues along her brother's shoulder but it would be easy to mistake this as being the result of movement or a fault in the process. There is a similar fault around the head of the girl on the left and along the top of the image.

Ellen died in 1892, aged 29. Presumably, there was no photograph depicting the whole family together and so it was decided to create one posthumously. I wonder if the portrait of Ellen dates from her engagement or marriage as her left hand, apparently wearing a ring, is quite prominently displayed. Albert and Ellen married in 1882 (see my previous post Marriage With Deceased Wife's Sister) and so Ellen may actually be somewhat younger than this image would first suggest.

I can't help wondering what was going through the minds of the family as they posed for this photo, leaving a gap for where Ellen should be. From the apparent ages of the children I think it must have been taken not long after Ellen's death and so they must still have been feeling her loss very keenly. To modern sensibilities the whole idea of the photo seems rather morbid but perhaps the family found it a comfort.

The image is a useful reminder that just because our ancestors didn't have Photoshop doesn't mean that every picture in the family photo album is necessarily “real”.


  1. That is fascinating to learn. Thanks.

  2. Yes, this may be one of the earliest instances of "photoshopping" a picture.

    I don't find this as morbid as actually taking photographs of the dead dressed and posed as if they were alive, which also took place during that period. Now, THAT is morbid.

    Wonderful picture, and wonderful story!

  3. Great story and wonderful to think someone would think to create the remembrance picture.

  4. I don't think this was too uncommon of a thing as far as photography back then, though I have no idea about that.

    As a fan of traditional photography methods, doing like this would actually not be very difficult to do. Ansel Adams, for example, used photoshop long before it ever came to exist, in a darkroom.

    I don't mean to say this wasn't an extremely easy thing to do back then, but it just wouldn't surprise me if it were. It is a very interesting photo, as well as the story behind it. I am a huge fan of old style photography, and enjoy doing it myself. This photo is inspiring to me, to think that creativity such as this existed so long ago is amazing. :)

  5. @Jared-Tweeaks Design

    I'm sure you are right and that this wasn't particularly uncommon. My ancestors were quite ordinary people and I imagine that this might have been a standard service offered by the local photographer.

    I've seen mention of this technique in US publications but nothing about it in the UK (where my ancestors lived) and have often wondered if other people have similar photographs.

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  7. Very interesting blog... thanks for sharing it. My great grandparents had two tintype photos of each separately, and had a photographer make it into a large oval photo with the two side by side. A lot was painted in and smoothed out to make it appear like it had the same shadows and light. Background is obviously just smudges to cover different original backgrounds.

    The photo you use in this example is well done, but the seams are visible upon close scrutiny.

    This photo is better than the ones of the deceased lying in the coffin. This was done, generally, since there was no other photo, but I am not sure it would be how you would want to remember & record the looks of the person!