A long white gown with lace edging, bright eyes, and perhaps some curls: we love antique baby photos! The 19th century images of infants and young children in our collections hold a special place in our hearts, even more so if we can identify the child in the photo. But, there are some of these antique photos that have a spectral quality to them. There are figures behind the children, partially obscured.
These “hidden mother” photographs sometimes show a hand barely visible, an outline often draped in dark fabric. Photography was a new art and shorter exposure times had not been developed yet. Because children had to be still for long periods in the photographer’s studio, mothers served as the supports for the baby during the long exposure process. For older people and post mortem photographs, braces were sometimes used to keep their heads and bodies still but this would never work for babies. And, as we all know, getting a baby to hold a pose for any length of time is nearly impossible, let alone upwards of a minute. Having the mothers hold them also kept the children content most of the time, which is of course, how the parents wanted them to look in the photos.
If we see the mother in the images, they are veiled or visually just out of reach. They hover over the children in the photos, but do not reveal themselves entirely. It is quaint and dark at the same time that neither the subjects or the photographers thought this would create a macabre final product.