These unbelievable images attest to a 19th-century photographic genre, later known as “hidden mother photography," that rose to popularity during the Victorian era. At the time, photography was seen as a respectable profession for middle class women, which is why we can assume that many of these pictures were taken by women.
Due to long exposure times in early photography, subjects had to sit still for anywhere between 18-30 seconds, making it particularly difficult to photograph children. Given that mothers wanted their loved ones photographed, different methods were developed. Sometimes animals were used to entertain the child and keep it engaged, while some children were given laudanum—the popular opioid often referred to as “the mother’s friend”— “to calm them down”. The most efficient way, however, was for the mother to hold her child. But given that this type of photograph was intended to build a relationship between the child and the viewer and not depict a mother’s love for her child, photographers became quite creative in hiding the parent.
Mothers were often disguised as furniture pieces, or had only a rug or cloth thrown over them, and were sometimes reduced to a mere arm holding the child. In some cases, they were even blacked out entirely, creating what appears as a ghostly trace. After all, the attention was to be placed on the children and not the mother. A bizarre phenomenon that might have almost been forgotten by history.
Thanks to Swedish/Italian artist Linda Fregni Nagler, who collected over 1000 of these “hidden mother photographs” (the largest collection of its kind) dating from the 1840s-1920s, and now published as a beautiful art book entitled "The Hidden Mother”, this photographic genre has finally garnered art historical attention. Such images have since become an inspiration to other (mostly female) artists. One artist is the American Jennifer Combe, who responded to Linda Fregni Nagler‘s "The Hidden Mother” by taking her own modern photographic renditions of her and her daughter.
Anonymous photographs, UK, 19th century