Posted by: diamo22a | November 17, 2014

Hidden Mothers: The Public/Private Anxieties in Child Portraiture

In her series “Hidden Mother,” Laura Larson presents an unusual, though to some degree unsurprising, collection of child photographic portraits. In the thirty-five or so tintype photographs (all dated to the nineteenth century, though there’s no information identifying them as British or American in origin), Larson has created a pattern of conflicting presentation; to quote her interpretation of the images she discovered, “The hidden mother speaks to the fragile balance a mother must maintain in raising a childcultivating both attachment and autonomy.”

Not to invalidate Larson’s own perspective, but I think there’s more at work here than attachment and autonomy. Rather, I believe that the hidden mothers — women draped in cloth to hold still their tiny children, or cut awkwardly out of frame — represent the anxieties held in tension between the unavoidably public nature of photographic portraiture and the inherently private nature of the family.

We’ve talked in class about the changing rights of viewership in Victorian portraiture (and, recently, the phenomenon of “hidden mothers”): that the reproducibility of photography revolutionized the politics of image in that theoretically, anyone could acquire a photograph of another person. Furthermore, photography itself often took place outside the home, as studios sprung up across Britain and the world, disrupting the more traditional mode of traditional portraiture, in which artists would often work in the home of their subject/employer, and accordingly often depict their subjects at home. The portrait of the Lady Delmé is a great example in that it represents the family on their own land; similarly, we read of the sessions leading to Fra Panolf’s depiction of the last duchess in Robert Browning’s poem, conducted at the duchy and under the jealous eye of the duke.

Such interiority was not accessible to the audiences to whom portraiture was made available via photography. For most people, though of course not all, as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Prince of Bohemia illustrates, photography was something that took place outside the home, in a studio that could be disguised to resemble a personal interior space (a study, etc.). For the portraits of middle class men we’ve seen, this isn’t really a problem; men are supposed to exit the domestic space of the house and dominate exterior spaces. Recall Doré’s mono-gendered London streets, the ways in which the Contagious Diseases Act sought to remove women from the masculine public sphere and its corruptive influences.

This, I believe, is one element inhabiting the “Hidden Mother” series of tintypes, and the widespread phenomena of hidden or erased mothers. (Others, of course, include the desire towards individualist independence, as discussed in class.) Many of these images may have been produced in home, but it’s not a stretch to suggest that many were produced in more public spaces — on the street, in public photographic studios, or in a private space (the home) made less so by the invitation of a photographer inside, creating a display of interiority for anyone to see. Women adhering to the dictates of the “angel of the house” were meant to preserve and inhabit the home, and to avoid the corruptions of the male-inhabited public spaces. Perhaps the active hiding or removal of mothers from child photography was meant to uphold the image of the mother as much as it was the child.

More information on “Hidden Mother” is at the New Statesman, here. The series will be on exhibit at the Palmer Museum of Art (at Penn State) in the spring.


  1. This is a really interesting take on the hidden mother photos! While autonomy/attachment issue is certainly at play in these photographs, I think your analysis of the tension between public and private is spot on. What is really striking to me is that, while it makes sense that enshrouding the mother would preserve some of the privacy of the home and the labor that maintains it/has created the child, the photographers and families had no interest in maintaining the privacy/sanctity of the child. It is difficult to discern whether the push to turn children into independent, bourgeoise subjects was connected to the newfound romanticization of and fascination with children or the reverse but regardless, it seems like one of the earliest attempts to capture a *way of being* (a child, that is). Before children were photographed as (semi) independent subjects, photographs served as representations of individuals: what they looked like, what kind of work they did, etc. Even though children were viewed as autonomous individuals, the pictures of them could communicate little more than the fact of being a child: the wonder, anxiety, anger, or happiness that is supposedly unique to being young. They could not pose holding their favorite book or in front of a pastural scene to represent that they enjoyed hunting. I guess my point is, although they were meant to capture individual children, it seems to me that the hidden mother portraits did little more than begin the trend of photographing childhood (and all that accompanies it) as a concept.

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