The Victorian Craze for Headless Photographs

Oh, those wacky Victorians. Underneath all the social rules, mores, expectations and layers of starch lay some truly odd penchants for bending the rules. The craze for headless photography is one that seems so uncharacteristic of how we understand Victorian life that it stands out as downright bizarre. Yet it’s easier to find a headless photograph than one of a Victorian smiling, so what does that say? Your guess is as good as mine. But it’s Halloween time, so smiling Victorians need not apply.

Bring on the headless.

Swedish-born photographer Oscar Rejlander developed “trick photography” in 1856. He compiled a series of negatives to create his famous image, The Two Ways of Life.

Oscar_Rejlander_1857

After Rejlander’s development, photographic manipulation was studied and developed further. George Eastman was especially interested in its possibilities. As he experimented his technique became more refined and others learned from him.

Photographers started advertising their services for “spirit photographs” and other photographic tricks.

Samuel Kay Balbirnie's 1878 advertisement

Samuel Kay Balbirnie’s 1878 advertisement

Samuel Kay Balbirnie's 1878 advertisement

And if one can turn or twist a head, why not remove it altogether? Creating headless portraits became a trend that appealed to the popular sense of the macabre (Gothic novels and Edgar Allen Poe, anyone?) – it became a craze which swept through the Victorian era and beyond with often startling results. How startling? Ask a silly question…

headless soldiers

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Of course, once all of those heads have been removed it only seems rational to find a home for them elsewhere, no?

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9 thoughts on “The Victorian Craze for Headless Photographs

  1. This is really fascinating. I never thought of the Victorians as the sort of people to lose their head over something. I guess they had a better sense of humor than most of us usually imagine.

    • I confess I don’t understand Victorian humor, mostly because I know so little about it. I never see period publications along the lines of “Ten Best-Loved Pranks to Play on Your Co-Workers” or “A Short List of Whimsical Follies to be Played at Picnics” or “Carefree Jokes to be Played at Your Loved One’s Expense.” That all seems so absolutely not Victorian in nature…too much social gaffe going on. But there had to be more to it than popping out from behind a tree and shouting “surprise!” at someone. Now I’m curious to know more.

      • They aren’t easy to find, but there are photographs of smiling and happy-looking Victorians. It wasn’t the “generally accepted” pose and that may be why there are so few remaining. But they definitely laughed and played and had fun like we all do. And yes, photo #3 is one of Queen Victoria – smiling.
        This is one of my favorites.

        15th February 1892 - Queen Victoria smiling while riding in an open coach.

      • Thanks for these. Very interesting. The first series are so sweet. It’s wonderful to see Victorians actually showing affection in a photograph rather than their usual steely stoicism.

        As for the second picture. Wow! Queen Victoria had teeth! Who knew?

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