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The Creepy and Creative Art of Victorian-Era Headless Portraits

Clare Fitzgerald
Photo Credit: 1. Неизвестный фотограф / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. William Robert Bowles / The Met / Public Domain

The Victorian Era is known for its rather interesting pastimes, but one of the more macabre (and amazingly creative) activities was sitting for headless portraits – known as the art of headless portraiture. With camera and film technology still in its infancy, photographers actively worked to advance their knowledge, and this allowed them to hone their skills in a pre-Photoshop world.

Introduction of a macabre form of photography

The art of headless portraiture is credited to Swedish photographer Oscar Gustave Rejlander. Credited with developing numerous photographic techniques, including Combination Printing and Photomontage, he was the first to create a print within this emerging genre. Titled Head of St. John the Baptist in a Charger, it was created by combining two different negatives.

Head of St. John the Baptist in a Charger

Head of St. John the Baptist in a Charger, 1855-1860. (Photo Credit: Oscar Gustave Rejlander / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The image caused a stir, and almost immediately the general public was demanding their own versions. This was because society as a whole during the 19th century had a fascination with death and the afterlife. This wasn’t without cause, given the amount of illness and disease that ran rampant in large cities.

In fact, death was so prevalent that many families took portraits with their deceased loved ones, to create a permanent reminder of their life together.

Man sitting with his head under his arm and a weapon in the other

Portrait, 1880-1890. (Photo Credit: Charles William Allen / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

 

Woman holding her head in her hands

Portrait, 1900. (Photo Credit: Samuel Kay Balbirnie / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Soon, photographers were recreating Rejlander’s work. To advertise this new service, they purchased advertising space in newspapers. One photographer, in particular, Samuel Kay Balbirnie, ran spots in the Brighton Daily News that read: “HEADLESS PHOTOGRAPHS – Ladies and Gentlemen taken showing their heads floating in the air or in their laps.”

How were Victorian headless portraits created?

Just because the nature of the photographs was morbid doesn’t mean those involved didn’t have fun. The individual being photographed – the “sitter” – sat for a couple of photos, allowing the photographer to have a number of samples to work with while in the editing room.

Male child holding his head in his hands

Portrait, 1890. (Photo Credit: Неизвестный фотогєаф / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

 

Man sitting while holding his head on a stick

Portrait, 1875. (Photo Credit: William Henry Wheeler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Depending on the direction they wanted to take, the sitter could be shown holding their decapitated head in a variety of poses. Some kept it simple, holding their head in their hands or by their hair, while others were more creative, holding their head in one hand and the weapon used in their “murder” in the other. Some even had it look as if their heads were being served to them on a platter!

Servant serving his master's head on a platter

Man Serving Head on a Platter, 1900. (Photo Credit: William Robert Bowles / The Met / Public Domain)

The difficult part of the process came during editing. To create the illusion that the sitter was, indeed, headless, the photographer had to combine the photos by cutting and pasting them into one final image, which allowed it to appear as though only one had been taken.

Talk about creepy and creative!