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Recreating a Victorian Funeral in Photos

The funeral in the New York Marble Cemetery
Hal Hirshorn’s “The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell” (all images courtesy the artist)

There were no photographs taken of the 1865 funeral of New Yorker Seabury Tredwell, but there could have been. Artist Hal Hirshorn has imagined what this Victorian era funeral would have looked like through the photographic techniques of the day, namely salt prints.

The early photography process, developed by British photographer William Henry Fox Talbot in 1839 using paper coated with silver salts (hence the name), gives the already eerie reenacted funeral scenes a spectral graininess where sharp mars of light appear phantasmagorically. As Hirshorn told Hyperallergic, the salt prints “produce the same flaws and photographic manipulations which were exploited to create spirit photography,” where the ghosts of the deceased were supposedly conjured by the new camera lens.

The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell
Hal Hirshorn, “Seabury Tredwell’s family at his wake”

The 2011 series, called The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell, is currently on display at the Merchant’s House Museum. The museum is actually the former residence and deathplace of Tredwell, and is also the only completely intact surviving 19th century single family home in New York City, thanks to its seamless transition from home to museum and for later generations of Tredwells refusing to move while their fellow affluent neighbors relocated uptown.

The house is also now draped in Victorian mourning, which culminated with an actual recreation of the 1865 funeral last Sunday in the house, where visitors gathered in the parlor before an empty coffin while a priest said eulogies before we processed down Bowery in a mob of black shrouds to the New York Marble Cemetery. Tredwell was interred there after a service at Grace Church (although his body was later relocated to a family plot on Long Island), and these three 19th century relics in the developed East Village area are all linked through Hirshorn’s recreation. “My goal was to take a series of images using my techniques in a historical context and using these three locations in a narrative sequence, as well as being able to use the members and resources of the New York Nineteenth Century Society to create photographs that could have been taken, but weren’t,” Hirshorn explained.

Hirshorn has been using salt prints along with a view camera with a 19th century lens to create these sort of worlds that hover between time, having in 2010 exhibited photographs at the Merchant’s House that recreated the hidden lives of its servants, and in the funeral series you see these places that still exist today suddenly transported over a century and a half into the past.

The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell
“Seabury Tredwell’s Deathbed”
The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell
“Seabury Tredwell’s family at his deathbed”
The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell
“Apparition at Seabury’s funeral” Hirshorn pointed out his friend’s “demonic expression” and the lady looking back with worry severed between the light “apparition”
The funeral at Grace Church
“The funeral at Grace Church”
The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell
The funeral arrives at New York Marble Cemetery
The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell
A spectral light between the funeral mourners
The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell
“The Haunted Servant” (from a previous exhibition at the Merchant’s House on the lives of the servants)
The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell
“Seabury on a byre of lillies” (from a 2011 exhibition at the Merchant’s House called “In the Spirit”)

The 1865 Death and Funeral of Seabury Tredwell continues at the Merchant’s House Museum (29 East Fourth Street, Bowery, Manhattan) through November 4. 

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