The photos published in The Guardian today haunt me.
A series of Victorian babies, each one posed against a fabric-draped… mother. They’re from a new book called The Hidden Mother by Linda Fregni Nagler, which archives 1,002 photographs, daguerreotypes and tintypes, cartes de visite and cabinet cards.
As a reporter describes it, the requirements of primitive photography mandated extra care in posing children: “A 19th-century parent would have to dress the baby in a starchy gown, transport it and perhaps its siblings to the nearest photographer’s studio as early in the morning as possible, climb several flights of stairs to the skylit attic, arrange the family group against the studio backdrop, get everyone to remain completely still for 30 seconds or so, part with a large chunk of money, and then wait several days for the copies to be finished, before sending them round to family and friends as calling cards, or pasting them into albums.”
Sound difficult? With long exposure times, the only way to get the baby to hold still was for the mother to grip it in her hands.
Apparently photography was becoming an acceptable profession for women in the second half of the nineteenth century. The pictures captured by female photographers were no cheerier than those taken by men. Laughing messed with the shutter speed. A dose of opium often did the trick in keeping the subject still if dulled.
You have to wonder about the woman concealed beneath the textile. Was the mother shushing her baby, cooing to it, singing lullabyes? It must have been stuffy in her confinement, and she had no idea what the outcome would be. But she was fierce in her dedication to getting an image of her infant, a keepsake, the face and form of her beloved. Miraculously two dimensional. And always quiet and still.