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.

Hidden Mother: Family Style

It's small. Length is 1.75 inch. Width is 1.4 inch or so.
It’s small. Length is 1.75 inch. Width is 1.4 inch or so.

A number of years ago, I got interested in researching my ancestry online. It was slow going, but ultimately I located a posting on a genealogy site which was seeking relatives of the Jensen family of Green Bay, Wisconsin. They listed enough names that I realized it was my family, so I contacted the poster. We exchanged some cagey emails, which convinced me that the poster was a lawyer. That intrigued me even more!

It turns out that one of my distant relations had passed away and left no heirs. He willed his estate to charity (yay!). But, he had a banker box of family photos and no one to give them to. I think the probate lawyer had been hanging on to them in his office a good five years before I contacted him. He had researched all kinds of death records and newspapers but was unable to locate any living relations.

Tonight I dug through the photos seeking duplicates to send to my cousin in Milwaukee. I feel like I am missing some pictures, as I recall there were more duplicates than I found. I know for a fact I am missing a 1950s portrait of my mom and her family. Grr. I will have to dig some more.

ANYHOW! Back to this picture. As I was sorting the photos, I found some tiny outtakes with a hidden mother. Usually those pictures float around sans a background story. I was delighted to find one in my family. Most of the photos I have, even those dating back to the 1800s, are high-quality studio prints, postcards from WWI, and candid photos from the early 1900s-1960s.

Close up.
Close up.

I need to get a scanner for my iMac so I don’t have to rely on the photo booth for things like this.

For more description: The first photo in the series shows the mom and baby blurred, as babies are terrible monsters! The second photo shows the mother’s nose and giant Edwardian era hat. The baby is also somewhat blurry. The flaw in the third? Mom’s nose is still there. I can tell that other photos were in this series, as the back of the photo has handwritten notes which are clipped off. All I can read are partial letters and the year 1905.

I’ve given up researching what kind of photo it is. It’s on paper from 1905. I trust the date on the back of the picture because nothing says Edwardian era like, “Is my giant hat big enough?”

Hidden Mother

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.

Photo on 12-20-12 at 10.32 PM

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?

I digress.

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.