Saving Faces (Or Not) in the Modern World

It’s difficult to imagine, but for most of the time humans have walked the earth–117 billion humans since the dawn of time; there are 7 billion on the earth presently–there was no way to save the face of a loved one. People lived and died without ever having a way to preserve the faces of those they loved who had passed. So, you can imagine how important of a discovery it was when photography was invented and demonstrated for the first time in France in 1839.

An example of a postmortem photograph.

You may have heard of a trend in the late 1800s where people photographed family members who had died. It was simple logistics–the cost of a photograph was high and everyone couldn’t afford to have a photograph made. Some planned to some day, waited too long and then when their loved one had passed, this was their last chance to have a way to “keep” their face.

Thankfully, that is not the case today. We have technology that can make images on the quick. There’s no reason not to save these wonderful faces, when the ability to schedule a portrait is so readily available, and photographers on every corner.

Yet, there are those who never will. I hear it in my photography sessions when I make portraits of elderly folks. They say they haven’t had anyone ask to make their photograph in 50 years. Or their last portrait was at their wedding 60 years ago.

Now that technology makes it so that we can have photos of our loved ones doesn’t mean we will. The opposite effect is now at work–portraits are so easy to make, the difficulty gone, that they’re not being made. “I should do that someday, it’s so easy, but, eh, not today.” Procrastination wins, sometimes until it’s too late. Inertia is commonplace.

For this sweet couple, their daughter commissioned their portrait, and gifted the session to them. I talked to them when we were scheduling the shoot and said I can work outdoors, but I prefer to work inside my studio, with you dressed to the nines, looking your best. That’s often when people feel their best, when they’re dressed up looking their best. Plus when do most people have a chance to ever dress up nowadays?

Working in studio, I have lights and can make it about them, not the setting. We did multiple setups and the winning photograph was this one, just a simple two-shot portrait of them together, holding each other tight.

I delivered it to them last week as an 11×14 photograph and their daughter wrote this to me:

My parents had a lot of fun with this portrait shoot with you.  And they have phoned to tell me the news and how thrilled they are with the photo. So very exciting! Thank you ever so much for your time and talents to capture my parents so well – a photo to last an eternity!  We are all so grateful for your expertise and skill.

Talk about why I love to make portraits!

I’m making some of the most important family photographs that are being made today. Sure, the schools are making class photos, and high school seniors are getting graduation portraits done. Plus there are wedding photos. After that, lots of phone pictures of new families–kids, teens. But the parents and grandparents–they’re often behind the camera and left out. The last quality portraits they have is at their own wedding, it’s often true.

People don’t live forever, their photographs do. A portrait made in the 1900s that exists today because her portrait was commissioned.

I’m writing this post ninety minutes before another photo shoot I’m doing today–a woman called last week to gift a portrait session to her sister and her brother-in-law for their anniversary, so I’m grateful there are exceptions, but I talk to other photographer friends and there really aren’t many photographing the elderly folks. Today’s is only the second elderly portrait session I’ve booked this year.

Which is why I started The Wise Photo Project years ago. And created the Wedding Portrait Studio to bring a setup to wedding receptions to photographs family members, trying to go to where they are already dressed up. Even then when I say I include printed portraits, the bridal couple often ask, “For what, what will we do with them?”

As I see it, if I don’t make these portraits, no one will. I make them so that they will have been made.

Margaret was 98 when I made her portrait, and she just passed earlier this year. But her portrait will live on in the homes of her family for generations.

Families just don’t schedule high-quality portraits that will “last an eternity” much anymore. Just a phone snap in a living room chair, or eating dinner perhaps, pictures that will get shared and then lost in the digital maelstrom within a short time.

We’ve gone back in time and the effect is the same–no portraits to remember their loved ones’ faces.

The inability or desire to schedule formal portraiture session, the inertia when it comes time to making that call and ordering that photography session–we’ve gone back to the early 1800s, where once again we will have no portraits of our loved ones because we didn’t have one made.

The net result is the same.

This time it wasn’t the cost, it was the ease and ubiquity of photographs that fooled us into putting it off until it was too late.

Perhaps there will be a return of photographers being asked to make portraits of the deceased as the only way to keep their faces forever. As a way to save their face at the last possible moment if they “never got around to it.”

Want to support my shows? You can, just visit this link at Paypal, or go to to add your monthly contribution to keep the lights on!

Check out my YouTube Channel of Photography Talks: my 6×6 Portraits Blog (you’re here) and my Daily Photography Podcast. Thanks!

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