On Saturday, I celebrated my 37th birthday on South Congress Avenue (SoCo) here in Austin. I wandered into Uncommon Objects, as it is one of my favorite places. I was drunk as a skunk (my husband was driving) which makes me have an excessive ability to focus on…whatever is in front of me. The photography section caught my attention this time. I was sorting through the old pictures when I came upon this “hidden mother” tintype.
A hidden mother? Yes, there’s a mother in the picture besides me. Take a look.
You don’t see her? Look again. She’s under that tapestry holding the child. I’ve been interested in hidden mother photos for a while now, so this was a major find for me. Let’s get real, though. How do we know it’s a mother under there? I have seen some examples with a person wearing blue jeans holding the child (not likely a late 1800s mom). And, who’s to say it wasn’t an aunt or grandparent who paid for the portrait and held the kiddo?
Tintypes are from the late 19th century. This particular species is called a gem portrait (2.75″ x 3.50″). From what I have read, these were inexpensive portraits. No shit, Sherlock? What gave it away? Honestly, they aren’t very good photos. Think: Polaroid. Except you don’t get creepy red-eye or gag-inducing colors.
There’s a debate about whether these hidden mother pictures are memento mori photos. When I read shit like that, I wonder if people know what a dead body looks like. Sure, some of the hidden mother photos include dead children. But the vast majority that I have seen have live children in them. If you can’t tell the difference between a photo of a live and dead child, you haven’t seen enough photos of the deceased. I won’t dwell on the morbid here, though.
My theory on the hidden mother phenomenon is that photographers at the low end were charging per subject. I arrived at this theory after seeing numerous hidden mother pics in which the mother’s face is simply scratched out. That’s got to be the stupidest way to hide someone. Crimeny, just toss a rug on the lady! And, thus, a genre was borne.