Handsome Dead Men is a design research project that uses found imagery as a way to explore a range of interconnected themes. Focussing primarily on portrait photography from digital archives, each image acts as a window into the life of its subject whilst exploring the historical and cultural contexts behind the photograph.

Handsome Dead Men is written and designed by graphic designer Benji Roebuck. More of my work can be found on Roebuck Press.

Every effort has been made to present interesting and accurate portrayals on the site, but it is often very difficult to piece together information from historic online sources, especially if there is very little information to go off in the first place. This is the case with some of these portraits and as such it is inevitable that some of their stories remain incomplete. If you have any suggestions, feedback or further information on any of the men featured here, the supporting information I have included or the site in general, I would love to hear from you at hello@roebuckpress.com

In its purest form, Handsome Dead Men is just that: photographs of good looking gentlemen who are all, incidentally, deceased. Pictured here are people who all led very different lives and each of their portraits would have been taken for a variety of purposes — perhaps for posterity or as a matter of public record, for identification, for publicity, or many other reasons. Whether they were rich or poor, well-known in their time or lived in obscurity there are two characteristics that they all have in common: they are all dead and they are all handsome.

Obviously ‘handsome’ is a subjective term and relative to one’s own tastes and inclinations, yet I think it’s clear that all the portraits in this collection are striking and enigmatic in their own way. There’s a misconception perhaps, that photographs of the past will feature individuals who are drastically different to us now, that their appearance will differ wildly from our modern ideals of beauty or attractiveness. We might expect to see pockmarked, ugly or dirty faces, that old images will illustrate how standards of hygiene and medicine were far behind our own. Not so in these portraits as, discount the clothes the men are wearing and focus on the faces looking out and it becomes apparent that they are not so very different from us today. The same could be said of the biographies, such as they are, that accompany each portrait – ignore the references to outmoded forms of transportation, now-non-existent countries and other historical markers and each of these mens’ stories exhibit the same archetypal themes of love, loss, discovery and survival that we’ve been reading about, and experiencing, for thousands of years.

Though it might sound like a profound statement, this collection of portraits not only act as a window into a bygone era or a tool to satisfy our own curiosity, but as a way for us to think about our own mortality — though admittedly from a safe distance. There is a kind of macabre fascination in looking at something, or someone, who is dead — regardless of (or, perhaps in this case, exaggerated by) how good-looking they are. Before the advent of photography the only imagery we had of people was as viewed through somebody else’s eyes — paintings, drawings or sculpture — and yet as photography developed in the 19th century it became possible to truly record what the living looked like, preserving their likeness long after their death.

These men were all alive when photographed and so their portraits might not illicit as much of a strong emotional response, as we might experience when witnessing death first hand, yet in contemplating the lives of these individuals, we are in part contemplating their deaths too, and maybe by extension, our own. This experience can only be made stranger when we do so from our modern-day vantage point, as generally we are one step removed from death. Where as at one time most deaths occurred in a domestic setting, today they mainly take place in controlled, often clinical environments; though we hear about it often, the majority of us rarely experience death, meaning it’s a sobering thought when we are reminded of it.

Finding something attractive is one of the ways we attribute value and importance to something and, in a slightly different context, these men must have been deemed sufficiently valued or important to have warranted photographing in the first place. It’s at least 100 years since the last of these portraits were taken and it’s interesting to consider how they might have gained, lost or retained value over time. Does the fame, or perhaps infamy, of these individuals have any standing on how important their portrait is today? Is a handsome man’s story more or less important to us now, as a modern observer?

Value is also often associated with rarity yet photography is an ephemeral medium and and easy to reproduce — unless there’s only one physical copy, or a photograph records something of great historical or cultural significance, the perceived value attributed to it generally diminishes over time. Perhaps there are different images of an individual in different times and places, meaning one single image looses its significance as more are taken; or perhaps there are lots of versions of the same image and it’s widely available – we are familiar with both concepts in the image-saturated era in which we live today. All of the photographs in this collection have been found in digital archives and are in the public domain, so in one regard these portraits have never been more accessible (and in one sense less valuable) than they are now. Conversely, the older a photograph gets the rarer (and potentially more valuable) it becomes – loss, accident, mistreatment or general fragility will all impact on glass and paper over time.

Though digitising something makes it more accessible in theory, in practice this isn’t necessarily the case. The internet is full of ‘stuff’ — words and information, sounds, moving  and still images. As this content has become more accessible, the sheer quantity of information can make it very hard to sift through and the value of often-updated, temporary or transient content is called into question. All of the portraits in this collection would have existed in some physical form for decades before being digitalised by whichever museum or institution holds it now and though this preserves the original for posterity and opens it up to a wider audience, the sheer quantity of digital content means it does not necessarily hold the same value as a physical artefact.

This collection hopes to examine these physical-turned-digital images in a new context, providing an opportunity to re-question the importance of the portraits, the men who inhabit them and their individual stories. I hope as a reader you will find them at the very least an interesting and intriguing window into how these men lived their lives. At most — whether through a modicum of mortality questioning or not — you might derive some of your own value from these handsome dead men.

Thanks for reading,

Benji Roebuck