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Hidden Mothers in Family Photographs

Have you heard of hidden mothers in family photos?

Hidden Mothers in Family Photos

Courtesy Hidden Mothers Flickr Group

Photography collectors may already know about the “hidden mother” in early photographs, but I haven’t read much about this in connection with genealogy.

According to the The Hidden Mother Flickr group, there was a photographic “practice where the mother, often disguised or hiding, often under a spread, holds her baby tightly for the photographer to insure a sharply focused image.”

The Guardian, in an article entitled “The Lady Vanishes: Victorian Photography’s Hidden Mothers,” by Bella Bathurst, notes:

The main problem was the length of the exposure. However bright the photographer’s studio, it took up to half a minute for an image to register on wet collodion. Getting an adult to sit completely still for half a minute is a challenge, but getting a wakeful baby to do so is near-impossible. The photographer could position anyone old enough to sit on a chair by placing an electric chair-style head clamp behind them, but the only way of photographing a baby was for the mother to hold it (or dope it with enough laudanum to keep a grown man rigid for a week).

The results were often extraordinary – as a new collection of these photographs, called The Hidden Mother, shows. Though there are plenty of Victorian studio portraits of family groups, there are also many in which the mothers are concealed: they’re holding babies in place while impersonating chairs, couches or studio backdrops. They wanted a picture of just the baby, and this was the best way to achieve it. Sometimes, the figures are obvious, standing by the side of a chair and waiting to be cropped out later; sometimes, they really do appear as a pair of curtains or as disembodied hands. To a 21st-century viewer, the images look bizarre – all these unsmiling children strangled by smocking and framed by what appears to be a black-draped Grim Reaper, or by an endless succession of figures in carpets and chintz burqas.

Hidden Mothers in Family Photos

Courtesy Hidden Mothers Flickr Group

The Accidental Mysteries blog suggests that “most infants during that time were photographed with their mothers holding them. The intended picture was ultimately headed for a frame or mat, so the child would sit in the mothers lap for the photo. When the picture was taken, the mother simply was cropped out to serve as the backdrop.”

There are many fascinating examples of this photographic phenomenon, dating from tintypes up to the turn-of-the-century at the Flickr group and at the Retronaut blog.

Have you seen examples of hidden mothers in family photos?

For more posts on family photos and records, click here. 

About the Author:

Nancy Loe has an MA in American History and an MLS in Library Science and Archives. She has appeared on PBS’s American Experience, at Rootstech, SCGS Jamboree, and state and regional genealogy conferences. Her website was featured in Family Tree Magazine’s “Social Media Mavericks: 40 to Follow.”

4 Comments

  1. Yvette Porter Moore 30 January 2012 at 11:48 PM

    Wow! Amazing photo and idea…Thanks for sharing.

  2. Sassy Jane Genealogy 31 January 2012 at 12:43 PM

    Isn’t it strange? I want to see the mothers, not blankets!

  3. Andrea Kelleher 1 February 2012 at 5:52 AM

    This is a new one for me too. Very interesting. I personally would much rather see the mother too but hey, ya do what ya gotta do to get a good picture of the family 🙂

  4. Kathy Reed 2 February 2012 at 6:35 PM

    That’s amazing. Why does it remind me of a burkha (sp)? I find it a bit unsettling — having said that I’m going to click on the links.

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