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Can You Spot the Hidden Women in These 19th Century Photographs?

The strange case of the disappearing mothers

Courtesy of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr.

Trying to get a baby or a fussy toddler to sit still for a photograph can feel like a herculean task. Luckily, it only takes a second to get the shot. In the nineteenth century, however, it was a different story—particularly when it came to tintype portraits, which required a long exposure. 

Photographer Laura Larson’s series, Hidden Mother, presents a survey of nineteenth-century tintype portraits in which the mother of the child was included in the photograph, but obscured. In some instances, the mother would hold her child, with a cloth or props hiding her from the lens. Or, she would be painted over by the photographer after the image had been taken. In other examples, the mother is entirely absent from the frame, save for an arm, holding the child in place. The results are both funny and slightly disturbing. “The mother appears as an uncanny presence,” Larson writes in a statement. “Often, she is swathed in fabric, like a ghost.”  

Larson first learned about “hidden mother” portraits through a collector friend, and began collecting them several years ago, at a time when she was waiting to adopt a little girl, amassing about 35 works. “The hidden mother speaks to the fragile balance a mother must maintain in raising a child—cultivating both attachment and autonomy,” she wrote. 

Photos Courtesy of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr. 

Larson’s work is represented by Lennon, Weinberg Gallery in New York City, where her retrospective, Laura Larson: Photographs 1996-2012, is currently on view through September 13, 2014. Her Hidden Mother series will be featured at the Palmer Museum of Art in Spring 2015, and Allen Memorial Art Museum in Fall 2015.