You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Victorian Mothers Hid Themselves in Their Babies’ Photos

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 10/05/2020 Alicia Yin Cheng
a vintage photo of a person © Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr.

It’s taken for granted nowadays that mothers can photograph their little darlings anytime they like. Capturing every sweet, mischievous expression that crosses a child’s face is made easy by the smartphone camera always within reach. This is, of course, a recent development in motherhood.

a group of women posing for a photo: Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr., Shelbyville, INdiana ( left , center ); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr. (2019.1841) ( right ) © Provided by The Atlantic Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr., Shelbyville, INdiana ( left , center ); Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr. (2019.1841) ( right )

Consider instead the hidden mothers of 19th-century photographic-portrait studios, when long exposure times meant moms had to find a way to keep their little ones sitting still long enough to be seen, while also fading into the background themselves.

a black and white photo of a person: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr. (2019.1840) © Provided by The Atlantic Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr. (2019.1840)

Because 30-second exposure times and squirming children don’t mix very well, portrait studios often employed women who would help the young subjects stay immobile—while attempting to remain invisible—when mothers weren’t holding their children themselves.

an old photo of a person: Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr., Shelbyville, INdiana; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr. (2019.1836) © Provided by The Atlantic Collection of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr., Shelbyville, INdiana; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez Jr. (2019.1836)

In the resulting images, children float uncannily within textiles that hide a human form, phantom limbs appear with no bodily attachment, and mothers hide their face under weirdly placed curtains or even directly behind their baby. Nearly 200 years before the selfie, mothers were perfecting the selfless.

a vintage photo of a baby: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr. (2019.1893) © Provided by The Atlantic Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr. (2019.1893)


AdChoices
AdChoices

More from The Atlantic

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon