Posted by: graceoddity | November 29, 2020

Motherhood & Photography

Julia Margaret Cameron’s portraits of Mary Hillier constitute a conflicted picture of motherhood. In these Madonnas, Hillier looks out of frame in three-quarters profile, or confrontationally at the camera, but rarely at the child she holds. In some ways, this Renaissance-styled neutral expression, coupled with averted gaze but intimate soft focus, aligns with the virgin Mary as representing both the epitome and antithesis of motherhood; sexually pure, but “androgynous” (Mavor 52). We can read in her expression a glowing love or a cold disinterest – is this the angel in the house, or do we read motherhood not inherently, but through photographic juxtaposition with the children she holds? At the same time, another tension exists between the referent and the metaphor. Mary Hillier was Cameron’s maid, and although many of these photos possess a painterly quality in pose, expression, and costume, there is no escaping the immediacy of the photograph. Unlike a painting of the virgin Mary, there is a failure of that imaginative extra step which lays claim to translation and transformation of the subject. In other words, the distance between model and Mary in a photograph is much narrower than that which exists between model and Mary in a painting. Like Mavor says, Cameron’s portraits “verge on sacrilege” (Mavor 47). Mary Hillier impersonates and interposes the virgin Mary, in an imitation that feels at once both cheap and profound. Motherhood in these photos is “altared” (Mavor 50), raised up to unmeetable and virginal expectations, but also grounded in the reality of a maid posing in costume with children who may not even be her own. Cameron’s Madonna portraits are to the virgin Mary as Victorian mothers were to that angel of the house; the halo is scratched onto the plate. 

At the other end of the spectrum of photographed motherhood exists “Hidden Mother” photography. It is notorious mostly in retrospective; although it was a common practice at the time, it is the eerie tone which the images take on from a modern perspective which have ensured their longevity. Hidden mother portraits arose simply as an adaptation to the demands of Victorian photography in order to facilitate portraits of babies. Due to the length of the exposure time, often in addition to the unfamiliarity of the portrait studio, it was difficult to keep babies still long enough for portraits, but high infant mortality rates caused a demand for baby portraits. In order to do so, the baby would be sat on the mother’s lap, and a sheet would be placed over the mother – here, the mother is also draped in cloth, but unlike Cameron’s Madonnas, the face is not visible. A card was placed over the portrait such that the mother’s silhouette would be covered, and the sheet becomes at first glance simply a backdrop. However, upon removal of the card, the shrouded figure is revealed, creating a haunting picture. With some, it is nearly possible to read the figure as an oddly shaped chair; in others, the head is clearly visible under the sheet. In others still, the mother simply holds the child’s hand from behind a sheet, almost completely unnoticeable. It is difficult to say which of these are the creepiest in modern eyes (Bathurst).

In looking at these hidden mother photographs, I was struck by a similarity of the pose to a photo I love of my mother and younger brother. It is dynamic in a way that Victorian portraits could not be, featuring my brother smiling and clearly being held back from running away. Above him, my mother looks resignedly irritated, in a strikingly similar pose to the Victorian hidden mother, sans sheet, looking directly at the camera like Cameron’s “Holy Family” Madonna. In its fulfilment of the antithesis of the hidden mother portrait (emotive and visible mother, active and smiling baby), this photo does what the hidden mother portrait cannot by telling a story – without editing out one of the characters.

But before truly skipping forward in time to look at modern photography of motherhood, I want to take a moment to discuss pre-motherhood photography. In Camera Lucida, Barthes describes the process of looking through old pictures of his mother after her death. Amidst the strange sensations that come from being confronted so directly with the “tension of history” (Barthes 65) that precedes the existence of oneself, Barthes expresses his frustration at being unable to recognize his mother: 

“Sometimes I recognized a region of her face, a certain relation of nose and forehead, the movement of her arms, her hands. I never recognized her except in fragments, which is to say that I missed her being, and that therefore I missed her altogether. It was not she, and yet it was no one else. I would have recognized her among thousands of other women, yet I did not “find” her. I recognized her differentially, not essentially… To say, confronted with a certain photograph, “That’s almost the way she was!” was more distressing than to say, confronted with another, “That’s not the way she was at all.”” (Barthes 65-66)

In a similar fashion, but with a slight reversal, Allison Bechdel writes in Are You My Mother?, a companion piece to her well-known memoir Fun Home, about her relationship with her mother, often utilizing the work of psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott as a lens to understand it. In Chapter 3, Bechdel draws in cartoon a picture of herself on her first communion at eight years old, and a picture of her mother’s first communion. A text box over this panel reads, “She’s dark, pale, shy. All of the things I disliked about my own appearance” (Bechdel 89). Later, in Chapter 6, Bechdel recounts a childhood memory of sitting in front of a mirror while her mother applies makeup. As her mother insults her own appearance, Allison reassures her. When her mother continues on to comment on Allison’s appearance (“I don’t know why you’re always so pale. You look peaked.”), Allison begins stealing her blush and tinting her school pictures with crayon (Bechdel 213-214). I am reminded strongly of the opening lyrics to Lucy Dacus’s “My Mother & I”: “My mother hates her body / we share the same outline / she swears that she loves mine” (Dacus). In Allison’s photographic search for her mother, she does not experience Barthes’ fragmented recognition of her figure, but rather a fragmented recognition of her own; furthermore, a flawed recognition of self, which inherits the anxieties and insecurities that predated one’s own existence. Bechdel interrupts her own narration in this chapter to make reference to Donald Winnicott’s paper “Mirror-Role of Mother and Family in Child Development”: “In individual emotional development, the precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face” (Bechdel 213). 

