Yet in the midst of curious tombs, grand Continental designs, and stories of intrigue, they remain: Small, uniformly-sized, concave ceramic disks onto which timeless photographs of the deceased have been fired. Happy couples, glamorous ladies, innocent children, all immortalized on their tablets and headstones. Perhaps even more so than memorial sculpture, porcelain photographs connect the cemetery visitor with the cemetery resident, gazing out from the realm of years passed.
History and Technology of Photo-Ceramic Memorial Photographs
Photo porcelain is referred to by many names – photo-ceramic, porcelain enamel portraits, ceramic pictures – but by any name, the tradition of transferring photographs to hard surfaces is deeply rooted in the history of photography itself.
The first modern photographic inventions took place in the 1820s and 1830s, most notably with the invention of daguerreotype in the late 1830s. Along with other revolutionary qualities that were improved by other inventors over time, the daguerreotype had its downside in that it was a one-of-a-kind print that could not be duplicated. In 1841, Louis Daguerre’s competition, Henry Fox Talbot, invented the calotype process, which did permit unlimited printing from a single image. The wet collodion process, invented in 1851, would further advance this technology.
Each of these processes often involved developing the image on a glass or metal plat which was quickly covered in protective glass. Tin-types, daguerreotypes, and other images are examples of this process of developing the image directly onto a hard surface. Such means were more ideal than paper, which deteriorated rapidly by comparison.
Europe during this time seemed aflurry with new and exciting developments in photographic techniques. Among this fervor came two photographers who invented the process that would give rise to photo-ceramic portraits. Documented only by their last names, French photographers Bulot and Cattin patented a process to transfer images from plates developed via the Collodion process onto other hard surfaces. Patented in 1854, Bulot later showcased this process at the 1867 Paris World Exposition.
Myriad modes of image transferal were patented and modified by various nineteenth century inventors, including Alphonse Louis Poitevin, Mathieu Deroche, and Lafond de Camarsac (who won a gold medal at the 1867 Paris Exposition for his process). The intricacies of each process are not necessary for this story, but are exquisitely explained by the Dutch Enamelists Society (Vereniging van Nederlandse Emailleurs) here: History of Enamel Photography
In both the United States and in Continental Europe, the use of photo porcelain on memorials and monuments became popular among Southern and Eastern Europeans. In Italy in particular, it is said to have become widespread.
Evidence or literature to support why photo porcelain was more desirable among these communities is scant. In the United States, most sources suggest that photo porcelain was a way for immigrants to maintain connections to family and culture in a strange land.
Prior to the 1890s, portraits were obtained by families through retailers (often photographers) who ordered their wares from specialists in Europe. This changed in 1893 when Joseph Albert Dedouch established his own patents and company in Chicago, Illinois. Dedouch’s company produced a vast number of porcelain photographs. Dedouch was so successful that his products were given a new name – “Dedos.” Over time, the finer aspects of the art developed – the addition of chromatic tints to color the photograph, and manual editing of images to improve overall appearance.
While these portraits were available in the United States in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the popularity of this medium grew in between 1900 and 1930. Many ceramic portraits in cemeteries outside of New Orleans typically mark burials from this period.
Ceramic Portraits in Southern Cemeteries: Savannah, Georgia
The cemeteries of Savannah, Georgia, depict this trend. Ranging mostly from the 1910s to 1930s, they reflect the generalities of national markets. They mark the burials of Italian and Greek immigrants, although by the 1950s their popularity in African American cemeteries is also visible.
The tradition of ceramic portraits in New Orleans, however, appears to have caught on much later. From 1910 to 1930, other trends such as Georgia marble, tree-trunk monuments, and advances in stonecutting technology appear contemporary with the rest of the country. Conversely, nearly all photo porcelain dates from the 1950s onward. Even from this period to the present, ceramic portraits are rare.
There are a number of reasons why this may have been the case. Photographers and monument companies, who would have typically brokered the sale of ceramic portraits, may have simply chosen not to tap into this market until much later. It is possible, as well, that the process of constructing, purchasing, and maintaining above-ground tombs seemed incongruous with the installation of these artifacts.
What is evident from the presence and location of these portrait is that, like the rest of the country, they remained popular among Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent. Perhaps the only cemetery in which ceramic portraits are commonly visible is St. Roch Cemetery No. 2, in which the New Orleans Italian community has a distinct presence.
Which photographers and/or monument dealers engaged in the sale of these portraits is unclear, with the exception of the Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street. In 1932, Maison Blanche did advertise ceramic portraits as jewelry miniatures for less than $2.00. It is possible that the department store also retailed larger versions of this art. There is also at least one example of a “Dedo” or Dedouch ceramic, stamped with the company’s information, in Greenwood Cemetery.
Threats to Preservation
When prepared correctly, ceramic portraits are impermeable to moisture, resistant to fading, and will last more than a century without deterioration. However, there are numerous threats to the preservation of ceramic portraits.
Vandalism and theft are the primary threats to these beautiful cemetery artifacts. These hazards come from a number of directions. Primarily, photo porcelain is pretty, and suits a market of antique purchasers. Many portraits show evidence of cracking and chipping around edges, which in many cases indicates an attempt to pry the ceramic away from its setting. Sometimes the vandal/thief can remove the entire portrait – in many cases it results instead in a cracked, chipped portrait, often obscuring the original image.
Many portraits were originally fitted with brass frames and covers. These are frequently removed for the value of their copper.
Damages from design are not frequently visible. Literature suggests that poor preparation of the photo transfer can lead to damage. The most frequent issue in New Orleans cemeteries stems from the brass covers and frames installed with the ceramic. Like other brass hardware, the natural patina process of copper leads to a green stain, which in some instances can spread to marble.
Examples of poor preparation, or perhaps the result of damaging cleaning, can be found in other cemeteries. Pocking, leaching, and fading appear to happen in rare instances.
Photo-Ceramic Portraits Today
Technology surrounding photo-ceramic transfers has become more streamlined and accessible over time. From European masters, to American innovators like Dedouch, the technology to transfer photographs to ceramic disks is now accessible to nearly anyone with a printer and a kiln.
Preserving photo-ceramic portraits is a multi-faceted and nuanced task. It must require aspects of documentation, materials conservation, and skilled artisanship. For by preserving the antique processes by which these portraits were made, their cultural heritage as a whole is safeguarded for future generations.
Of course, it is impossible to protect resources that have never been defined. In New Orleans, no comprehensive attempt has ever been made to catalog instances of photo porcelain in cemeteries. If they are to be preserved for the future, and protected from vandalism or theft, documentation is essential.
In a world in which images have become ubiquitous yet ephemeral, photo-ceramic memorial portraits offer a connection to the most deeply personal and sentimental aspects of memorial art. The opposite of ephemeral, their tangibility and endurance create in our cemetery landscapes a memory almost even more real than the people they memorialize.
 Reports on the Paris Universal Exhibition, Volume 2 (London: George E. Eyre and William Spottiswoode, 1869), 66.
 Ronald William Horne, Forgotten Faces: A Window into Our Immigrant Past (San Francisco: Personal Genesis Publishing, 2004). This publication may be the only book specifically dedicated to photo porcelain, although it focuses almost entirely on the cemeteries of Colma, California.
Marilyn Yalom, The American Resting Place: 400 Years of History Through Our Cemeteries and Burial Grounds (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2008), 20-21.
 Maison Blanche advertisement, Times-Picayune, March 30, 1932, 26; Sears Roebuck prices from The American Resting Place, 20.