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Hidden Mother Photographs

If you are interested in photography of the 19 century, then you will unambiguously face the phenomenon of “hidden mother photographs". At the first glance, you see images of charming small kids. But with a detailed examination of such pictures, you can see the hidden figure of the mother under the curtain. Why were these mysterious hidden mother photographs been taken? Let's have a closer look to understand the hidden mothers in Victorian portraits.



Hidden mother photographs history

The art of photography has developed and changed greatly. Photographers were looking for the ways of solving different problems that arose during the photo shoots. "Hidden Mother Photographs" is the first attempts to conduct studio photography. These photos reveal the whole creative approach of photographers of those times.

hidden mother photographs

The first hidden mother photos appeared during the Civil War, when family values rose to a new level and when the photo became available to the population of an average income.

the hidden mother photographs

In the early 1800s, to take one picture, it was necessary to stand for several hours. Photographers solved this problem already at the beginning of the 19th century. At this time, to make a frame it was necessary to spend from 10 seconds to half a minute. This happened because photographers began to use various devices to stabilize the body. They used pedestals or forceps.


hidden mother photographs book

Many customers wanted to have photos of their children for albums. But a long exposure made it almost impossible. The child was in constant motion. To solve this problem, the photographers put the mother of the child next to the child, but at the same time hid her for numerous props. Mother could calm the child, so that he/she does not move. As a result, the mother in the portrait was usually hidden behind a long curtain. This created the impression of the mysterious figure next to or behind the child and now calls hidden mother pictures.


what are hidden mother photographs

Mothers were always near the child. They sometimes held their children in arms to calm them down. They were hiding behind various requisites. This made it possible to create good photos of hidden mothers in Victorian portraits. The success of the picture depended on how well the mother was hidden. Sometimes the image of the mother remained visible behind the cloth. In some pictures, parts of the body were seen. The image of the mother acquired the mystical nature of the inanimate object. There was no sense of the presence of a living person.


victorian portraits

When mothers held small babies in their arms, some pictures turned out to be unnatural. You can see this in the following image:


victorian post mortem photography

Many hidden mother portraits looked even ridiculous. Mother in these photos is rather noticeable. Even closed eyes do not help the mother to be invisible. The next picture gives the impression that the mother is holding the baby so that he does not fall. At the same time, the photographer could not hide the woman in the photo, but on the contrary, he singled her out.


victorian portraits 

Many children were dying in the middle of the 19th century. The hidden mother photos provided an opportunity to preserve the memory of them. The mother who was depicted with the child in the photograph believed that the child was still alive.


victorian photography

The phenomenon of Hidden mother photographs continued until the 1930s. Then the cameras were improved and the process of creating the good shots was significantly simplified.

Hidden mother photographs are a unique technology that was invented by photographers almost two hundred years ago to create children's portraits. Photographers experimented and created a lot of methods to hide the mother in the picture. 


Kinds of hidden mother photography

Hidden mother in frame

The most common way of depicting hidden mothers in Victorian portraits that was used in those days was the mother, who was hidden behind the curtain. But in reality, the image of the mother was even more noticeable, and the picture turned out to be mystical and terrible. Very often, the mother was wrapped in a cloth and was sitting on a chair. She held one or more children in her arms.

 hidden mother photographs  the hidden mother photographs

In other hidden mother portraits, the mother was hidden behind a chair. She could calm the child, and there was no need to hide behind the curtain.

hidden mother photographs book what are hidden mother photographs

victorian portraits

Another method, how to make the mother invisible – is to hide her under the long children's clothes. This children's attire was so long that the mother of the baby was completely hidden there. Such hidden mother portraits looked ridiculous and strange. Over time, photographers understood that the photo looks too creepy. Therefore, the monophonic tissue was replaced with the fabric with beautiful patterns, so the image was not so gloomy anymore.


Removing the mother’s face

One of the most unsuccessful variants of the Hidden Mother photographs was the image on which the mother's face was hidden behind the metal tablet and the body was hidden behind the patterned cloth. These are really spooky photos.

 victorian post mortem photography victorian photography

Hidden mother pictures without a head looked terrible. But as collectors-photographers say: "Now we can very easily remove items and people with the help of different photo editing programs, and several centuries ago removing the head was considered a common thing for the photographer".

