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 child—cultivating 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.