I’m a sucker for any type of historical fiction and non-fiction drama. If there’s some type of theme that involves photography in the story, then that’s icing on the cake.
Dead Still is a dark Irish comedy series that’s about a photographer working in the late 1800’s in Dublin, Ireland. The photographer, Brock Blennerhasset (played by Michael Smiley), specializes in Victorian macabre memorializing photography. He photographs the dead. Brock is hired by family members that have recently lost a loved one. He then sets up his daguerreotype camera and photographs the family with the recently departed.
When the show starts out, Brock is working a job. He is posing a recently departed woman to make her look “lifelike” for the family portrait. The family then comes in the room and starts praising Brock on what a wonderful job he has done making her look more alive than ever. What makes this a dark comedy is the subject matter. While the family members are boasting and interacting with the dead woman, she plops over to the side as they touch her. The realization of her being dead hits the family. Brock is like, “Let me get that,” and needs to position her back. It made me laugh, because that situation is very relatable as a photographer. You spend time setting up a scene for the perfect shot and then someone or something comes in to mess it up (someone kicks the light stand or background stand, moves your positioned chairs, rearranges the props), and you have to reset the scene. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be working with an actual dead person in this situation! The Victorian death trends and Irish folklore with a touch of history make a crazy, funny, dark comedy.
At the funeral for the woman, Brock is approached by a man that wants to learn the art of photography. This man is a local gravedigger, Conall Molloy (played by Kerr Logan). Molloy talks Brock into giving him a chance as an assistant, and he becomes the sidekick. Another character is Brock’s niece, Nancy Vickers (played by Eileen O’Higgins). Nancy has dreams of being an aspiring actress, but in the meantime helps Brock run his business. She moved out from under her mother’s roof to live with Uncle Brock, who is considered an outcast of the family. His home is now where Nancy feels at home.
Here is some information about the process involved in daguerreotype photography, which is the type of photography used in this show and historical period. Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre invented the daguerreotype process in France. The following information directly from the Library of Congress describes the camera and the process:
The most popular cameras utilized a sliding-box design. The lens was placed in the front box. A second, slightly smaller box slid into the back of the larger box. The focus was controlled by sliding the rear box forward or backwards. A laterally reversed image would be obtained unless the camera was fitted with a mirror or prism to correct this effect. When the sensitized plate was placed in the camera, the lens cap would be removed to start the exposure.
The daguerreotype is a direct-positive process, creating a highly detailed image on a sheet of copper plated with a thin coat of silver without the use of a negative. The process required great care. The silver-plated copper plate had to first be cleaned and polished until the surface looked like a mirror. Next, the plate was sensitized in a closed box over iodine until it took on a yellow-rose appearance. The plate, held in a lightproof holder, was then transferred to the camera. After exposure to light, the plate was developed over hot mercury until an image appeared. To fix the image, the plate was immersed in a solution of sodium thiosulfate or salt and then toned with gold chloride.
Exposure times for the earliest daguerreotypes ranged from three to fifteen minutes, making the process nearly impractical for portraiture. Modifications to the sensitization process coupled with the improvement of photographic lenses soon reduced the exposure time to less than a minute. Popularity of the daguerreotype declined in the late 1850s when the ambrotype, a faster and less expensive photographic process, became available. A few contemporary photographers have revived the process.
The show is a murder mystery. Brock is put in the spotlight as someone who may be going around the city killing people and photographing the victims in the murdered state. The photographs of the murder scenes are the calling cards of the killer. The nosey detective, Frederick Regan (played by Aidan O’Hare), is trying to piece together the murders. Detective Regan keeps asking the advice of Brock, since he is an expert in memorializing photography. Detective Regan is also trying to get Brock to work with him, as he sees photography as an aid in solving criminal investigations.
The show is funny. The characters have funny one-liners. The mannerisms of the show’s photographers are relatable to another photographer. I found myself closely watching all the photography props trying to figure out if they were from the correct time period. I think the cameras used in the show look really cool, but I have yet to figure out what kind they are. Since the show takes place in the late 1800’s, the cameras are a later model of daguerrotypes or very early field cameras. I have not seen any bellows showing on the cameras. That makes me think they are not field cameras, but a dark cloth is used for focusing, and is therefore covering that part of the camera where the bellows would be located. They talk about the daguerrotype photographs in the show, but I think the time period of the show is a little later, and they are probably ambrotypes. The difference is using a sheet of metal, usually copper or tin, vs. using glass plates. One scene in the show is of the darkroom where Brock is going to process images and lights a kerosene lantern that has a red glass element. The red light helps in controlling the light when around light sensitive materials, such as the glass plates, tin/copper plates, or the modern film and photographic papers. There is another scene where Brock has lost his lens cap, and he uses his hat in front of the lens as a lens cap or makeshift shutter. That’s funny to me. In another episode, Molloy is putting the camera together and is fixing to take a photo and realizes he has yet to mount the lens to the camera. Another funny scene to me.
Overall, I think this show is great. It is bingeworthy in my opinion. If you are in the U.S., then Acorn is the place to watch the show. If you don’t want to pay for another streaming service, they do offer a free trial period, which gives you plenty of time to watch the show, since there are only 6 episodes. If you are a photographer and like everything photography, I highly recommend the show.
I left the show trailer down below. If you would like more information about the history of cameras and photography follow the links below. I also got some of my information used in this post from these sites. Oh, I can’t forget, I wrote a post a while back titled Tinned Iron and Glass. That post has some good examples of a daguerreotype camera, processing, glass plates and tin types.
I hope you enjoyed the read. If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out. Thanks!