Posted by: ahmed22k | November 28, 2015

Masters of Disguise?

Do you ever feel your mother’s invisible grasp? Does she always seem to have your back? Does your mother’s love feel comfortable or insufferable?

Why have all these questions? Take a look at the images in this posting.

In our last class, we discussed how mothers were experts when it came to shopping and cleaning, basically, they were the boss in the domestic sphere.

Apparently, they were also experts when it came to disguising themselves as armchairs, swathing in curtains, hiding behind pillars or simply looking away. Yes- mothers were masters of concealment. Or so they thought. So they tried. Have a look at some Victorian Period Instagram-worthy images!

mom 1

You might be thinking What’s that weird figure in the background covered in “flowery chintz” (Nagler 5)? Why is the child not scared? Wait is that the mother in the background. 


These images from Linda Fregni Nagler’s “The Hidden Mother.” She has now turned her collection of “hidden mother” photographs into a book. Every page reveals the lengths mothers went to in order to “extend their repertoire of disguises.” Nagler explains how she uncanny images when she came across a photograph for sale on eBay with the caption: “Funny baby with hidden mother”. “I thought how peculiar it was for a picture to be described by what isn’t there” (2).


Here is a mother, hiding behind a curtain, with only their hands in view, displaying the child like a puppet:

mom 2

Some mothers unpin their hair, letting it fall over their face like a curtain, or turn their heads away from the camera. Here’s a mother with her back to the photographer:

mom 3

One woman just decides to play along with this absurd approach, or maybe she genuinely thought her camouflage would work. Regardless, her ghost ensemble is easily distinguishable amidst the white-themed setting:

mom 4

Now you might ask why would mothers have to be present in the photographs? Now, remember, in the late 1800s, anyone sitting for a portrait would have to sit for at least a minute due to the exposure. Mothers had to most likely hold their children and force them to sit still.

Observe the child in the photograph below; if you look close enough you can see the mother’s hands on both sides of the baby’s head:

mom 5

Personally, this image reminds me of a burqa-clad woman holding her baby. If the Victorians were aware of Islamic fundamentalists and the depictions of such females, they might have taken offense and considered another approach to capturing an image of an infant.

I guess the Victorian people just weren’t very good at improvising- or maybe they took the improvising too far. Maybe I am taking all the photo manipulation present in today’s world for granted. But I can’t seem to get over this photo below; this is what you call very bad editing; why remove the face but leave the body? What a ghastly comical and haunting image. Albeit, the dual nature was probably unintentional.

mom 6

I can’t be too hard on the developer. After all, there was no Photoshop. Nagler emphasizes this in her book, “the only option was to obliterate the faces with a sharp object” (45).


According to my friend Kira, maybe the photos don’t show a mother but a maid, she just said, “If I was a rich mother from the 1800s, I wouldn’t want to have the maid in the photography- what if she got fired tomorrow?”

No No Kira. In the late 1800s all mothers, from all households, were having their children’s photographs taken. It was an affordable practice, available to mothers from all social classes.

Well, what do the rest of you think? Why did the mothers decide to take such a bizarre approach? Perhaps, mothers felt they weren’t worthy enough to be seen in pictures, even though an impression of their bodies was acceptable.

I think that they just wanted to have pictures of their children alone, and this was clearly the best way.

Nagler believes that because photography was a new phenomenon it came with a new set of rules. These were pictures that would be sent around the world to introduce family and friends to the latest member of the clan. “The mothers seem to have been aiming to create an intimate bond between the child and the viewer, rather than between themselves and the child.”

I’m not so sure about the effectiveness of the aim to create an intimate bond between the viewer and the new family member; I mean, the mothers are distracting. The compositions are simple yet confusing. I think in trying too hard to become invisible, most of the time the mothers ended up looking more conspicuous in the photos than they intended.

According to the MACK bookstore website, “The Hidden Mother is comprised of 1,002 photographs, all examples of a now redundant practice: to cloak or hide a parent within the background of a child’s portrait, a common procedure from the advent of photography up until the 1920s.”

I personally think these photographs are more than just antique representations of children in a cultural context. Is Nagler somehow responsible for creating a sub-genre in photography? These repeated positions, hand gestures, and modeling may have given rise to a momentary cultural phenomenon, contributing to the progress of photography.


All images are from:
Works Cited:
Nagler, Linda Fregni, Massimiliano Gioni, Geoffrey Batchen, and Francesco Zanot. The Hidden Mother, 2013. Print.
*”Chintz” (plural for chint) originally referred to textiles imported from India, printed with designs featuring flowers and other patterns in different colors, typically on a light plain background. Now they can be copied representations, made in China or the USA.
Sun, Dec 6, 2015, 11:28 PM
Dear Khadija,

As I confessed in class, I am somewhat obsessed with the hidden mother photographs and their strangeness, why the mother is such a distracting presence in trying to establish her absence. So I was glad to read your post as you considered what to make of this subgenre of Victorian family photographs. I was really intrigued by your opening thoughts about the ways that children (and adults) experience their mothers in ways that might parallel these photographs — every present yet ghostly. I had never thought about that before! Even though you have now completed your posts and review, I hope that you will keep contributing and commenting. You are an important presence on the blog!
Best, AM

Amy E. Martin

Chair of the English Department
Associate Professor of English and Faculty Member in Critical Social Thought
Faculty Director of the Speaking, Arguing, and Writing Program
Mount Holyoke College


  1. What an interesting article! I found it particularly apropos because I, too, have a “hidden mother” picture of my child. She was 2 years old and, having learned how to walk and run, would not sit still for her yearly picture. (and yes, I do take a yearly professional picture of my child) The photographer suggested I try to hold her still and the result is the only picture that was acceptable had my disembodied hand in it.
    I can completely commiserate with these poor mothers who want a picture of just the children, perhaps like I do, to have a keepsake of a child’s oh-so-fleeting infancy. In doing so, however, I wouldn’t want to also have a record of my yearly aging and so, they become ghosts who hover, arrange and control.

    Thinking about it in this way, it is easy to, perhaps, give emotions to the lumps of fabric that are the mothers.

    They are selfless and selfish. They are selfless in the way that they invite the viewer to only focus on their child. Like you said in your article, Khadija, they may not be as successful in that regard as they would have liked, but they still tried. They are selfish in that this is probably or done for their own pleasure. To see your child grow up is one of the most important things to a mother.

    They are controlling and controlled. Yes, controlling the child and posing it to this extent seems to go beyond our typical comfort zone. Yet, they are also being controlled. The environment itself seems to be suffocating and almost a symbolic image of a mother’s place within the family.

  2. I really enjoyed this conversation about these photographs!

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