Relatedly, I recently stumbled across an instagram account called mothersbefore, the bio of which reads, “Collecting photos of daughters’ mothers before they became moms.” It’s a lovely account with an eclectic mix of childhood family photos, school portraits, and candid shots. Each photo comes with a caption written by the submitter, and in scrolling briefly through some of the recent posts (I will admit my sample size is small), I noticed a recurring theme. These captions extolling mothers before cannot escape the phantom of the mother after. Like a compass, most captions turn back to describing the subject of the photo “in terms of her value as a caregiver” (Fahr). None of these submitters are being purposefully reductive in the roles they place their mothers in; they are simply victims of Barthes’ “History”. They did not, and cannot, know their mothers before, because their existence is the very prerequisite for the conclusion of that before.

Finally, moving fully to the present, I would like to discuss two sectors of modern photography of motherhood. The first of these involves the advent of parenthood displayed on social media. In Lindsey Harding’s dissertation Motherhood Collection: A Critical-Creative Study of Domestic Photography in the Digital Age, Harding argues that when mothers post pictures of their children publically online, they are trying to “distance themselves from the punctum’s punch” twofold, both in the act of the making the photo public, and in the reception of feedback which “overwhelms” the punctum (Harding 42). She believes that these attempts to both anaesthetize and spread the photo stem from a reversed version of Freud’s fort-da game (directly translates to gone-there, similar to peekaboo), in which the mother “accumulat[es] pictures and releas[es] them online so the child will always be da, even when fort,” gaining the illusion of control over the inevitable absence of her children just as the infant does. In other words, “the rehearsal of departure becomes an act of prevention” (Harding 43).

The other form of motherhood in photography I would like to discuss is very different, though it is also publicized: portraits of refugee mothers with their children. The Associated Press profiled several pregnant refugees, and months after these profiles, photographer Muhammed Muheisen returned to take portraits of them with their now born babies. The mothers stand in their tents with their children in their arms, centered in the frame and often making direct eye contact with the camera. The focus is on their faces rather than those of their children. Each photograph is lonely, fitting most of the body in frame such that the background of their tents dominates the frame. Two of these photos in particular stand out; that of Huda Alhumaidi and her daughter Islam, and that of Wazeera Elaiwi and her son Mohammed. In these photos, Huda and Wazeera stand under a single lightbulb which casts light on them from above. The visual parallels to the virgin Mary seem readily apparent. (It is worth mentioning that although the virgin Mary’s narrative is detailed in the Quran, the Madonna reading of these pictures reflects the Catholic iconography of the figure. Because these women are most likely Muslim, I am not entirely comfortable claiming these images are intended to be a metaphor for this Catholic vision of the virgin Mary.) Like the Victorian angel of the house behind Cameron’s Madonnas, there are high expectations for motherhood found in these photos; that in its essence, motherhood should be self-sacrificial (“some of the decisions we had to make have been deciding what is more important: To buy bread to feed ourselves or medicine in case my child is in need?”). This goes hand in hand with the damaging idea of the perfect or ideal immigrant – that a need to prove character precedes aid (Diltz).

I can’t help but wonder exactly how much our vision of motherhood has changed from those portrait archetypes described at the beginning of this post. Over a century later, is the perfect Madonna seeking asylum and the hidden mother behind the camera? Or is the comparison reductive to the evolution of new forms and depictions of motherhood?

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. Trans. Howard, Richard. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Hill & Wang. 1982.

Bathurst, Bella. “The lady vanishes: Victorian photography’s hidden mothers.” The Guardian, 2 December 2013,

Bechdel, Allison. Are You My Mother? New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2012. 

Dacus, Lucy. “My Mother & I.” 2019, produced by Jacob Blizard, Lucy Dacus, and Colin Pastore, 2019.

Diltz, Colin. “Portraits of Syrian refugee mothers with their children.” The Seattle Times, 25 August 2015,

Fahd, Cherine and Oscar, Sara. “From hidden women to influencers and individuals – putting mothers in the frame.” The Conversation, 8 May 2020,

Harding, Lindsey. Motherhood Collection: A Critical-Creative Study of Domestic Photography in the Digital Age. 2004. University of Georgia, PhD dissertation.

Mavor, Carol. Pleasures Taken: Performances of Sexuality and Loss in Victorian Photographs. Duke University Press. 1995.

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