When you think of Victorian photography, what do you picture? Probably grim, unsmiling people in fancy clothes, all shot in austere black and white or sepia. But some images from this era are a little spookier than others. We’re talking about baby photos. And, yes, you read that right. Take a close look at any picture of an infant from this era, and you’ll likely spot an eerie figure in the background of the shot.
If you’re just cooing over the child – and we wouldn’t blame you – you probably won’t notice this mysterious interloper to begin with. But when you finally spot it, a chill may run down your spine. It’s really unnerving! And here’s the thing. After that horrible scare, you’ll no doubt pick up on similar figures in the backgrounds of other Victorian baby pictures.
What’s going on? These scary snaps wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie! But back in the day, these photos weren’t anything out of the ordinary. That’s despite the strange figures, which take on different forms depending on the child in the frame.
Sometimes, this apparition has a dark piece of fabric draped over it, making it look for all the world like a terrifying specter. In other cases, it’s hiding behind a curtain. Then there are the chairs that clearly aren’t normal pieces of furniture. Like we said, it varies.
While you try to wrap your mind around this phenomenon, rest assured – there is an explanation. But to get there, we first need to understand the intricacies of Victorian photography and the equipment folks used during the period. Unsurprisingly, snapping a picture back then wasn’t as straightforward as it is today!
So, let’s travel in time to the summer of 1839. It was then, you see, that a man named Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre unveiled a brand-new photography method to the world in Paris, France. This appropriately became known as the “daguerreotype process,” and it was a true game-changer.
Why was the Frenchman’s idea so revolutionary? Well, it was said to produce photographs with a “truthful likeness” of the person or object in the frame. And this exciting prospect – one that we now very much take for granted – wowed folks at the time. Before long, daguerreotype shops were all the rage, with more than 70 of the outlets to be found in New York City come 1850. That’s a huge number!
How did the daguerreotype process actually work, though, and what made it so special? Well, unlike the standard cameras that we’re familiar with today, aspiring snappers didn’t use film to capture their images. Instead, they had to produce their works on copper panels coated with silver.
These sheets lacked the suppleness of film, of course, and were much weightier. A photographer would then expose their panel to light when they were ready to take a picture, and this burned a likeness of the subject onto the surface. But the full details of the image could only be seen once the silver-coated copper was taken out of the camera and treated with mercury fumes.
That doesn’t seem the easiest of methods! But it produced surprisingly good results. Well, for the time, anyway. So, the daguerreotype process remained popular despite the couple of big strikes against it – and we mean big.
Imagine you’ve just walked into a daguerreotype studio to have your photo taken after Daguerre’s invention hit the mainstream. Then you get yourself into position in front of the camera and decide upon your pose. Finally, once everything’s ready, you hold your stance, and you wait. And wait. And wait a little longer.
You see, daguerreotypes could take as long as 15 minutes to be exposed. Not seconds. Minutes. So yes, this meant people would have to stay completely still for up to a quarter of an hour. That’s a huge ask, even if you’re a patient individual!
Daguerreotypes were pretty costly as well. Back in the 1850s, the price of a single picture reportedly ranged from around 50 cents to $2. Now, that may not sound too bad – roughly in line with the cost of color prints at present. But when you rework the figures into modern money, your jaw will hit the floor.
That 50-cent daguerreotype cost the equivalent of around $16 today. And that $2 image? About $67. Wow! Needless to say, only the rich were partaking. But at least one problem with the process was eventually fixed. After some adjustments, the exposure time was able to be cut to under 60 seconds.
Still, as the 1860s rolled around, the daguerreotype process began to lose ground to other forms of photography. For example, the so-called “wet-collodion” method – which emerged in 1851 – became increasingly in demand. Why? Well, it chopped exposure times even further. That had to be good news for photographers and subjects alike.
With this process, a photo appeared within roughly 30 seconds of exposure. That’s a much more palatable prospect than staying motionless for 15 minutes! Then again, it still wasn’t perfect. Holding a pose for more than just a few seconds isn’t that easy if you’re the fidgety type.
And photographers found themselves fighting against the clock once they had taken their pictures. Now, they had just a 15-minute window to develop a snap after exposing the wet collodion to light. Talk about a change of pace! We can only imagine how stressful that could’ve gotten.
But what impact did this innovative new method have on the world of art? You’d think that people would have no need for traditional portraits when they could just get a snap in a fraction of the time. And, yes, photography did eventually become the go-to form for a simple image of a loved one.
Artists adapted with the times, however, by producing more complex paintings – ones that photographers would struggle to replicate just using a camera. And ever since, photography and fine art have worked in tandem. Interesting, right?
It doesn’t explain the creepy figures lurking in the background of old baby photos, though. So why are they there? Is the whole phenomenon an attempt to add an artistic flourish to the images – with photographers trying to beat painters at their own game? Or is it all because of something more sinister?
In truth, it’s neither of those things. And the explanation isn’t as complicated as you may think. Those eerie shapes are actually the babies’ moms, obscuring themselves with whatever materials were lying around studios. We can practically sense your relief from here! But why on Earth did the mothers do this?