Hidden mother photography cropping

The photographers used to crop the photos. So, the mother was photographed from the side, so it was easier to remove her from the picture.

 hidden mother photographs the hidden mother photographs

This picture shows the mother's hand, but the body remains invisible. These pictures do not look as creepy as the previous ones. But the mysticism of this photo is inherent.

Zoom in 

hidden mother photographs book

The most successful hidden mother photographs are pictures where the toddler occupied most of the image. Such photos look the most natural. The silhouette of the mother was almost unnoticed. This method allowed creating the impression that the child is sitting on a chair, not in the hands of the mother. At the same time, the child was calm, and the photographer could take high-quality pictures. 


Reason for doing hidden mother photography

We have covered the historical background of such unique photography genre as hidden mother photographs. But still we have a question “Why could not they take pictures of both a mother and her child?” The most common answer is that the aim was to take a portrait of just a baby. But, of course, there are also some other reasons. 

what are hidden mother photographs

It is believed, that people at that time wanted to follow an old aristocratic tradition and take a portrait of each family member separately. Thus, everyone knew that they had enough money and could afford such a pleasure.

There are also opposite versions, which tell us that it was a way to cut down the costs. It means that you had to pay more money if you wanted to take a photo of a bigger group of people. 

The version about a solo portrait of a child seems to be quite reasonable, and it explains why the mother was hidden. But it makes no sense when we see the group photo, where the mother is hidden among several children. 


Anyway, it was a family photo, and there is no reason to exclude mother. But... What if it was not the baby’s mother at all in the hidden mother photographs? Moreover, maybe, this person was not even a family member. But in any case, we should realize that she could not be a complete stranger because she had to have close relations with the baby in order to be able to discipline him, calm him down and make him/her feel safe.

We are really confident that it was the baby’s mother, but we may be wrong. History tells us that in the 19th and the early 20th century in the upper classes biological mothers did not tend to watch and bring up their children. They often hired nannies and nurses. Now, it becomes obvious why a woman in the photo had to be hidden, as she wasn’t the biological mother of a child.  

 victorian portraits

Such hidden mother photographs were in some way a symbol of the family, and it is obvious why the baby’s parents did not want to show others the photo with a strange woman holding their child. If the face of the governess, nurse or a nanny was visible, many people would think that she was the real mother or a member of the family. It was a kind of a bad message. Moreover, no one could ensure that the governess, nurse or nanny would stay with this family forever, so it would be strange if you had a photo of your child or children with a person, who has nothing to do with your family.

Just to frighten you a little bit more, some researchers say that looking in the hollow eyes of the children we may assume that those kids were dead. Taking into account a high mortality rate among the babies at that time, such hidden mother photos might be the only memory for the parents, as it seemed like the baby was just sleeping.


It is the mystery of the mother and child photography and their creation that makes them so gripping and frightening. It is difficult to explain such a technique in any reasonable way. 

Hidden mother photo collectors

The uprising and development of the Internet had caused the growing interest in the hidden mother photographs as they became more available and widespread. This also led to the greater interest of the collectors in such pictures. Regardless of that fact, that you can buy such a photo in any flea market at a ridiculous price, lately some dealers manage to earn about $5 to $20 per picture selling them in the online shops, like eBay. Some of the hidden mother photographs have been sold even for hundreds of dollars. Actually, it is difficult to find such photos in good condition, because some of them are really old and date back to the Civil War. Besides, while some families kept the photos in the frames, other people kept them in their pockets or in the attics, so they became worn-out. These photos are now accessible to the general public only thanks to photo restoration services that perform high level retouching to save them.

Laura Larson

It’s fair to say, that she has the most unique backstory of them all. Such collection became a specific way of exploring and representing the adoption of her daughter, Gadisse. She is watching over and annotating the collection of hidden mother photographs as frightful evidence of portrait photography of the 19th century. She has also recently released a book under the title ‘Hidden Mother’. This book tells the story of her daughter adoption, who was born in Ethiopia. With the help of several dozens of hidden mother photographs, Larson invites us to look at the story from a different angle. She supplements these photos with her own story. 

The woman learned about such a photography genre from her friend-collector. She started to collect them a few years ago, and she gathered 35 photos until she adopted her little girl. Some of the collected pictures were in good condition, others needed photo retouching.

victorian post mortem photography

Her friend thought they appealed to her sensibilities and that there was some connection to her interest in spirit photography. The woman believed that the hidden mother photographs show us the delicate balance the mothers should keep while bringing up their children. In other words, they should take care of the children and be attached to them, and on the contrary, give them the possibility to be independent. Having looked at these photos, Larson recognized something similar to her own experience of becoming a mother.


