The results can seem ghastly to us today and it begs the question: why not just take a portrait of the mother and child together? The answer is complicated. A photographer’s fee would have been a hefty sum for many families back then, making it all the more important to get a clear image. As such, these photographs were prized and having the mothers hold the children was like insurance against wasted money and a blurry image. And, many of the parents wanted a portrait of only the child. Since so many children died young, a photo might have served as one of the few cherished reminders of the child for the parents to keep if the child did not survive. Sadly, this motivated many families to request this type of photo.
Another technique was to edit the image afterwards to obscure the mother, leaving the edges dark and the child as the bright spot in the photo. The final products have a morbid quality. The photos speak to us of a time when resources and health were often scarce, a time when modern science could bring the wonder of photography into the world, but could not save the lives of sick children or keep a healthy child from freezing on a cold winter night by a drafty window.
By the 1910s, public health initiatives such as cleaner water and living conditions, better nutrition, and germ theory had begun to reduce infant mortality rates. And, newer cameras and film processes by Kodak meant that subjects no longer needed to sit for 30-60 seconds in order for the photo to turn out.
It is also possible that as photography became more the norm, mothers became less camera-shy, since many subjects did not feel natural in front of the camera. The practice of hiding mothers in baby portraits faded by the 1920s. But, we have been left with photos that captured some very grim facets of the era, a time when antiquity and the modern age collided in a unique way.
The relatively uncommon nature of these images makes them collectible for those who enjoy 19th century photos. Do you have any in your collection? Let us know in the comments below.