In some photographs the mother has been crudely rubbed out.
At first glance, you can't understand why the child in the photo is not screaming its head off. Clamped in position by a sinister shrouded figure, the toddler seems solemn, certainly, but hardly terrified. Look a little harder, though, and you begin to unravel the visual and emotional dynamics in play. The bundled-up figure is actually the child's mother. And, far from spooking the toddler, she is holding it gently but firmly on her shrouded lap.
The moment photography became cheap and available in the late 1850s, thousands of ordinary middle- and working-class parents queued to capture their child's image.
So far, so familiar. Here is the Victorian equivalent of an iPhone snap taken from the delivery room and posted immediately to Instagram. The only difference is that in modern photography there's no tradition of blanking out Mum. Either she's there, interacting joyfully with the new arrival, or she's tactfully absent, leaving the spotlight focused on her photogenic bundle. The 19th century did things differently.
"In America it was common practice for the mother, or other caretaker, to hold the child steady during the long exposure, since any wriggling would blur the image," explains Linda Fregni Nagler, an Italian-Swedish photographer who has collected more than a thousand of these early mother-and-baby photos. "Yet at the same time, the mother was expected to hide any sign that she was actually in the frame." The results were frequently bizarre, with the viewer expected somehow to ignore the creepy figure that loomed in the background like a bulky ghost.
Nagler, 37, has now turned her collection of "hidden mother" photographs into a book. Every page reveals the lengths mothers went to in order to extend their repertoire of disguises. Some have covered themselves in flowery chintz and pretend to be armchairs. Others duck down behind the sofa, so that only their hands are in view, displaying the child like a puppet. Others turn their heads away from the camera, lean out of shot or unpin their hair so it falls over their face like a curtain. One woman, perhaps fed up with the absurdity of it all, simply covers herself in a white sheet and hopes for the best.
The results are often unintentionally funny. Many of the women have made themselves more, rather than less, conspicuous. The effect is rather like children who believe that if they cover their eyes they become invisible.
Sometimes, though, the mood turns darker. In a few of the pictures, the mothers' faces have been scratched out altogether. While this might strike us as sinister, Nagler warns against reading a contemporary sensibility into images that are up to 150 years old. "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."
The puzzle remains, of course, why the mothers did not throw off their disguises and pose straightforwardly with their children? Nagler believes that, as a young art form, photography came with a new set of rules. These were pictures that would be sent around the world to introduce family and friends to the latest member of the clan. "The mothers seem to have been aiming to create an intimate bond between the child and the viewer, rather than between themselves and the child."
A more sociological explanation, such as the possibility that the mothers didn't feel they were of sufficient value to appear in the photographs, is an option, too. What makes the images so gripping now is precisely their refusal to be read in ways that make sense. They are intriguingly open to interpretation.
These images of hidden mothers, simultaneously absent and present, illustrate something that still resonates today. Disguised as armchairs, hiding behind pillars or crouching on the carpet, these ghostly figures remind us of the way that we all, regardless of age or circumstance, continue to be guided by that comforting, imprisoning maternal grasp.
Photography courtesy of The Hidden Mother (Mack) by Linda Fregni Nagler, available next month from Perimeter Books (perimeterbooks.com) and selected bookstores.
Stella Magazine, The Sunday Telegraph, London, UK.