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"Ghost Babies" and the Macabre World of Post-Mortem Photo Collecting

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Boingboing recently published an excellent and very in-depth article on the strange world of post-mortem photo collecting -- something I know a bit about, tangentially, because I'm a collector of old photos myself. I don't buy "PMs," as they're colloquially known (unless there's something incredibly interesting written on them -- that's kind of my thing), but plenty of other people do, as evidenced by their booming trade on eBay. As Mark Dery writes in the boingboing piece: "When Marx wrote, in The Communist Manifesto, that capitalism "has left remaining no other nexus between man and man" than the "naked self-interest" of the cash nexus, he never imagined the eBay listing whose description assures, "You are bidding on a cabinet card measuring 8 X 6 inches of a sweet baby in repose after death. He/she is laid out for viewing on a bed or table covered in lace, and dressed in a long white christening dress. This may have been the only photo taken of this precious child."

A "great" post-mortem photo (always antique -- never modern) can fetch hundreds of dollars or more, which has made them so popular amongst photo sellers that hucksters on eBay often try to pitch photos of people who almost certainly are not dead as PMs. It all seems rather incredible, but rather than excoriating these collectors as hopelessly out-there weirdos, Dery asks why -- why are we so fascinated by them? His conclusions are insightful. "The 20th century," he writes, "bore witness to the medicalization of dying, the professionalization of funeral rituals, and the repression of death in everyday life. Death decamped to the hospital, and the ritualized leave-taking of the Loved One moved from its traditional domestic theater--the front parlor--to the funeral parlor, stage-managed not by the eerily named undertaker but by the more antiseptic-sounding funeral director."

In the here and now, antique postmortem images are riveting because they emblematize the Authentic in an ever more mediated world. In a time when we interact, more and more, through Tweets, text messages, and Facebook pokes and likes, the black-and-white dead of the 19th Century condense raw emotions; at a moment when the here-and-now seems increasingly like a fading afterimage of our vivid imaginative lives on the other side of the screen, they confront us with the inescapable fact of embodiment, more corporeal for the dead weight of death, more real for the trickling blood, blood that dried 100 years ago but through the necromancy of photography looks blackly wet all over again, every time we look at it.

"The post mortem photograph is a relic of a past that has been erased by modernity," says Michael Sappol, author of A Traffic of Dead Bodies: Anatomy and Embodied Social Identity in 19th-Century America. "And in that lost world, people had more direct and less mediated experiences of sweat/blood/piss/grime/dust/phlegm/pus. And less mediated (less medicated) experiences of death, with a lot more suffering."

The taboos of sex and death switched places in the last hundred years. The Victorians would've been shocked at the erotic images you find everywhere in the 21st century, but didn't flinch when it came to making images of their dead loved ones. I'd like to think that the people who collect those photos are just as interested in this lost way of life -- or rather, way of death; a set of rituals that now seem alien to us -- as they are in the gruesome ghost babies themselves.

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Noriyuki Saitoh
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Art
Japanese Artist Crafts Intricate Insects Using Bamboo
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Noriyuki Saitoh

Not everyone finds insects beautiful. Some people think of them as scary, disturbing, or downright disgusting. But when Japanese artist Noriyuki Saitoh looks at a discarded cicada shell or a feeding praying mantis, he sees inspiration for his next creation.

Saitoh’s sculptures, spotted over at Colossal, are crafted by hand from bamboo. He uses the natural material to make some incredibly lifelike pieces. In one example, three wasps perch on a piece of honeycomb. In another, two mating dragonflies create a heart shape with their abdomens.

The figures he creates aren’t meant to be exact replicas of real insects. Rather, Saitoh starts his process with a list of dimensions and allows room for creativity when fine-tuning the appearances. The sense of movement and level of detail he puts into each sculpture is what makes them look so convincing.

You can browse the artist’s work on his website or follow him on social media for more stunning samples from his portfolio.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

Bamboo insect.

[h/t Colossal]

All images courtesy of Noriyuki Saitoh.

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
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History
P.G. Wodehouse's Exile from England
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You don’t get more British than Jeeves and Wooster. The P.G. Wodehouse characters are practically synonymous with elevenses and Pimm’s. But in 1947, their creator left England for the U.S. and never looked back.

Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, better known as P.G., was living in northern France and working on his latest Jeeves and Wooster novel, Joy in the Morning, when the Nazis came knocking. They occupied his estate for a period of time before shipping him off to an internment camp in Germany, which he later said he found pretty pleasant:

“Everybody seems to think a German internment camp must be a sort of torture chamber. It was really perfectly normal and ordinary. The camp had an extraordinarily nice commander, and we did all sorts of things, you know. We played cricket, that sort of thing. Of course, I was writing all the time.”

Wodehouse was there for 11 months before being suddenly released to a hotel in Berlin where a man from the German foreign office named Werner Plack was waiting to meet him. Wodehouse was somewhat acquainted with Plack from a stint in Hollywood, so finding him waiting didn't seem out of the ordinary. Plack advised Wodehouse to use his time in the internment camp to his advantage, and suggested writing a radio series about his experiences to be broadcast in America.

As Plack probably suspected, Wodehouse’s natural writing style meant that his broadcasts were light-hearted affairs about playing cricket and writing novels, This didn’t sit too well with the British, who believed Wodehouse was trying to downplay the horrors of the war. The writer was shocked when MI5 subjected him to questioning about the “propaganda” he wrote for the Germans. "I thought that people, hearing the talks, would admire me for having kept cheerful under difficult conditions," he told them in 1944. "I would like to conclude by saying that I never had any intention of assisting the enemy and that I have suffered a great deal of mental pain as the result of my action."

Wodehouse's contemporary George Orwell came to his aid, penning a 1945 an essay called “In Defense of P.G. Wodehouse." Sadly, it didn’t do much to sway public opinion. Though MI5 ultimately decided not to prosecute, it seemed that British citizens had already made up their minds, with some bookstores and libraries even removing all Wodehouse material from their shelves. Seeing the writing on the wall, the author and his wife packed up all of their belongings and moved to New York in 1947. They never went back to England.

But that’s not to say Wodehouse didn’t want to. In 1973, at the age of 91, he expressed interest in returning. “I’d certainly like to, but at my age it’s awfully difficult to get a move on. But I’d like to go back for a visit in the spring. They all seem to want me to go back. The trouble is that I’ve never flown. I suppose that would solve everything."

Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack before he could make the trip. But the author bore no ill will toward his native country. When The Paris Review interviewed Wodehouse in 1973, they asked if he resented the way he was treated by the English. “Oh, no, no, no. Nothing of that sort. The whole thing seems to have blown over now,” he said.  He was right—the Queen bestowed Wodehouse with a knighthood two months before his death, showing that all was forgiven.

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