She said that those women took an unusual position towards their children. They were close to them and distant from them at the same time. These photos had awakened the feeling of attachment to her adopted daughter, even when she was not her daughter officially. She felt like her mother. 

Lee Marks

victorian photography

Lee Marks is a photo dealer from Indiana. She is also a long-dated collector, who has about 600 hidden mother photographs. Quite a number of the found images were damaged, in need of restoration and professional retouching.

The latent mothers or the parts of their bodies in the frame created really creepy effects, and it made viewers think that they were ghosts. Larson was deeply interested in spirit photos of the Victorian age, and the collection of such photos became a separate branch of her researches.  


Linda Fregni Nagler

hidden mother photographs

This artist gathered her collection of almost 1000 hidden mother photographs within a decade and in 2013 represented it at the exhibition dedicated to such photography genre at the Venetian Arsenal. Her collection was also published in her book “The Hidden Mother”. This book includes a great collection of daguerreotypes, ferrotypes, ambrotypes and other ways of photographing babies. They all depict a mother who was removed from the image in some way. 

Hidden mother photographs as a contemporary trend

As the saying goes: everything new is well forgotten old. Thanks to photo restoration services, we can now find hidden mother photographs in free access on the web. Some of the contemporary artists that saw the retouched images started referencing these old photographs in their art. One of them is Meghan Jacobs - she reimagined this concept in her fascinating photography series.  

The publication of “The Hidden Mother” in 2013 written by Linds Fregni Nagler inspired Meghan to start her creation.

 Book the hidden mother photographs

View details victorian portraits

The hidden mother photographs became something more than the historical issue for Jacobs. She found there a symbol of how the parent, mothers particularly, take a back bench and become invisible. She finds it in many things, such as short maternity leave, for example. In her works, Meghan reveals that the value of maternity is often underappreciated. We can interpret her work as a metaphor, which means unnoticed hard physical and emotional work the mothers do for their children.

meganjacobsart hidden mother photographs book

A great thing about Meghan’s work is that she doesn’t blatantly steal the idea, but recreates it in a unique way. The above photo, for example, challenges the stigma that surrounds breastfeeding in our society.

meganjacobsart 1 victorian portraits

The picture above features a pregnant woman. The only part that is visible is her hands. It emphasizes the early bond between the mother and the child.

meganjacobsart 2 victorian post mortem photography

The artist didn’t attach any comment to this photo. Our interpretation is that, she made tattoos visible on purpose. In such a way, she challenges another stigma, the one that is attached to the tattooed moms, who are judged and are often treated differently.

meganjacobsart 3 victorian photography

This image is very similar to the original ones. A completely invisible mother is holding her son on her lap.

Once Meghan met a woman, who had lost her child. Before shooting her, she does not know the woman and her troubles. They talked a lot, and their conversation about how losing a baby can develop a long-term feeling of indeterminacy inspired Meghan. She was impressed by this woman, and the creation of her art, which helped her to cope with her daughter’s death.

Meghan cooperated with her friends in the networks to create her own project of the Hidden Mother photographs. This woman also gathered bed linens with a floral pattern for her works. It is like a reference to “feminine” and “domestic” leitmotifs in the art history. The photography was one of the few professions that were available for the women of the Victorian age. So we can suggest that a great number of hidden mother photographs were shot by women. 

Covering the mothers, Meghan remains them defenseless and making them hidden, she wants them to be seen anyway. Some mothers, who were shot in this series, hang their photos at home.  Meghan was engaged in shooting and performed as a model as well. Some of the bed linens were her granny's, and we also can see her children in the photos.

More and more people, request online photo enhancement services to give their photos a vintage-inspired look. Scratches, faded colors, headless effect - all of this seems to be a popular trend nowadays. The following timelapse is a perfect illustration of the photo transformation we are talking about. Faux vintage photos look authentic, creative, they distinguish you from the others. While some are trying to make their photos look older, the owners of the old photos try to modernize them. That’s where we step in. The photo restoration services we provide are diverse: from photo reproduction to colorizing photos. 

Such an increased interest to this photography genre is reflected now in different articles and photo shoots. So, if you are interested in such photography technique, review the further examples of hidden mother photographs. 

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