Hidden Mother : Tintypes and Cabinets

I teach 19th Century History of Photography at the Savannah College of Art and Design.  In preparation for an upcoming class, I was doing some reading about early portraiture and the difficulties encountered, especially when trying to photograph children.  I have two funny but bizarre images that I show in class.  Fig. 1 is a daguerreotype of a child who is being stabilized by a woman’s hand reaching into the foreground.

Fig. 1


Fig. 2  Are cabinet cards that are even more bizarre.  On the left we have a child who sits in the arms of what looks to be a draped figure.  On the right, a boy stands beside a chair whose arm is a man’s leg protruding from an all white background.  The purpose of these “hidden” figures is obvious.  They are there to support the child, to keep the child from moving during the rather long exposure.  What is not so obvious and what  I have often wondered about is why go to such lengths to disguise the person when it only draws attention away from the intended subject and places it on the strangeness of the hidden individual.  In other words, why not just have a portrait of both the child and  his/her caregiver?

Fig. 2


Well, apparently the intended goal was to ONLY have a likeness made of the child.  The caregivers (mothers/fathers) were draped to make it easier for the camera man to crop them out later by placing over mats that highlighted the children.  So for example fig. 3 is the original image and fig. 4 might have been the final product.


Fig. 3




cabinet card
Fig. 4


The reasoning for this all makes perfect sense I suppose, but what do you do with an image like fig 5?  When all is cropped and perfected, you still have a set of hands that belong to no one!  See, this is why I love 19th century photography… BIZARRE!


Fig. 5

If you would like to see more of these types of images visit http://www.flickr.com/groups/1264520@N21/


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