Upcoming Lecture- Sleeping Beauties: Postmortem Photography

Lecture with Stanley B. Burns, MD, with book signing following

Sun, Apr 29 2012, 2:00pm - 4:00pm
31 North Fifth Street, Allentown, PA 1810

Members $5.00  Non Members $15.00

Dr. Burns recognized the importance of this phenomenon when he bought his first postmortem photographs in 1976. Since that time he has amassed the most comprehensive collection of postmortem photography in the world and has curated several exhibits and published three books on the subject: the Sleeping Beauty series. Dr. Burns will talk about the practice of postmortem photography from the 19th century until today and share images from his collection. A book signing follows.

This lecture is in conjunction with the current special exhibition, "Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side," through April 29, 2012 in the Goodman Gallery. 'Gothic to Goth' offers an overview of the nineteenth-century cult of mourning in American art and fashions, and indicates how that trend translated into contemporary Goth fashion - a genre now embraced by mainstream designers as well as the rock subculture of the twentieth century. 


By Tiffany Bentley
Post-mortem photography was a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to photography archivist Dr. Stanley Burns.

The photos were used as memorials, not as documentation or to shock as in stories of violent deaths, Burns says. The photos, from the start of their use until now, serve as a momento of the deceased person to the living. 
"These images formed an important part of the bereavement process as well as the memorial process," Burns says.
Although post-mortem photographs make up a large group of 19th century American artifacts, it was only until recent years the photos have been brought out into the open, according to Burns' research.

Burns, who is also an ophthalmologist and clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York University Langone Medical Center, will give a lecture on the practice of photographing the deceased 2 p.m. April 29 at the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley.

Burns has written books on the subject and has maintained a vast archive of photos. He will include a slide show of the photographs, showing a chronology of the practice from the 1800's until modern day, in his lecture.

May of the photos are actually difficult to tell if there is a deceased person in the picture.
"Disease struck quickly, so the people look healthy," Burns says. "Today you don’t have these pictures because we keep people alive with tubes and fluids so people look sick."
Burns' interest in the subject began when he was researching medical photographs of death and disease and came across posed portraits. He began researching the practice and custom through advertisements, articles and other photographs from the time.
"In our culture, death has become a taboo," Burns says. "In the 19th century death was a part of everyday life."

Burns has also taken modern day post-mortem photos of his relatives, including some of his father that he published in one of his books, "Sleeping Beauty II..."

Dr. Burns' lecture is being held in conjunction with the current special exhibition at Allentown Art Museum, "Gothic to Goth: Embracing the Dark Side" running through April 29, which also includes post-mortem photographs.

For more information on the talk and exhibit visit allentownartmuseum.org.