Laura Larson

Hidden Mother

Artist Project for Cabinet Magazine

Issue 49, Spring 2013

In nineteenth-century portrait studios, photographers employed a number of different techniques to stabilize the body for the long exposures required to make portraits. A sitter might lean on a pedestal to steady herself, or allow her neck to be held in a pincer-like brace. But these methods were of little use when it came to the small, unruly body of a child. Instead, the photographer frequently enlisted the mother, who, hidden by studio props, supported or soothed her child:

The mother takes at once a seat along side [sic] the child, in order to give it a felling [sic] of security, and passing her hand through the back of the chair, she seizes the child firmly. Focusing must be done quickly. At this moment, the proper working together of two persons is all-important. While one of them occupies the attention of the child, the other watches for the moment of perfect quietness; to make it last as long as possible is the main object. [1]

Playing a structural but visually peripheral role in these portraits, the hidden mother appears in many forms. Often, she is swathed in fabric, like a ghost, her concealed lap acting as a pedestal for her infant. She is armature; she is background. Her form becomes indistinguishable from the appointment of the scene. The tension between the pictorial and the corporeal is written in the bulges of the fabric. Sometimes, the mother inhabits the margins of the frame, the fact of her body several feet away providing enough reassurance to allow the child to sit quietly. Her arm reaches into the frame or she crouches behind a chair or pram, perhaps whispering to the baby, “Mama’s here.” Touch, release.

When the portrait’s staging is insufficient to the task, the photographer turns to a number of post-production strategies to isolate the child on the finished plate. A simple paper mat placed over the plate vignettes the image, centering the baby and displacing the mother. Sometimes the measures are more drastic. If she couldn’t be concealed, her face is scratched away, revealing the black enameled surface of the tintype’s iron substrate. Alternatively, a thin layer of black paint could mask her presence. The implicit violence of these practical strategies raises the question: why not photograph the mother and child together?


The wet collodion process, introduced in 1850 and actively used through the 1870s, produced the ambrotype, the tintype, and the glass negative, innovations that democratized photographic portraiture. Unlike modern analog photography, which segregates optics and chemistry, the wet plate is messy and fraught with contingency—the wet and the dry in risky proximity. Collodion— made from a combustible mix of pyroxylin, ether, and alcohol, and also used as a kind of liquid skin to dress and seal wounds—is poured onto the plate. Coated with this viscous substrate, the plate is dipped into a silver bath to sensitize it for exposure. The photographer must quickly shoot and develop the plate before it dries and its light sensitivity is compromised.

An inexpensive and quick process, the tintype, in particular, enjoyed a great deal of popularity in the U.S. The tintype’s base is a thin sheet of iron, painted or enameled black, upon which the collodion emulsion is applied. Creating a direct positive, it is this inky support that allows the image to appear, gray tones surfacing from black. These plates possess an extraordinary degree of detail; even the tiniest image has a kind of vitality that breathes. All wet and wait, the tintype is the antithesis of contemporary digital currency, and the hidden mother a resonant embodiment of the process.


The intimate scale of the tintype was suited to the body and the domestic. Tintypes were placed in leather or heavy cardboard cases, lined with velvet, and the plates were set in metal frames or lockets. The photograph was an object to be touched, cherished, and protected. A cased tintype slips into a breast pocket. A locket opens and closes. This is the one I love. Even when displaced from their frames and albums, these images possess weight and heft, linking the gaze with the tactile pleasure of holding an object in your hand.

The vectors of the hidden mother’s touch and gaze resonate in this material fold. The contours of her concealed body accommodate speculation, but when her face appears in the unmatted plate, it’s something of a shock, whether she watches the camera, observes the child, or her stare floats, abstracted. A portrait promises disclosure, but the hidden mother’s reserve frustrates this expectation. I think about the pleasure of watching a loved one who’s unaware of my gaze. Mothers have secrets too.


My friend Bernie, an inveterate collector of vernacular photography, introduced me to hidden mother photographs, thinking their mix of macabre wit and poignancy would appeal to my sensibilities. (They are funny: mother jokes waiting to happen.) I had just completed the paperwork to adopt a baby girl from Ethiopia. I would wait seven months to complete the legal process to adopt my daughter, Gadisse, and this time was measured through photographs. My first photograph of her is nothing more than a mug shot—its purpose to duly record her entry into institutional care, a child seemingly without history. This photograph reassured me of her health and presence in the world, but it was also a painful reminder of our separation and her losses. The hidden mother speaks to the fragile balance a mother must maintain in raising a child, simultaneously cultivating attachment and autonomy. I experienced this ambivalence through a particular constellation of longing, anticipation, and anxiety while I waited for Gadisse to come home.

[1] Max Petsch, “Children’s Pictures,” The Philadelphia Photographer Volume 9 (1872): 66

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