Monday, August 23, 2010

Ceramic Death Portraits

Photograph by Tim Snyder
I've always had a mental block about when exactly my mother's birthday is. August....something. Six years ago today, I got a helpful hint--my dad died around her birthday--August 16th, to be exact. A week before her birthday. I always thought that was unfair of him. But he had ways of making his presence felt, even after death!

He was always critical of the apparent negligence my brother Tim showed toward his cars. Filling them with junk, never washing them, etc. If Tim's cars were children, they would have been removed from his custody by some state agency. On our way out of the funeral home after picking up my dad's "cremains," my mom, my brother, and I found a huge pool of oil under Tim's car. The engine block had cracked. Car was totalled. I think that was dad's last hurrah. As if he were saying, "See?! I told you this would happen if you didn't take better care of that car!"

Anyway, I told you that story to tell you this one. In my Cemetery Travels, I've come across many photo-sensitized tiles--porcelain death portraits--on headstones. You see these mostly in Italian cemeteries, on headstones dated between 1880 and 1930. I convinced my brother and sister to split the cost of one of these so we could put it on Dad's headstone. Well, not exactly his headstone....

His mother's ashes are buried at the stolen tombstone of her parents in a small rural cemetery around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (names witheld to protect me). As the story goes, when my great-grandparents died, one of their grandchildren (my father's uncle) stole a brand new fancy large granite tombstone from down south somewhere. He brought it north and had a stonecarver engrave it. That's just how we roll.

Cremation was my father's request. He would snarl, "I don't want worms eating me!" So we honored his wishes and had his body cremated. We decided to illegally bury the ashes at the site where his grandparents were buried. I say illegally, because you're not supposed to just go bury human remains any old where. Plus, the cemetery would much rather sell you a plot of ground in which to do this. Since we were sort of secretly burying his ashes, I thought there should be some marker for future generations. I thought it would be fitting to at least mark the place with one of these ceramic memorial photographs.

Turns out you can still have these things made (color or black and white photo). A hundred years ago photographs were actually etched into ceramic, or porcelain, and kiln-fired. Today, they can be made the same way, or they can be laser-etched, or simply have a slot into which you slip the photo. We opted for the more permanent design (kiln-fired), which cost about $300. The piece (color image, above), is usually a 5-inch oval, and comes with double-backed sticky tape so you can just stick it to the headstone. We also opted to use a photo of my dad which my daughter took near the end of his life. I thought it made sense to remember him as he was when he "left," as my Mom puts it. That happened to be August 16, the day I'm writing this. Contemporary American photographer George Krause, in his book, "A Retrospective," (Rice University Press, 1991) says that he believes such photographs are "selected by relatives of the deceased for definite reasons, each one mirroring an attitude..." Without a doubt, the photograph we chose for my father mirrors an attitude!

Ceramic Photo Printing
(from "Photographic Facts and Formulas" by Wall and Jourdan,  Prentice-Hall 1976)

There are 4 basic methods of making ceramic or porcelain death portraits, and all of them start with a specially manufactured enamel plaque. The enamel is a soft vitreous ceramic on a copper base. The four methods given are:

1 ) Substitution process -- where a platinum, palladium, gold or other metallic print is made on the enamel.
2 ) Powder process -- based on the facts that colloids lose their tackiness on exposure to light in contact with a bicromate. It is rarely used for paper prints, and its chief application has been for the preparation of reversed and duplicate negatives for photomechanical work, or for making ceramic enamels. For the latter process the image was produced on collodionized glass, to facilitate stripping, and the image transfered to the enamel plaques.
3 )Carbro or carbon printing on the enamel.
4 ) Transfer of a processed colloidal or albumen emulsion onto the enamel surface.

    After any of these processes, the image is coated with a low-temperature transparent glaze, and the plaqued is then fired.

Link to, the company we used to have Dad's ceramic photo made.
Link to George Krause's series of headstone portraits, "Qui Riposa."
Link to George Krause's book, "A Retrospective," which features his cemetery photography.