Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr. (2019.1843), (2019.1879), (2019.1855)

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.

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.

These images may look creepy or bizarre to the modern viewer but this compositional strategy was commonplace during the Victorian era.
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.

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.

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)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr. (2019.1893)

Collection of Bernard Yenelouis (left, right); Erin Waters Fine Photographs (center)
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Lee Marks and John C. DePrez, Jr. (2019.1876), (2019.1838)

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.