Why did mothers once conceal themselves in photographs?

In some photographs the mother has been crudely rubbed out.

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.

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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.

  

7 comments so far

  • You're kidding right? This is no conspiracy. People wanted photographs of their babies by themselves. Photos, as you surprisingly pointed out correctly, took much longer than they do now. Therefore, the baby needed to be kept still. Having the mother hold the baby was the perfect means with which to do this.

    A perfectly reasonable process, given the time, to achieve the desired result of a baby shot.

    But, of course, this is some gender quashing conspiracy, if you read the subtext of this article.

    Commenter
    Public Joe
    Date and time
    January 20, 2014, 9:49AM
    • But babies and toddlers can squirm and rage regardless of being held or not. Holding a child requires a great deal of jigging around, or have you never held an infant? Indeed many of the children in these images are perfectly capable of standing independently. I daresay it is a matter of the mother simply not being worthy/important enough.

      Commenter
      Ingo
      Date and time
      January 20, 2014, 12:06PM
    • Ingo, you have no knowledge of photographic history and are creating a conspiracy (or perpetuating the author's) for no good reason.

      If the mother was deemed not important, why put her in the photo in the first place?

      Commenter
      Public Joe
      Date and time
      January 20, 2014, 1:34PM
    • Ok Public Joe, tell us conspiracy creating women exactly what we are doing wrong, and the real background of these photographs. Why don't you inform us all of by writing an article & have it successfully published here? Go ahead, we are all waiting to read your sanctimonious wisdom. Sigh.

      Commenter
      Ingo
      Date and time
      January 20, 2014, 3:51PM
  • "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."
    If you aren't actually required to provide any evidence to support a theory, anything could be an option. Mothers being considered particularly susceptible to the soul-stealing effect of a camera could also be an option.

    "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."
    Especially when no effort has been made to attempt to explain the reasoning.
    My initial thought is just that it is because the photos are supposed to be about the children, not the mother. Of course, in a modern world where everything is me, me, me, such a concept is completely unfathomable.

    Commenter
    Markus
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    January 20, 2014, 11:34AM
    • Another possibility that was not put forward in the article but my daughter-in-law suggested in a discussion about the article, is that maybe the shrouded women are NOT related to the children. Those who could afford photography in that day and age may have had enough wealth to hire nannies, servants or even slaves (in USA) and may have chosen to not include non-family members in the photos.

      Commenter
      Nannacate
      Date and time
      January 20, 2014, 2:20PM
      • That's exactly what I was thinking. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that these were the children's mothers (I'd be curious to see what information the author has gathered on this). The most logical explanation seems to be that they are probably nannies or servants in the photos, helping position the children, and they are not included in the photo because they are not part of the family.

        Commenter
        Jane
        Date and time
        January 21, 2014, 2:00PM

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