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Death in Photochrom

The imagery we record and create reveals our anxieties, desires and curiosity. This became exceedingly obvious in the mid 19th century, with the invention and spread of the photographic process. The first photographs depicted a variety of scenes, from the readily available environment like the window view recorded by Nicephore Niepce (left), credited as the worlds's earliest known photograph, to arranged compositions of objects, referencing painting traditions, like that of the still life and the portrait.

Soon enough, photographers took to recording and creating images that departed from the observational and addressed the fanciful and spiritual, like the created images of ghostly apparitions that became popular in the late 1800s, among spiritualist and common folk alike (right).

In the 1890s, a new printing process was invented to infuse color into the black and white capabilities of early photography. The process called "photochrom" or photochrome did not record color, but rather was a photographic offshoot of chromolithography, transferring color on prints made from black and white negatives. The Library of Congress has a large collection of nearly 6500 digitized photochrom prints. Much like stereographs, ​

​photochrom prints provided an escape to their turn-of-the-century collectors, depicting scenes from tourist spots and exotic places they could visit from the comfort of their home.

Stereographs like this one were images produced to create a 3D illusion when viewed through a stereoscope

The vast majority of the images in the photochrom collection are of historical monuments like the Statue of Liberty and natural sights like the Pique waterfall in France, as well as quaint, if not exoticized portraits of villagers and locals. Among these fairly innocuous images is a smattering of atmospheric captures of cemeteries, graveyards and tombs, nodding to a hint of thanatourism, but also an acceptance of these reminders of death as part of life. Thanatourism is the conceptual niche of tourism and travel that focuses on visiting places that are associated with death and burial, and in some cases tragic death. However, the photochrom images of cemeteries and tombs from the turn of the century do not appear as dark or as morbid as some of the grief tourism sites do, but they are photographed with a sense of reverence and wonder. Unlike sites like the Auschwitz death camp that attract those infatuated with the echoes of terrible tragedy and violence, the cemeteries, tombs and crypts printed in the saturated tones of photochrom are repositories of good death, culture and history, insofar the onlooker can tell. Their inclusion in collections of images produced for the curious armchair-traveller speaks to a time where visiting burial sites was not considered morbid, but a part of any well-rounded trip.

Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia Detroit Photographic Co. ca. 1901

[The cemetery, Algiers, Algeria]

[Cypresses and road leading to the cemetery, Scutari, Constantinople, Turkey]

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