Erasing the matron: Palmer Museum’s ‘Hidden Mother’ collection displays haunting edited photographs

Unknown photographer, tintype, 1860s–70s. Collection of Laura Larson.
Unknown photographer, tintype, 1860s–70s. Collection of Laura Larson. Photo provided

Long before modern technology and Adobe Photoshop simplified the process of editing pictures to the point where a simple click of a mouse can change almost anything, there existed a bizarre practice that we now refer to as “The Hidden Mother.” Penn State’s Palmer Museum’s current exhibit of the same name takes a look at this forgotten and fascinatingly odd methodology.

During the late 1800s, photographers taking portraits of children often needed the child’s mother to help them ensure the youngster’s proper posture. When the photographer wasn’t asking the mother to stand out of frame or behind a curtain while supporting the child, they would use primitive ways of erasing the mother from the photo. “Hidden Mother” offers an interesting look at some of the earliest photo-taking and editing techniques while raising questions about the role of women during this time period.

“Hiding the mother, clearly, was a practical solution,” said museum curator Joyce Robinson. “Yet, it’s hard not to read the masking of these mothers with 21st-century eyes and to ponder the socio-political effacement of women in society at large, but also within the fictive domestic space created within the photographer’s studio.”

“I think there’s an incredible emotional breadth to these images,” exhibit curator Laura Larson said. “They are haunting and at times, quite violent. I’m referring specifically here to the images where the mother’s face is scratched out. But many of them are very funny too. They have a kind of slapstick quality to them.”

The Palmer Museum possesses quite an impressive array of “Hidden Mother” pictures, which recently have become popular collectible items, in its permanent collection. In addition to serving as bold visuals, this exhibit also provides audiences with an engrossing history lesson on the photography medium.

“It’s only in recent years that I’ve come to understand how widespread the practice of disguising the mother really was,” Robinson said. “The Internet has contributed greatly to the seeming proliferation and ubiquity of these remarkable images. It’s very interesting that the practice was so clearly linked to the tintype, a vernacular, inexpensive form of photography, known at the time as the ‘American process,’ that has received remarkably little scholarly attention.”

Adding to the exhibit’s synchronicity is its physical space in the Palmer Museum that coincides perfectly with these beautifully macabre pieces.

“The images are small, intimate and invite close looking.”

Although the “Hidden Mother” phenomenon isn’t nearly as egregious today when compared to what is on display at the Palmer, there are still some rumblings that lend credence to the idea that this curiosity is alive and well.

“Mothers do still comfort their children while they have their photographs taken,” Larson said. “The exhibition presents a dimensional account of the representation of mothers, and more broadly maternity. The experience of mothering is incredibly complex and yet it’s rare to see this complexity considered in any number of cultural forms. These photographs, if unwittingly, hint at the pleasure and pain of having a child.”