Burdened with Terrible Purpose, I See Dead Baby Photography Everywhere

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Within the last year, my Facebook feed has blown up with photographs of uncomfortable babies.  I’m not talking about the usual candids or dress-up pics.  I’m talking about the over-posed newborn photographs that have become de rigueur among young new parents these days.  In these photographs, teeny tiny newborns wear oversized headgear (hats, bows, headbands, et cetera).  They are usually naked.  Often, they are lying on fuzzy blankets or in hands.  But they all have one thing in common: those unnatural poses.  Babies pretzled into balls.  Babies conjured into dolls.  Babies bent into shape.  And these babies are always asleep, their eyes always closed.  Have you ever seen a sleeping baby lying on its stomach with its tiny arms folded, its head resting across its forearms in real life?  No, you have not.  Because that is not a pose a newborn has ever naturally taken in his or her life.

But what really disturbs me about these newborn photographs (besides the fact they all look the same, no matter the identities of the baby or the photographer) is that they look eerily like another photograph trend from the past: the late-19th/early-20th century trend of mourning photography.

There was a time in American culture when dead children (and in particular, dead babies) were all the rage in photography.  Because photographs were more expensive and difficult to get in that 1870s-1920s range, most people only had a handful of pictures of their children.  So if a child, particularly an infant, died before a proper picture could be taken, then a death photograph would have to suffice.  But it wasn’t just enough to capture the blank, close-eyed face of a child who had passed on to the other side.  Instead, families and photographers put the child into limp positions in which they looked to be engaged in normal activities of sitting or even playing, but doing those things asleep.  The result is incredibly eerie.

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If you want more, Google “dead child photograph” and then good luck sleeping tonight.

I admit I am fascinated by these photographs, even though I almost never purposefully look at them.  They disturb me, sure, but even more so, they make me unbearably sad.  I cannot imagine losing a child, the absolute horror of it.  I have no children, but I feel a deep, existential despair whenever I encounter stories about children who have passed away.  And yet, I am drawn to the phenomenon of these turn-of-the-century photography trends.  This is for two reasons: 1) I love the latter decades of the 19th-century in a way I love no other time period, when science and technology advanced so quickly that human ethics often fell to the wayside.  A time when taking photos of your deceased child posed with her dolls seemed like perfectly acceptable way to mourn.  And 2) I am interested in how American culture handles death, particularly over time.  I blame this on having grave diggers and cemetery caretakers over-populating both halves of my family tree.

My fascination with dead baby photography began sometime around the age of 12 or so, when I accidentally encountered my first dead baby picture.  My parents were helping my grandmother go through her massive collection of ancestral photographs when my mother came across a picture of what looked to be a sleeping baby, several months old probably, sitting in what looked like a primitive version of a walker.  My grandmother looked at the photo – front and back – and concluded that this photo was, in fact, of a dead child.  A brief discussion of this charming old practice arose, but I was frozen, staring at that photograph and unable to think about anything else. That photo haunts me still; even to this day I can see it clearly in my mind.

The disturbing thing about both dead child photographs and cutesy newborn photographs is the way it turns human beings into fetish objects, into idols.  It turns them into unwilling economic properties.  There was a time in the 19th century in which mourning was big business – the advent of funeral parlors, of death photography, of hair jewelry and paid mourners.  Bodies, which had long been exploited in life, could now also be exploited in death.  Obsessions over dead bodies was not itself new in the 19th century, but the emergence of technologies and a celebration of capitalism took death and grief outside the realm of emotional manipulation and brought it into the realm of physical manipulation.  Not just physical manipulation, but physical manipulation with an audience.  Mourning was made into public material, and photography became part of that material.

Dead baby photographs are relics of a time period in which the materials of mourning could now be easily customized and circulated.  In his amazing book Wisconsin Death Trip, which chronicles the bizarre happenings of a small Wisconsin town in the late 1800s, the historian Michael Lesy makes the argument that the urbanization we often blame for the rise in crime and despair is false, and that rural towns were equally strange and bleak.  Essentially, through his use of archival materials – newspaper stories, state insane asylum records, and photography – Lesy shows how death haunted everything, and objects in particular (a knife used to slice one’s own throat, a skull to be posed with, a house to set on fire).  Of course, this means that Wisconsin Death Trip is chock-full of photographs of the dead, and dead babies and toddlers in particular.  These photographs are important cultural artifacts, as much as they hurt us or disturb us to look at.  We have to consider the time period, but we must also consider how mourning turns us into sentimental monsters, willing to scrape up whatever we can to remember our loved ones.  Hair, clothing, possessions, photographs – we can create a market for these mementos of the dead at any period of time and consider it normal.  The emotional need outweighs the ick factor.

And maybe this emotional need is why I can never fully enter into the cult of the creepy posed newborn photo that has gripped our contemporary time (and gripped our social media outlets even more so).  I do not have children nor am I particularly desirous to have any children at this point in my life.  So I cannot quite understand the sentimental, clinging feelings that newborns create in new parents.  Where I see fetishization of smallness, of vulnerability, the parents surely see their perfect creation displayed in all its big-bow-wearing glory.  And I can’t blame them.  I love the things I love deeply, so I certainly cannot imagine how I might one day obsess over my own tiny made person.  But for now, it is as alienating to me as those dead baby photographs.  I cannot yet fully enter into the thinking that makes love and emotional need into an economic market.

But as true as that is, I am going to say this anyway: Your sleeping, overposed baby is giving me the creeps.  I associate it with some of the strangest mourning methods our modern world has ever bestowed upon us.  So maybe stop with the pretzel babies, the babies-in-palms, the babies’ oversized heads balanced on tiny hands.  I actually prefer to see your babies in all their sweet, natural dopiness – lounging like a drunk college freshman on a soft blanket, drooling, farting, looking absolutely alive.

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