Hidden to Missing
Some of the oldest known images in art depict a mother and child. In early photographs, images of mothers and children often mirrored older religious and romantic-period paintings, and by contemporary standards conveyed a romantic notion of both childhood and motherhood. During the roughly 40-year period of studio-only photography, professionals stuck to tried and true poses for mother and child photographs. As cameras became available to the world at large, roughly at the beginning of the 20th century, earlier studio conventions were widely replicated in vernacular snapshots. That is, persons usually posed, or were posed by amateur photographers, as per tradition. Others saw the photographs and repeated the pose.
The Hidden Mother
There exists a type of child portrait, now called ‘Hidden Mother,’ in which 19th century studio photographers would cover a mother, caregiver, or assistant with a cloth or carpet in order to have an adult steady an infant or child for the then slow shutter speeds and long exposures. The draped figures are often referred to as mothers, but whether these women were actually the mothers is unknown.
The images below are from a Google search for Hidden Mother images:
In the canon of photography, Hidden Mother photographs are somewhat furtive. When found on the Internet they are often relegated to a Victorian Gothic subset that includes “freaks” and/or post-mortem images. Granted, the bulk of these images were created during a similar time frame, but images of children (and similar subject matter created during the Victorian era) are usually not included in this category. Hidden Mother images are usually categorized with other images deemed “unsettling” in contemporary culture. On eBay, for instance, they are often titled or marketed as “haunting,” “ghostly,” or “creepy.” One has to wonder why these images are regarded in this way. One possible explanation is that they play on a deeply ingrained fear of losing one’s mother.
Though one can find articles on this phenomenon, there is only one book that comprehensively documents the practice. In The Hidden Mother, author Linda Nagler publishes an impressive array of images from her own collection. The photos collected for this catalog, The Missing Mother, are meant to pick up from where Nagler’s book left off by showing how the cultural practice of hiding a mother or caregiver in photography did not abruptly end in the early 1900’s but rather continued in a different form.
The Transition from Hidden Mother to Missing Mother
As the Hidden Mother convention declined as a studio staple, and with the coming of faster shutter speeds and faster film in laypersons’ hands, popular photography naturally carried on with amateur baby and child pictures. After about 1900, there appears to have been a transitional stage whereby the mother, depending on the viewer’s reference point, is either partially missing or emerging into view. These are the “Missing Mothers.” Research in photo markets around the world shows that these photos have been preferentially saved over generations and are valued both within families and on the commercial market.
In Nagler’s research she calls the single hand of the mother a “phantom limb.” The mother seems to be literally and figuratively close at hand. Though one might assume that the hand is there to steady the infant in case he or she falls, it appears in many photos in which the child is in no danger of falling and is often present in photos of older children. The over-protective mother comes to mind, but a more poetic reading might be that the hand is there to remind the viewer of the mother’s presence. Seen as a symbolic progression from a missing mother, the hidden mother might also be regarded as finally coming into view.
In the Missing Mother images there appear to be both new and repeated conventions in the way the photographer captures the child, which is the main subject. Once again, the mother is concealed, but, in this case, she is only partially excluded from the frame. While it is tempting to blame coincidence, it seems more logically to reveal a common mindset–one which values the child as the main subject, while regarding the mother’s image as peripheral.
In order to understand the collection of Missing Mothers presented here, it is useful to combine elements of technology, history, culture, and metaphor.
Technically speaking, it is easy to dismiss many of these images as the work of an inexperienced or inept photographer. Likewise, from a cultural or metaphoric standpoint, there is a tendency to see these images as merely the creation of proud fathers, or at worst, ignoring husbands. However, when one takes into consideration the quantity of images that exist and the fact that they have been kept and circulated for so many decades, one can imagine a greater cultural significance.
Is there a difference between a hidden mother and a missing one? In both there is a trace of the mother, yet photographically and metaphorically, covering something is different from depicting it in a fragmented state. In the former, all parts are covered and there is a specific attempt to “not see” her through the visual device of a cloth, frame, or, in some cases, scratching and blacking out. But she is typically aware of her exclusion from the photograph, so she is complicit on some level. In Missing Mother images, some parts of the mother are included, but much of her is cut off. Unlike the mothers in Hidden Mother images, she rarely appears complicit or aware of what is photographically being done to her. She isn’t consulted, asked to stop her activity, or pose alongside of her child. We say that we “take a photo,” but what is it that is taken in these fragmented poses?
As with Hidden Mothers, technology must have factored into Missing Mother photographs. The images whereby the mothers’ heads are cropped out are most likely the result of amateur photographers not knowing parallax error of a rangefinder camera, for example. In other words, before cameras allowed the photographer to see through the lens, it was more difficult to determine exactly what would be included in the photo. Still, it is important to note that these images were not dismissed or thrown away because there were errors. Instead, they have been saved and have circulated in culture for decades. That photographs with obvious technical errors continue to be preserved, circulated, bought and sold, collected, and written about, underscores their cultural importance.
