Original publish date: August 21, 2015
If you like haunting antique shops and shows like me, I’m about to give you a new hobby, or at the very least blow your mind a little. Next time you find yourself walking by a table with a shoebox full of old CDV’s, tintypes and cabinet photos (they seem to appear everywhere) pick them up and look carefully at the photos of small children and babies. You might just find a “Hidden Mother” in one them.
Back in the stone ages before the advancement of digital imaging, cameras required film which then required development at a photo lab. The lab would take the film, create a negative, print your image and Eureka, you had a photo you could actually hold in your hands, not just look at on a screen. The first practical digital cameras started popping up in the 1980s, but before that, there was no “photoshopping” people out of negatives. True, negatives from commercial cameras from the 1930s on could be manipulated by the skillful use of a razor blade and a re-shoot, but they were clunky and easy to spot. In the case of Civil War Era CDVs (Carte de Visites) and tintypes or Victorian Era Cabinet photos, editing was nearly impossible, so other methods were utilized. In early photographs, a subject had to sit still because of long camera exposure times, usually 10-15 seconds depending on the lighting.
The longer the exposure, the better the image. That is, of course, unless the subject was a squirming baby, distracted pet or active small child. In those instances, these subjects were sometimes held in a deftly disguised lap or reassured by a disembodied adult hand just out of range of the camera lens. In some cases , this was accomplished using a photographer’s assistant but in most cases it was a relative, a nanny, or father, but primarily it was the child’s mother. Collectors make no distinction and photos of this description are always known as “hidden mother photographs” of “hidden mama photos.”
Back in the horse-and-buggy days there were really only a few ways to have your picture made. You either visited a photography studio (every town had one), went to an event like a Carnival, Amusement Park, State or County Fair to visit the photographer’s tent, or took advantage of traveling photographers who routinely roamed the back roads (often with an adorable pony in tow) to make a picture of the family for a quarter. Since many parents wanted photographs showing only the children, photographers had to get creative to block out the person in charge of corralling the child.
This was accomplished a couple of ways: a mother would drape herself in fabric and hold the squirming child on her lap or she would attempt to hide herself out of the camera’s view. This resulted in photos that at best subtly hid the caretaker from view or, at worse, created an image that looked looked like there was a creepy old ghost in the room. In in the case of the undisguised “hidden mama”, the mother’s features were confined to a far edge or an upper corner, that way, after the photo was developed, it could be placed behind an oval mat or frame which would crop out the mother, thereby deceiving the viewer into thinking the child was posing alone.
There were many techniques used to disguise the mother and a good photographer could make her nearly invisible, but she was never quite completely gone. If you look closely, you’ll see a hand, a set of fingers or the outline of an arm (sometimes the silhouette of an entire body) hidden within the photo. Just as digital photography changed the camera industry forever, improvements in technology led to exposure time being drastically cut down from minutes to seconds by the close of 19th century. Those uncomfortably long exposure times gave us some unmistakable Victorian Era photography peculiarities that you’ll find in every photograph from that age, regardless if you’re lucky enough to find a “hidden mother” photo or not. These include the stiff postures and unsmiling faces of subjects trying to remain perfectly still during the excruciatingly long time it took for the photographer to remove the lens cap and expose the film. Having had several of these photos made of me and my family over the years, I can testify that you can remain itch free for hours until the moment that a box camera photographer tells you “Okay, stand still” and counts off the seconds. One unconscious twitch or involuntary movement would result in a ruined picture. You could blink your eyes and not have it appear in the finished photo, but that was about it.
Now that you know about these photos, I suspect you’ll start looking and finding them on your own. Obviously, you first need to find an old fashioned photo of a child, but failing that, you can also look at the photos of the adults, usually when they are posed standing alone in a studio. Sometimes, the cast iron photographer’s stand can be seen behind them. Look first at the floor behind the subject’s feet and then look at the neck. These bulky stands looked like an old floor lamp with tripod footing and a U-shaped topper that was placed behind the neck to hold the subject still. Most of these are subtle, but some are quite obvious when you know what to look for.
In the case of “hidden mother” photos, the mother is most often “seen” disguised as a chair or camouflaged under decorative throws behind or holding the child. The throws can be as simple as a black or white tablecloth (the white tablecloths REALLY making it look like a ghost) or bulky Persian rugs and drapes with heavy backings that surely made the “disguisee” herself wriggle uncomfortably during the process. Another interesting subset of the “ghost mother” phenomenon has developed more recently. That is the debate among fans of this type of photo asking, is the child dead or alive?
Post Mortem photos were very popular during the same era. While the practice of taking a photo of a dead person, particularly an infant, appears macabre, perhaps repulsive, to people today, it has a plausible explanation. The Post Mortem photo was often the only photo the family had of that person. Most of these photos are of the very old or the very young. The argument in the late 1800s to early 1900s was that elderly folks were born before the advent of commercial photography and usually lived their entire lives in rural settings with no opportunity, or need, for a photo to have ever been attempted of them. For babies and small children, the argument would be that parents believed there would be plenty of time to have photos made of the kids down the line. An unexpected, early death would hasten that schedule.
Quite obviously it would be highly unusual (and very creepy) to find a hidden mother in the photo of an adult. But not so unusual in the instance of a photo of a dead child. Grief and mourning for lost children was the same then as it is now. Depending on the timing of the sad event, the parent may have been reluctant to allow the child to be removed from their clutches while awaiting burial, particularly in the very early stages of infant death. The principal question is, if the child is dead and not moving, why is the mother hidden?
Well, just as photographers used cast iron braces, officially known as “posing stands”, to keep a wavering subject steady during the prolonged exposure process, perhaps the “hidden mother” was used for the dearly departed child because the parent refused to have their baby propped up by cold steel. After all, a concerned mother would want her precious child to appear as lifelike as possible and in fact many Post-Mortems have accomplished just that and are hard to distinguish by any but the most expert eye.
I’ve included a trio of photos of the “hidden mother” variety for you to see. But there is at least one obvious example of a Post Mortem hidden mama photo that you can easily view on the net by simply typing “hidden mother Post Mortem” into your browser bar. I decided to omit that photo from this article for the sake of propriety choosing instead to let you the reader make that choice for yourself. So if there is one obvious example of a Post Mortem “hidden mama”, there surely must be more. Regardless, the next time you pass one of those shoeboxes full of old photos invariably marked as “Instant Relatives”, pick up a stack and peruse them. Pay close attention, you might just find a “hidden mother” of your own.