Without nitpicking over the exact number, let’s agree that a picture is worth a heck of a lot of words. A thousand, ten thousand, who’s counting? It’s inevitable, when scanning a cemetery and spying those telltale ovals, that you drift toward them immediately. Who knows if there’s anything else worth seeing in that cemetery, but a photo-ceramic is a sure thing. You’ll trudge the length of the cemetery to see just one. Trust me, it might be the only thing there.
Photo-ceramics (also known as photo-porcelains or sometimes even as photo-ceramic-porcelains) in this neck of the woods, and I gather worldwide, began almost simultaneously with the advent of photography. It didn’t take long to add photography to a process that was already in place. Prior to photography, portraits were hand-painted onto the clear ceramic ovals and then fired. Photographs promised verisimilitude and quickly took over. I have yet to see a hand-pained portrait, though I have run across ones that were hand-tinted.
The first place I took notice of photo-ceramics in an expansive way was in a Portuguese cemetery on Maui, Hawaii, where virtually every tombstone was adorned with a memorializing photograph, in contrast to a neighboring “American” cemetery which held virtually none. It’s where I began to understand the relationship between the portraits and culture; and back in Oregon one could see those same cultural effects at work, albeit in a lesser fashion. Roughly said, the warmer the country of origin, the more likely the use of photo-ceramics, at least in a Euro-American sense. I don’t know how this works out in Europe, but as for her children in America, photo-ceramics are more likely to show up on graves of people from Eastern or Southern Europe than on graves of people from Northern or Western Europe. The split may be religious as much as anything, with Catholic and Orthodox countries more likely to use photo-ceramics than Protestant countries. Certainly, here one is much less likely to see portraits in Lutheran cemeteries than in Catholic, reinforced by the Mexican tendency to employ images on their tombstones.
The split is further reflected in current sources for photo-ceramics. A tour of the Net finds production centered in Europe — Italy, Czechoslovakia, France — with one company reporting from New Mexico. The European companies only deal to the trade and their prices run from $75 for small ovals to several hundred dollars for larger designs and with elaborate frames. Integrating multiple photos into one photo-ceramic costs extra. Significantly extra. They’re ready to provide stock backgrounds, if desired. Remember, though, that the price the dealer quotes will be at least double what the ceramist charges the dealer.
A photo-ceramic is fired at 900°, which permanently sets the ink. The companies warn you that absolutely true color reproduction is impossible, given the firing temperatures. In a true photo-ceramic the photographic image is reproduced onto the ceramic, and the original photograph is returned to the owner; which brings up the question of process concerning the portraits where the image has faded beyond recognition. The general reason tendered has to do with modern photographic emulsions and their temporal nature versus older technologies; but, if the image is reproduced on the ceramic rather than the original image being used, it shouldn’t matter what the original medium was. Right?
Regardless of those technical questions, while the use of photo-ceramics has never died out, it certainly waned for a number of decades; and it’s my understanding that in some areas of the country it wanes still. In the Oregon Territory, on the other hand, there are two distinct periods of photo-ceramics; the first corresponding to the national height of popularity in the early decades of the twentieth century, which is the period most people associate with photo-ceramics; but the second is currently running and still in the ascendancy. Without a doubt, there are more photo-ceramics in Oregon cemeteries from the last two-and-a-half decades than from all previous decades combined, and they’re only getting more popular. This is the heyday of photo-ceramics.
The heyday is distinguished not just by a flowering of portraits but a great expansion of what constitutes proper subject matter for a tombstone image. Forever and anon photo-ceramics were restricted to portraits alone, and in that they’re an excellent source on the vicissitudes of style and technology. As John Martine has observed, “I tend to think that faces look like eras. Like there are faces in these [photo-ceramics] for the 1920's that you just don't see anymore.” Of course, images are affected by clothing styles, hair styles, background, as well as technological clues; but today’s pictures under glass are not only not necessarily portraits anymore, they might not even be of the deceased. Or of a person. I know of at least one motorcycle immortalized in a photo-ceramic, a tractor on another, and one where only hands are visible. Often as not, now it’s the snapshot which is preserved rather than the studio sitting. In general, photo-ceramics have followed the trend of including increased information — known in the trade as “personalization” — in grave site memorials. From ceramics of the era when everyone used studio portraits, all the information one can glean has to be pried from the personal details from the portrait itself, and by custom most people wore their finest and hence most unusual clothes; clothes that gave little clue to the person’s everyday life or habits. Today’s photos, in contrast, are just as likely to be favored candid photos packed with information about who the deceased was.
And, of course, casual photos are much more likely than studio portraits to give regional information. A studio portrait from Nampa, Idaho, in 1918 looks little different from a studio portrait from New York, say, of the same time period, or from Paris, for that matter; but casual shots of the Cascades look nothing like casual shots of New York. Trust me again.
John Martine highlighted another difference between the Oregon Territory and elsewhere in the US when he noted that “realistically though, every year there are fewer [photo-ceramics] out there,” thanks to vandalism and theft; a sentiment echoed by caboose_rodeo from Connecticut who corroborates that “most of our ceramics are smashed or missing,” as well. There are occasional ceramics with damage to them in Oregon and a very few are missing, but for the most part vandalism doesn’t seem to be a major problem. Out here vandals usually go for toppling the whole stone, forget about the details.
In recent years photo-ceramics have been augmented by various etching techniques — diamond stylus and laser — capable of faithfully carving photographs directly (the life span of which is yet to be determined) onto the stone, most often a highly polished black granite; a technology of which the Russian immigrant community is especially fond; and if those images are added to the photo-ceramic revival numbers, the heyday gets even more impressive.
Should you want to see large collections of photo-ceramics, visit the Flick group site I See Dead People, or my set Ghosts, which includes other media as well as photo-ceramics. Best of all, head out to your local cemetery, camera in hand, and capture your own images. Let me know how they turn out.