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The “Hidden Mothers”: macabre portraits of children in the Victorian era

In a technological age like the one in which we live, characterized by the constant sharing on every social networks of photos and selfies of ever-increasing quality, it is probably difficult to imagine how the world could have been at the origins of photography, in the Victorian age. And not the world of photography in general, or the post-mortem photography we have already talked about, but that of photography that depicted nineteenth-century English children.

Have you ever had difficulties trying to get a baby to sit down and pose for a photo? It’s a massive problem now, but it was even harder for mothers in the Victorian era when old photography technology made posing very difficult. Although photogenic, the children were almost always understandably uncomfortable in the photographic laboratories: the flash made them frighten often causing crying, when it did not reduce them to sleep, exhausted by the necessary tests until the final photography.
If today it is not easy to choose the right shots to make the photographed subject look better, in Victorian times the situation was much more complex.
A parent of the nineteenth century should have dressed the child with a beautiful starched dress to transport him, probably with his brothers and the rest of the family, to the nearest photographer’s studio early in the morning, to capture English light in the best way.
At that point the chosen professional would have dedicated himself to organizing the family group for the fateful, very expensive photo, which would have required significant periods of total immobility on the part of the people concerned.
The main problem, in fact, was the long exposure times needed for the camera to make the photograph.
Early pioneering photographers in the late 1820s had to wait hours for camera exposures. Even though exposure times had been drastically cut down in Victorian times, If it was a challenge for an adult to sit completely still for half an hour, to expect the same composure from a child was practically an impossible mission. Mothers had to go to very strange and creepy-looking measures to get their children to sit still. Babies had to be held by their mothers who, with the best of intentions, hid themselves in quite peculiar and creepy ways so they could calm their babies and also stay out of the pictures. It was the only way was therefore that the mother held it still, “disguised” as a chair, sofa or other piece of furniture in the studio, so that the photo would not be blurred.

The results of these attempts to facilitate the work of photographers have often been extraordinary – as shown by a collection of photographs, called “The Hidden Mother”, collected in a book by Linda Fregni Nagler, published in 2013.
Having collected them for a decade, Italian-Swedish artist displayed 997 photographs in a series entitled The Hidden Mother at the Venetian Arsenal for the 55th Venice Biennale.
Sometimes the maternal figures are evident and can perhaps be seen standing or next to a chair, other times the shapes appear really well camouflaged under heavy curtains, which betray the human presence only for the detail of the hands.

To a person of the 21st century, these images may seem bizarre and vaguely disturbing: they all depict dissatisfied children, stiffened in the dress of the party, forced into immobility by a succession of female figures disguised as carpets or bushes. However, the images in the book by Linda Fregni Nagler are very interesting as a document of the history of nineteenth-century English costume.
Until the 1920s and the advent of mass photography, most people could in fact afford a photo, once in their lifetime, as in the case of post-mortem images. In an era in which infant mortality was dramatically high, post-mortem photography could represent for the tormented parents the only posthumous visual testimony of their own child, often portrayed as if he were asleep.
But if the images of the “hidden mothers” of the Victorian age have something macabre, this is also due to the photographic process used. Until the most modern plates were available, most photographers in fact used wet collodion, which gave the figures an almost ghostly touch.
In the photos of the time in fact the whites are not real whites, but they turn to a beige shade that makes the dark female silhouettes stand out, which seem to loom over sometimes horrified children, in a vaguely threatening manner, as if they were floating between one world and another.

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