Hidden Mother presents a survey of the 19th-century child portraits known as "hidden mother" photographs. Emerging in recent years as popular collectibles, these images still remain largely unknown to photo-experts and the general public alike. In introducing this vernacular form, Hidden Mother will contribute to the expanding awareness of the historically pervasive role of artifice in the medium that "never lies," while illuminating the powerful resonance that these obscure, 19th-century pictures hold for timeless concerns of motherhood.
19th century portrait photographers turned to a number of different devices—from pedestals to pincer-like braces—to stabilize the body for the long exposures required to make a portrait. But these methods couldn’t be used on the small, unruly body of a child. Instead, the photographer often enlisted the mother, who, hidden by studio props, supported or soothed her offspring. In the final image, the mother appears as an uncanny presence. Often, she is swathed in fabric, like a ghost. Sometimes, the hidden mother’s arm reaches into the frame from the side, or the edge of her skirt peeks out from behind a chair or pram. If she was not adequately concealed in the final image, the photographer might use a frame to crop her out of it or, more disturbingly, her face would be scratched out or erased from the plate or print. These photographs range from the comic, almost slapstick, barring of the mother to more macabre examples of her literal erasure. A practical strategy deployed by the photographer unintentionally yielded an evocative representation of the mother in abstentia; never meant to be seen, her presence nonetheless haunts these images.
Curated by artist Laura Larson, the exhibition grows out of her research for an artist's book that enlists hidden mother photographs as a critical and lyrical frame for an account of the adoption of her daughter from Ethiopia. These melancholic and disturbing images speak to the fragile balance a mother must maintain in raising a child—cultivating both attachment and autonomy. Central to Larson's book, this tension emerges subtly within the exhibition through the selection of images driven by poetic and expressive concerns. Featuring approximately thirty five works, the show also affords a comprehensive overview of this fascinating practice as it appears in a range of early photographic media, including tintypes, cartes de visites, cabinet cards, and other forms of paper printing.