If you’ve seen any Victorian photography with children, chances are you’ve seen them without really seeing them—shrouded figures lurking, but hidden, in plain sight. To the modern eye, they look sinister, but in the 19th-century they were nothing more than utilitarian.
Meet the “hidden mothers” of early photography.
If you ever tried to shoot photos of kids, as a parent or as a photographer (or both), you’ve no doubt realized how difficult it is to capture the perfect moment. The tiny subjects rarely sit still for any length of time—they drool, squirm, cry, and roll over as soon as they’re propped in that oh-so-perfect position. Hundreds of photos have to be taken for just a few great shots and, in some cases, even those have to be retouched.
While we’re lucky we live in a day and age of technological ease, the Victorians had no such luxuries. We’ve been used to being able to shoot when and where we like for several decades now, but in the early days of photography, portraiture was done in a studio at the brightest point in the day as was possible. Time was of the essence in getting the perfect shot, and the complete stillness of the subjects being photographed was integral in doing so.
From the 1850s to the 1880s, wet collodion was the process by which photos were created. Using this method, it took about half a minute for an image to register, a period of time during which it is hard enough for an adult to sit completely still, much less a small child or baby.
A Victorian-era photographer could position anyone old enough using a posing stand, or an electric chair-style head clamp behind them (if they were sitting), but the only way of shooting a baby or toddler successfully was for the mother to hold her child. (Or dope it with paregoric, a mix of opium or morphine combined with a variety of the other ingredients, including alcohol. Fun times!)
Among people who’ve noticed these hidden figures in photos, a question remains—why didn’t these background caretakers throw off their covers and let themselves be a part of what was hoped to be a memorable moment captured on film? Well, on occasion, the “mothers” weren’t mothers at all; they were a mix of people—a father, a sibling, a nanny, or a photographer’s assistant.
And while we don’t know for sure what kept them hidden, Linda Fregni Nagler, an Italian-Swedish photographer who has collected thousands of these early caretaker and child photos for her book The Hidden Mother, believes that the women of the day excluded themselves deliberately for a few reasons. The pictures were sent around the world to family members to show off the newest member of the clan and the image was meant to “create an intimate bond between the child and the viewer, rather than between mother and child.” (In other words, it wasn’t about the mother.) Another explanation is also plausible—mothers in the Victorian age didn’t feel they were of sufficient enough value to appear in the photographs.
The women vary in the success of their subterfuge. Some moms cover themselves in floral fabric and make decent enough chairs, while others have a hand or arm in full view, making themselves more, rather than less, conspicuous.
In a few of the pictures, the women’s faces have been blotted or scratched out altogether. From a modern viewpoint, we see malicious intent, but Nagler advises us to view the photos in the context in which they were taken over a century ago. “Today we’d use Photoshop to get rid of people we didn’t want to appear in an image,” she explains. “But for photographers working in this period, the only option was to obliterate the faces with a sharp object.”
Nagler also believes the mothers’ presence in the photo would have sent a reassuring message to the viewer—that the child was very much alive. The stiff poses they were obliged to adopt made them look indistinguishable from dead children, who were frequently photographed posthumously, as that photo may have been the only proof of the deceased former existence. The presence of the mother holding her child steady is comforting validation that the subject of the picture was full of life at the time it was taken.
Today, photos of hidden mothers are valuable, but hard to find collector’s items. However, in the Victorian era, “they were very cheap to make. The cost to the customer was just a few cents,” says Nagler. “There’s a community of collectors who are not only very knowledgeable but also very skilled at trading in these images.”
As for Nagler, she remains fascinated by the concept of “what we value in a photograph, and how that changes over time.” Aren’t we all?