Photos can help us remember loved ones who have died. But those images were usually captured when our nearest and dearest were still living. In the Victorian era, they did things a bit differently. Beginning in the mid-19th century, people began taking death portraits of family members after they had passed away. The strange practice inspired the new series Dead Still, currently streaming on Acorn TV.
‘Dead Still’ is a murder mystery involving post-mortem photography
In Dead Still, Michael Smiley plays Brock Blennerhasset, a former undertaker turned post-mortem photographer in 1880s Dublin. His job entails paying visits to the recently bereaved and capturing images of their deceased loved ones before they are laid to rest.
Blennerhasset was a photographic pioneer who helped introduce the daguerreotype — an early type of photography — to Ireland. But technology has evolved and he’s struggling to keep up with the times. With the arrival of cheaper cameras and photographic studios, there’s less of a market for his death portraits.
In the show’s first episode, a mishap during a photo session further jeopardizes his business. To get out of the jam, Blennerhasset turns to Conall Molloy (Kerr Logan), a former gravedigger turned photographic assistant, along with his newly-arrived niece Nancy (Eileen O’Higgins).
Blennerhasset also crosses paths with Frederick Regan (Aidan O’Hare), a tenacious detective. Regan is investigating a series of murders that seem to have a connection to Blennerhasset. It appears there’s a serial killer on the loose who is cashing in on an underground market for photos of people in their death throes. With the body count rising, Brock, Molloy and Nancy have to try to stop a murderer who might be out to get them next.
Dead Still might have a dark premise, but it also has a dose of “morbid, gallows humor,” the show’s writer John Morton told Willow & Thatch. But, he added, he was careful to balance the lighter moments with the more serious elements, keeping the focus on the central mystery.
The show is inspired by a real Victorian practice
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The idea of posing for photographs with your dead relatives might seem creepy today. But it didn’t seem so odd to people in Victorian times, who generally had a more intimate relationship with death than we do today.
The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 offered a reasonably affordable way for people to preserve images of a family member. Previously, that was an option only available to wealthy individuals who could pay for painted portraits. But in the 1840s and 1850s, photography was still novel. Many families wouldn’t have thought to have a photo taken until a person died, noted the BBC. Death portraits were a last chance to capture an image of a person — often a child — before they were buried.
“It is not merely the likeness which is precious, but the association and the sense of nearness involved in the thing,” the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote of a post-mortem portrait, according to The Atlantic. “[T]he very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever!”
The first two episodes of Dead Still are currently streaming at Acorn TV. New episodes are available Mondays through June 15.
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