During the Victorian era, mothers weren’t striving for social media-worthy pictures, but they did put in effort to capture the images they desired.
The antiquated cameras of that time necessitated extended exposure times, making it essential for mothers to keep their young children still for significant durations.
One technique was for the mother—sometimes the father, a nanny, or the photographer’s assistant—to be hidden within the frame, often behind curtains, under cloaks, or disguised as chairs.
How successfully the mother was hidden varied. Sometimes, simply draped with fabric, their shape would be obvious. In some photographs, arms are clearly visible.
A paper overlay could be used when framing the photograph to hide the parts showing the mother, focusing on the child instead. The eerie effect of the half-obscured mothers in these pictures has led to them being compared to ghosts.
Alternatively, photographers had the option to edit out a mother’s face or obscure it using black paint during post-production.
Also, this could be achieved by removing parts of the photograph afterward, or by having the mother stand slightly off to one side so that she could be cropped out.
This method, known as “hidden mother photography,” was a prominent genre during the early stages of photography.”
Interestingly, the “hidden mothers” weren’t always mothers.
Sometimes, the obscured individuals in hidden mother photographs were fathers, men or women hired by the photographic studio, or family servants such as a nanny, a governess, or an enslaved person of African descent, which was the case of several examples from the southern United States in the 1840s and 1850s.
Hidden mother photography continued as a prevalent genre until the 1920s.
It gradually faded away as photographic technology advanced, leading to shorter exposure times, and cameras became more accessible to the general population.
These improvements reduced the need for elaborate techniques to keep children still during photography sessions and, in turn, marked the decline of hidden mother photography.
(Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons / Pinterest / Hidden Mother Group on Flickr).