Hidden Mother: Jawa Style (NOT a Banshee. Nope.)

Photo on 1-11-13 at 7.23 PM #2

This is a recent addition to my small collection of ‘hidden mother’ child portraits. Back in the era of tintype photography (late 1800s), it seems it was a common practice to drape a mother (or father, grandparent, aunt, sister, whoever) with a tapestry or hide them otherwise from the view of the camera. That way you could get a clean picture of the child with a minimum of squirming. At the time, a person had to sit still for a few seconds to allow for a good exposure. It behooved everyone to have someone hold the squirmy kid. Unless I see a multiple historic accountings otherwise, I don’t see proof that some of these ‘hidden mothers’ were not assistants for the photographers, and the mother was standing by him saying, “Smile, Goober!”

If you look below, I have a hidden mother picture series from my family’s collection. You can see a baby be out of focus due to shaking its head. Kids are really naughty!

I purchased the one above for a couple of reasons. First, the two people holding the kid look like those creepy Jawas from Star Wars. They’re the creatures with the glowing eyes who live on Tatooine. Second, if you look carefully on the upper left side, you will see a man’s right hand. Why is that significant? There are a lot of people out there who cite the ‘hidden mother’ photo as some sort of proof that women were invisible to society. I disagree with that assertion. I do agree that upon first sight, the photos are jarring. However, there is no proof that the mother was hidden from the portrait out of some animus towards women. I can find plenty of explicit proof of animus towards women (particularly in the laws of the era). But, as feminists, I think we need to examine phenomena more closely before assigning it as sexist. Some things are just a product of technology.

Ultimately, the ‘hidden mother’ seems more about convenience. Even today, photographers have parents or whoever brings the kid might help hold them in place (depending on age, more likely with infants). Really, please think about this: Is it odd that a person might want a picture of just the kid? And just look at how terrified that kid is in this tin type! My kid mugs for the camera, which ever-present in our lives. The little one in the tin type hadn’t likely seen a scary, flashy camera before.

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