Susan Sontag calls photography, "an elegiac art, a twilight art". She explains that paradoxically, "precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time's relentless melt"1. Once it is made, the instant the photograph chronicles has already passed. Photography, then, inherently memorializes its subject. One of its earliest uses was, in fact, intentionally and concretely elegiac. High infant mortality rates in the 1850's and 1860's made post-mortem daguerreotypes of children especially common. This genre continued well into the nineteen hundreds and its subjects included adults as well as children as these photographs from the Holsinger Studio collection show. The goal of the post-mortem portrait was to preserve the memory of the dead for the living. In this way the photograph contextualized the deceased in relation to others: dear child, treasured wife, beloved father.

Unidentified Mortuary Portrait
by Glenalvin J. Goodridge
Daguerreotype, ca. 1845

from the Center for African
American Decorative Arts

Mr. Yancey
December 21, 1915

from The Holsinger Studio Collection

The mourners who are implied in every post-mortem photograph are depicted below. These images were made by Rufus W. Holsinger of Charlottesville, Virginia. A white photographer, Holsinger took many photographs of African American citizens of the area, including studio portraits. The picture below were commissioned by Miss Gertrude White and was made on January 4, 1919.

These images are striking contrasted with popular white views of dead African Americans, reflected in images of lynching. Lynching was a public spectacle. As such, it radically recontextualized death and its victim. It turned death, usually a private event, into a public one, in which the crowd participated. At the same time, the victim (usually but not always a young man) was wrenched from the public context. In this arena he was not seen as a son, brother, husband or father. His identity was often hidden by a hood and his humanity erased through flaying, burning and dismemberment. These figures' faces are illegible because of the wide angle of the photograph; the image continues lynching's obliteration of identity. This commercially produced post card demonstrates that lynching was not hidden or commonly viewed as shameful. It was a public act that at once affected and revealed white perceptions of blacks' deaths

James Presley Ball was a successful African American photographer. He was born in Virginia in 1825 and in 1887 moved to Helena, Montana where he started a successful photography business. Many of his studio portraits and photographs of public events are archived by the Montana Historical Society. His photographs chronicle a changing community. They depict immigrants from Asia and Europe as well as migrants from all over the United States.

Among those seeking a better life in the West was William Biggerstaff who was born a slave in Lexington, Kentucky in 1854. Not much is known about his life in Montana, but J.P. Ball documented its conclusion on April 6, 1886 as he was hanged in the Helena court yard for killing "Dick" Johnson after an argument. Biggerstaff claimed that he acted in self defense.

Notice Biggerstaff's pensive pose, his suit, the folded handkercheif in his coat pocket, the flower pinned to his lapel. These are signs of middle class respectability. Why did he have this picture taken? To whom did he send these photographs? There is no wedding band on his hand. Perhaps it was taken to send to a fiancee. Perhaps to send to family back in Kentucky, as proof of his success out West. Perhaps he knew of his impendending execution and this photograph was meant as a reminder to those who would mourn him.

This second photograph, taken in 1896, the same year as the first, shows Biggerstaff is being hanged. The Reverend Victor Day stands at his right and Sheriff Henry Jurgens at his left. A gold band glints on the ring finger of his left hand. He wears the same coat that he did in the earlier photograph. He seems to have dressed himself as carefully for his execution as he did for his photograph. Photography's ability to capture such details give it its potential to be an intimate art and allow the careful viewer a more nuanced understanding of people's histories. Compare these images of William Biggerstaff to those of the lynched bodies on the post card of the same period. Even in this picture of Biggerstaff in which his head is covered, J.P. Ball captures what the other image denies: the individuality of the deceased.

This final picture of Biggerstaff is taken at such an angle as to emphasize his hand. His wedding band is obvious. It places him in the context of husband and, thereby gives his death meaning in relation to another. It implies that his death has emotional ramifications The quality of the coffin and the very existence of this photograph also allude to a grieving family.2

Sources and Resources