Some years back, tintype collectors began peeling away the paper frames that vignetted their photographs, and discovered something surprising. Images once thought to be photos of lone babies or young children perched atop oversized chairs with fabric billowing around them, revealed a haunting presence. Once the frames were removed, it became apparent that the children were not alone. They were, in fact, being held by veiled figures, most likely, their mothers.
If these women were not fully covered with fabric, then often their faces were scratched out of the image, their heads cropped off by the camera or the photographer’s tin snips. Sometimes they can be seen crouching behind chairs or are reduced to a hand reaching into the frame to calm their children. They have come to be known as Hidden Mothers.
The utility of the practice is evident. Children squirm and exposure times in the 19th Century would have seemed like an eternity for an anxious child sitting before a stranger operating a large camera, himself veiled beneath a black cloth. Mother would subdue the child for the seconds that it would take to record the child’s image for eternity while simultaneously serving as both furniture and backdrop. But the question that nags is why hide mother at all?
Within the context of photo history, the Hidden Mothers reveal a contradiction. The tintype introduced Americans to the vernacular photo. For the first time in history, the masses could afford to have portraits of themselves. Americans of all classes flocked to the photo studio, to the itinerant photographer, to the amateur, to perform their identities for the camera. This was a democratic act, a declaration of equality. The resulting images were mirrors of their subjects, reflecting how they saw themselves and would like to be seen by others. So then, what do these early images say of the hidden mother and her equality? Should we read these portraits as representations of the self-sacrificial maternal ideal? Or perhaps view them as a rebuke of the American self-made man myth? These self-made babies are, in fact, being propped up by women kept just out of view.
But perhaps most poignantly, these images work against photography’s service to remembrance in the face of loss. If the photographic image serves to hold firm, through loss, through fading memory, then how do we remember mother when her image was lost to us from the beginning?