Faith to Endure Rituals

Photo by Brett Sayles on

Victorian mourning: My thoughts behind my camera 

The two women gliding my studio set my skin to crawl, staring at me and yet not even registering my presence. Not that I wanted to be noticed by them all that much; still, it’s sometimes disconcerting when people look right through you. As a photographer, I am used to intense blank stares, but who can blame me for wanting to be acknowledged at times?

It’s not just about these two, either. I’ve seen grievers come and go, dressed in widow’s weeds and standing stiffly for as long as they must. The mourning and inevitability of death are probably what really disturbs me and perhaps always will.

Gloom faced head to toe in black, looking out from behind black veils thick with grief in their hearts. For those times, when there wasn’t much grief, it was implied.

Shadowy blacks, black upon gray, upon white upon blacker, this era is obsessed with black. Look at that little girl; soft, young, innocent features, and what do they do with her? Encase her in a tomb of black ruffles, folds, and veils until she’s like a small despondent adult herself. She’s the fifth child I’ve seen in mourning today, and she won’t be the last. Like black crows, their mothers swoop in, and like toddling black chicks, they’re shrouded in black and black alone.

What wouldn’t I give to have all those innocents dressed in bright colors, ribbons, and smiles wreathed upon their faces? Oh, they come in for their family portraits right enough. But even then, they might as well have been in mourning from the expressions on their faces – layered, starched, upright clothes with dull colors and nothing brighter than white. Sometimes one would have a posy in her hair or hand, or a boy will have one in his pocket. Those spots of brightness do my soul right. If all the young ones dress up in the colors of the rainbow and sport some fresh flowers, they might be happy to smile.

And that woman, looking at me malevolently. Of course, she’s not looking at me either. None of them do. Sometimes I like that, hiding under that cloak most of the time, making sure everything is dark enough to capture the image. Other times, I want to quietly come out of hiding and make them all laugh until their mirth shows on the photos, preserved forever.

Ah, well, that’s not what photographers learn. It’s not expected of us. What’s expected is that we keep our subjects still and capture their appearance. Along with that, we also manage to seize their seriousness, sullenness, solemnity, and anything besides happiness and joy. One might think they never felt anything of the kind.

Our trade works on this, I guess. The shops sell the black material, and the dressmakers charge extra to get them done. So, mourners can look like the world expects, and we charge to capture that moment

I suppose it all comes back to the money. So, I’ll preserve those glum faces and fill my belly.