Invisible Mothers

What you see above is a baby, calm, sitting in a chair. What you don’t see above is how that was possible.

The photo above was most likely taken in the 19th century, in the early days of portrait photography. (For reference’s sake, the first U.S. president to sit for a photograph while in office was William Henry Harrison in 1841.) It was a long and painstaking process, as the subject had to hold still for the exposure period, which, on the short end of things, could be a few minutes long.  Babies aren’t exactly known for their patience, so getting them to hold mostly still was, to say the least, tricky.

The solution: a creative frame and mat strategy combined with the one person most likely to keep the baby quiet — the child’s mother. While it appears, above, that the baby is lying on a floral print backdrop, that’s only partially the case. The backdrop is not just some cushion — it is actually his or her mom, sitting in a chair and hiding behind a blanket.

The photograph as taken would not be put on display without an appropriate frame and border, so to the untrained (or the polite) guest, the mother’s presence would not be noticed. Many of the original tintypes survived the ruse, though, leading to a borderline absurd result where the outline of the mother is clear once outside the frame. A collection of more such photographs can be found here.


Bonus fact: One of the first U.S. Presidential inaugurations to be photographed was Abraham Lincoln’s second, in 1865, and seen here. Weeks later, Lincoln would be assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. Booth was also at Lincoln’s inauguration, and is present in the afore-linked photograph. (Hereis a version with the two men highlighted.)

From the ArchivesThe First Photograph of a Person: Two people, actually — one is shining the other’s shoes.

Related: A cloak of invisibility. Just under $400 and it probably doesn’t work, so caveat emptor.