I felt obligated to respond to a reply on a recent post mostly because there’s a lot of misinformation out there, especially when it comes to the Victorians and the prevalence of post mortem images.
Firstly, seated post mortem portraits would not typically include another person who was showing off a skill. Hell, seated death portraits in tintypes are rare in general. More likely, you’d see a coffin-side portrait or a whole family gathered around one person in a relatively well-produced image.
Though post mortem tintypes are certainly not uncommon, they are sort of late in post mortem photography history and changed their appearance and accoutrements; taking a picture of your dead loved one is sort of falling out of fashion by the tintype for a whole lot of social, economic and cultural reasons (I wrote a thesis on it last year—message me and we can chat about it some time).
The daguerreotype and ambrotype were sort of the hay day of the death portrait, and the few traditional post mortem poses that would maybe render this image one is quickly replaced by the graveside or coffin snapshot tintype, which is ultimately superseded by the memorial cdv or cabinet card.
The eyes and the awkward hands are likely the result of mediocre photographic skill in regards to directing the sitters and overexposing the image.
This was a fun, cheap, picture for the couple.
And about headrests and stands: though a commonplace item to have in a studio for the infirm or fidgety, they became antiquated and useless almost immediately after they were created. When you’re producing dags and some ambros, it’s true that the exposure times did initially warrant these assistants, but by the 1870’s, when this image was probably made—they’re sort of useless as the exposure time has dropped to less than 30 seconds in most tintypes.
Overall, while there’s a .1% theoretical chance this is a post mortem, it’s highly unlikely based on what I’ve seen over the last five years of looking at these images.
I wrote up a handy photo guide for reference if you want to check it out. Also, some more veritable post mortem photos for your viewing pleasure.