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The Secret Behind Child Portraiture of the 1800s

Can you spot the hidden mothers in these photos?

by Emily von Hoffmann for Polarr

Photographer Laura Larson has found a unique way to explore her adoption journey with her daughter, Gadisse. She’s curating and annotating a collection of “hidden mother” photographs — the spooky evidence of a little-known practice of 19th century portraiture.

To spare children from the devices used to keep adults upright and still for portrait sessions, mothers accompanied and soothed their children while concealed by studio props.

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

Emily von Hoffmann: What is a ‘hidden mother’ photo? How did you learn of their existence?

Laura Larson: The term “hidden mother” refers to a widespread but little-known practice of 19th-century studio portraiture. Photographers used a number of different devices — from pedestals to pincer-like braces — to stabilize the body for the long exposures required to make a portrait.

But these methods were not suitable for the small, unruly body of a child. Instead, the photographer enlisted the mother, who, hidden by studio props, supported or soothed her offspring. In the final portrait of the child, the mother — typically concealed from head-to-toe in fabric — appears as an uncanny figure. Never meant to be seen, her presence nonetheless haunts these images.

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

A dear, old friend — he collects vernacular photographs — introduced me to the mothers shortly after I had submitted my adoption dossier. He thought they would appeal to my sensibilities and that there was a direct connection to my interest in spirit photography.

EvH: You wrote on your Kickstarter page that this collection of hidden mother images, along with your essay, illustrate your own adoption journey with your daughter, Gadisse. Can you share a little about that adoption process with us? How old is Gadisse now?

Image courtesy of Laura Larson.

LL: International adoption is an incredibly complicated process and varies from country to country. It’s a bureaucratic nightmare and requires some intense reckoning with its political and ethical dimensions. For us, the entire process from beginning to end — assembling the dossier, waiting for a referral, waiting for the legal process to unfold, traveling to Ethiopia — took nineteen months.

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

LL: When my application was “in process,” Ethiopia accepted dossiers from single women. That is no longer the case. It takes a great deal of hard work, patience, emotional stamina, and serendipity. My daughter is 7 years old. She’s been home for almost six years.

EvH: What parallels do you feel with the women pictured that make these images fit with your story? What emotional response do they provoke for you?

Image courtesy of Laura Larson

LL: I immediately recognized in these photographs something of my experience of waiting to become a mother. These women inhabit a strange space of being both close to and distanced from their child. I felt like Gadisse’s mother long before this was a legal and practical reality. I felt that attachment to her because of photographs.

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

LL: I also think that some of the photographs are incredibly funny. They’re like mother jokes waiting to happen. I have a pretty morbid sense of humor.

EvH: Although your photography has been widely exhibited, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other places, this has been your first experience in writing and publishing a book. Can you share what that has been like? What are some challenges that arose in your creative process for writing that maybe didn’t occur in your photography?

LL: Writing is an important part of my practice as an artist. Six year ago, I was invited to contribute an essay on adoption for Jennie Klein and Myrel Chernick’s book, “The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art.”

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

LL: I was excited to write about the subject even though I was still in the legal limbo of the adoption process. Writing the book — and imagining myself as Gadisse’s mother — was an act of speculation in many ways. I think it gave me the courage to take on the project.

For me, writing requires a different kind of discipline than making photographs. I think it’s partly because there are so many stages required to bring photographs into the world. I am also a very slow writer. I was often enormously frustrated with the project and I had to learn to measure the book’s development by a different set of criteria.

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

LL: I’m a single mother so I think I gravitated towards writing because it was easier for me to carve out time in my day for this work. I didn’t have to get to the studio, plan shoots, marshall resources, etc. I just had to sit myself down in front of the computer. (This is also no small thing.) I was able to continue to be productive as an artist during a time when I had very little time or energy leftover from parenting and teaching.

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

EvH: You’ve explored themes of visibility and gender in your work before — how do you feel this project builds on or depart from your previous work? I’m particularly interested in your focus on conventional femininity and domesticity.

LL: This is a great question! With my earliest photographic series, I began with the question: what does a feminist photographic practice look like if there are no bodies? How can I address, even obliquely, the social experience of women while still critically working with questions of representation?

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

LL: Hidden Mother loops back to these questions that have been a central concern for me in a very direct way. It’s a departure in that it’s the first directly autobiographical work I’ve ever produced. I am a very reserved person so it’s been a big leap to put my story out into the world.

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

EvH: Can you share with us any plans for future work that you’re excited about?

LL: I’m working on a collaborative project with a novelist about Jean Martin Charcot’s photographs of female hysterics. We’re in the early stages of production but I imagine that it will take a hybrid form like Hidden Mother: autobiography, fiction, archival images, and photography. I travelled to Paris this summer to photograph at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital where Charcot conducted his research.

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

EvH: Who are some artists who inspire you, or whom you’re particularly enjoying right now?

LL: Chantal Akerman is the reason I became an artist; my teachers — Martha Rosler and Mary Kelly; Louise Lawler is also an important figure for me. I’m reading the catalog for the Sarah Charlesworth exhibition at the New Museum and feel like I’m really discovering her work for the first time. Moyra Davey’s Burn The Diaries. Liz Deschenes curated a fantastic show at MassMOCA, An Expanded Field of Photography, that’s really stayed with me since I saw it this summer.

Interview by Emily von Hoffmann and Polarr — Pro Photo Editor Made for Everyone. Follow Polarr on Twitter and try our products.



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