If these images are culturally significant enough to represent a type or class, what underlying conventions, values, or ideals are being circulated?
If the mother is visible but with her face more or less hidden, the idea of a self-sacrificing mother springs to mind. In our culture, a “good mother” is one that necessarily puts her needs before her infant’s. This is seen not only as an ideal, but is regarded as a necessity that benefits the child. When the mother looks down adoringly at her infant she is seen as someone who is more concerned with her infant than with her own image (it is also the classic Madonna and child pose). If she were to look directly at the camera, the photo would be more about her as an individual than about her as an attentive mother, and would distract the viewer’s attention from the child.
In another common pose she turns her back to the camera while holding the baby over her shoulder. Is this another level of downplaying herself? The baby is facing the camera while she is not. In our culture if there are two people in a photo, and only one is seen from the front, the person looking at the camera is photographically considered the main subject.
Another variation has the mother holding the baby’s face directly in front of her face; perhaps this could be said to convey that she is literally and figuratively “putting the baby before herself.” In these poses the modern mother is not far removed from the mothers in the Hidden Mother portraits: she functions as a prop for the baby, albeit a devoted one.
Yet many of the Missing Mother photos do not convey a positive, self-sacrificing maternal image, but rather one who is literally, figuratively, and humorously overlooked. The mother does not appear to be in control of the pose. The photographer exerts himself (or, not impossibly, herself) in a more active way than with the self-sacrificing poses. One may observe that the photographer needed only to shift the camera a few inches to include the mother, but instead captured extraneous and even boring details. In the image on page 119, for example, the photographer included a toilet in the frame, seemingly favoring the toilet over the mother. In this case, the mother didn’t sacrifice herself; the photographer did it for her, and in such a ridiculous and laughable way.
These images containing phantom limbs, partial views of mothers holding infants, or mothers with their heads or torsos cropped out parallel the Hidden Mother photos in some ways, but are generally not experienced as “unsettling” in the same way that the Hidden Mother images are. Since there are no shrouds over the mothers’ heads, we are not directly reminded of death or loss. And though we might see only a mother’s hand, arm, skirt, or shoe, she is not completely absent from the photo. Also, since the mothers’ clothing (when you can see it) more closely resembles our own, the photos are less likely to be disturbing, because they seems more familiar.
Of course, nervous laughter does still come into play when we are presented with something ridiculous that has an element of truth. The idea that the photographer deemed a toilet more important than the child’s mother is so unacceptable that it makes us laugh. However, though this is dark humor, it is still more relatable, playful, and less ominous to contemporary viewers than a mother covered with a cloth.
In terms of photographic portraiture, Hidden Mother, Missing Mother, and many traditional Mother and Child images are in a unique category. There are no other photographic poses whereby subjects consistently look down or away from the camera. Nor are there poses where they intentionally hold something in front of their faces, or turns their backs to the camera. In our culture, there are certainly no other photographic conventions whereby the subject is completely covered by a cloth. Even post-mortem photos have not utilized a shroud for the bodies, and there is a cultural convention to cover the dead. Ironically, though children are highly distractible, most photos show them looking into the lens, as consistent with photographic convention.
Understanding Culture Through Photographic Conventions
Photography is a language whose images express cultural desires, that when extensively replicated, turn into conventions. That we understand each other through visual stories and artifacts is no surprise. Photographic conventions are merely an extension of what we value as a group.
Never before in the history of photography has it been so easy to gather photographs from private and commercial sources. In the past, though it was possible to purchase family photos at a flea market or shop, it would be unlikely to find enough photos of the same type to see a pattern or support a theory. With the advent of the Internet, individuals from all over the world are now able to sell private photos, most likely under the theory, “one man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” and often without knowing beforehand if there is a market, or what the interest might be. As a result, photographs that were once meant for private family viewing are now opened up to all of culture, shifting interest from the personal to understanding the culture that created them.
A “Cultural Birth” of the Mother
The word “hidden” often has negative connotations. For example, we may “hide our face in shame” or “have hidden motives.” The word “missing” is arguably less negative, or sinister. Though “missing person” might have a distressing association, there is nothing negative about “missing your mother or your sweetheart’s touch.” Thus while Missing Mother photographs portray the mothers as mostly missing, they might also be read as conveying a positive longing to see more of the mother. In this regard, Hidden Mother photos can be viewed as a metaphoric incubation period, with Missing Mother photos being the next step of gestation, until finally the mother is uncovered and revealed.
To end this series, I’ve included a diptych of a contemporary mother who is at first hidden under a cloth. In the second and last image of the collection she joyfully removes the cover and reveals herself to the camera. In doing so she metaphorically, photographically, and culturally gives birth to the mother.
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