Well, remember the exposure times that we discussed earlier? If it’s difficult for a grown adult to stay motionless for 30 seconds, just imagine what it’s like for a baby. You’d never get the picture! So to help make things easier for the photographers, moms would step in to keep their kids positioned.
Instead of just posing alongside their children, though, the women would attempt to camouflage themselves in order to blend into the backgrounds of the photos. And while the process threw up some truly bizarre results, it ultimately worked. The kids remained still, and the photographers could complete their snaps. All’s well that ends well, eh?
This strange custom is also the subject of a fascinating book from 2013. Titled The Hidden Mother, the work shares over 1,000 examples of moms concealing themselves in Victorian baby photos – and that figure alone should tell you how widespread the practice was. The book’s editor, Linda Fregni Nagler, has explained, too, how these women chose to be tucked out of sight.
Speaking to Fast Company in 2013, Nagler said, “To catalog the hidden mothers for my archives, I have used a number of keywords [that] categorize the many ways in which they hid themselves. Those keywords are highly descriptive: burqa, cut-out mother, phantom limb, cloth, big hand, darkroom trick, ink spot, head from behind, cropped head, furniture, metal matte and so on.”
Yes, we know some of those methods are very different to the ones we’ve spoken about so far. As it turns out, not every mom draped a piece of material over her body in order to cover herself up. Some mothers were even blatantly in shot – although that didn’t mean they wanted to be the center of attention.
To get rid of the women from the snaps, then, a very primitive form of Photoshop was used. Basically, the moms’ facial features would be blotted out – which sounds pretty darn scary in itself. In other cases, their heads would simply be cut from the pictures, leaving the babies posing with what looks like decapitated bodies. Lovely!
Just as spooky are the pics that show floating hands – and no arms or body in sight – hovering around the baby. And some of the pictures just generally have a spectral vibe, although that can be explained away as a side effect from the wet collodion process.
While photos created using wet collodion were faster to develop than daguerreotypes, there was still one drawback: the colors of an image were affected. Any white areas of a shot would look as though they were light brown instead – something that the darker parts of a photo only accentuated. Altogether, this ended up making the snaps appear weirdly unnatural. The headless moms didn’t exactly help, either.
And some Victorian-era pictures of babies are unsettling for an entirely different reason. Sometimes, photographs were taken of little ones after death. These were mementos, most likely, of young lives that had barely even started before they were cruelly snuffed out.
At first glance, the infants in these tragic images may just appear to be reclining – even sleeping. Take a look at their painted-on eyes, though, and they’ll give the heartbreaking truth away. Yet while such photos can be harrowing to look at, they served an important purpose: providing some comfort for bereaved parents by helping them remember their loved ones.
But, of course, there were also plenty of pictures taken of healthy babies – whether the moms were in shot or not. Spare a thought, then, for the photographers who had to patiently wait for fussy infants to settle before they could ever consider putting images down on daguerreotype or wet collodion. And a few snappers did indeed rise to this challenge, according to New York-based historian Mark Osterman.
In 2013 Osterman told The Guardian, “There were plenty of photographers who just specialized in taking [pictures of] babies and old people. Old people can be shaky and cranky and difficult to deal with, just like babies. So the photographers had to have plenty of light and patience. They might need 18 to 30 seconds to get a clear negative.”
Who were these saintly figures? Well, sometimes they were women. That’s right: unlike many other careers, photography was deemed a socially acceptable option for those of the fairer sex. And according to The Guardian, women took to the pursuit in their droves. It’s said, in fact, that in the ten years from 1861, the number of female professional snappers jumped fourfold.
So, did women photographers bring anything different to the table? Well, when it came to taking pictures of babies, apparently not. As the men did, they’d just try to occupy the youngsters in whatever ways they could – by bringing in certain animals, for instance. Yes, birds and monkeys were sometimes housed in the photography shops. That’s one way to do it!
But if those methods didn’t get the job done in the end, there was an alternative solution. A publication from the time claimed that opium should “effectively prevent the sitters from being conscious of themselves, or of the camera, or of anything else.” It goes without saying that this wouldn’t fly today.
In any case, the photographic landscape started to change at the turn of the century. This was all thanks to the advent of Kodak’s famed Brownie camera, which could be used by pretty much anyone and didn’t cost a lot to purchase. The film was relatively cheap as well.
The Brownie was essentially a “point-and-shoot” camera, as a user just needed to flip a switch in order to snap a shot. There was no need to worry about exposure times, either, which must’ve been a relief! And Kodak even removed the final bar stopping the public from taking up photography en masse. Processing pics, the company said, would be its responsibility now.
So, what did that mean for the hidden mothers method? After all, if you could now create a photo of someone without having to wait around for 30 seconds, were moms really needed in the pictures to help calm their children? Well, maybe not, but the practice continued into the 20th century – despite the advances in camera technology.
By the Roaring Twenties, however, the moms had all but disappeared – when it came to the baby pics, anyway. And from there, you wouldn’t spot any more creepy figures looming over infants in photographs. But as weird and spooky as some of these images turned out, the method has its place in history – and it certainly won’t be forgotten.