Photographing the Dead: The History of Postmortem Photography from The Burns Collection and Archive


Infant Draped Over Mother’s Lap, Campbell, Jersey City, NJ, Daguerreotype, Circa 1854

Illustrated Lecture and book signing with Stanley B. Burns, MD, FACS of the Burns Collection and Archive
Date: Monday, December 5th
Time: 8:00
Admission: $5
Presented by Morbid Anatomy
*** Books will be available for sale and signing; see bottom of this page for complete list of books available

Postmortem photography, photographing a deceased person, was a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These photographs, from the beginning of the practice until now, are special mementos that hold deep meaning for mourners through visually “embalming” the dead. Although postmortem photographs make up the largest group of nineteenth-century American genre photographs, until recent years they were largely unseen and unknown. Dr. Burns recognized the importance of this phenomenon in his early collecting 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. Tonight, Dr. Burns will speak about the practice of postmortem photography from the 19th century until today and share hundreds of images from his collection.

About Sleeping Beauty: Dr. Burns’ first book on postmortem photography, Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America (1990) has been widely recognized as one of the most important photography books of all time. Sleeping Beauty has influenced an eclectic array of fields, from bereavement counseling and education to cultural anthropology, history, medicine, philosophy, religion and spirituality (not to mention pop music) and has been cited in debates on the death penalty, euthanasia and abortion. It has been the subject of numerous scholarly papers as well as seminars and exhibitions at notable institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The New Museum of Contemporary Art. A decade later the Archive published Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement & The Family in Memorial Photography American & European Traditions in conjunction with an exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay. Sleeping Beauty III Memorial Photography: The Children, the third installment in this series was released this year to accompany a traveling exhibition.

About the Burns Collection and Archive: The Burns Collection, founded in 1975 hosts the nation’s largest collection of early medical photography and has been generally recognized as one the most important private comprehensive collections of early photography (over one million photographs). The Collection is best known for images of the dark side of life: death, disease, disaster, mayhem, crime, racism, revolution, riots and war. Dr. Burns has authored forty-three photo-historical texts and curated more than fifty photographic exhibitions. He is a founding donor of several museum photography collections, including the J. Paul Getty Museum and The Bronx Museum of the Arts. In addition to being an internationally distinguished author, curator, historian, collector, publisher, and archivist, Dr. Burns is a New York City ophthalmologist and Clinical Professor of Medicine and Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center. The Burns Archive produces publications, exhibitions, and manages image licensing for the Burns Collection. To find out more, you can visit the Burns Archive Blog, website, or press website.

These Burns Archive titles will be available for sale and signing:
Sleeping Beauty III Memorial Photography: The Children $36
Sleeping Beauty II: Grief, Bereavement & The Family in Memorial Photography… $85
Shooting Soldiers: Civil War Medical Photography by R.B. Bontecou $50
News Art: Manipulated Photographs from the Burns Archive $50
Deadly Intent, Crime & Punishment: Photographs from the Burns Archive $75
Seeing Insanity: Photography & The Depiction of Mental Illness $40

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