Articles

Victorian Photo Tricks, From Hidden Mothers to Eyes on the Dead

by Allison Meier on January 9, 2014

Hidden Mothers (courtesy  Mackbooks)

Hidden Mothers (courtesy Mack Books)

Victorian photography studios loved a good illusion, whether it was to accommodate the long exposure time, or play with it.

While spirit photography is pretty well-known (thanks in large part to Lincoln’s “ghost”), here are a few other tricks that you might not know about. Recently, Linda Fregni Nagler published a book called The Hidden Mother where she compiled over a thousand photographs of a parent masquerading as a chair beneath a cloak. As the exposure could take a good part of a minute, and children aren’t exactly thrilled to sit still for their portraits, parents  would hide and hold them still. But the results were kind of creepy — like specters looming up behind the uneasy kids. There was always this sense of a high mortality, too, especially for children, making the ghostly presences especially ominous.

Below are some of these “hidden mothers” (and possibly fathers, although it’s hard to tell, of course), as well as other Victorian photography tricks and illusions, where death was always around the corner, and the medium of photography was just starting to be a part of life. And other things that we might not consider as tricks now — like coloring photographs — was as fantastic as a person holding their head (well, almost).

Hidden Mothers

Hidden Mothers (courtesy Mackbooks)

A hand holds a boy and a person beneath a white sheet clutches two babies (courtesy Mack Books)

More hidden mothers

More hidden mothers (courtesy Mack Books)

Headless Photographs

A trick photograph of a man holding his own head (1875) (via George Eastman House Collection)

A trick photograph of a man holding his own head (1875) (via George Eastman House Collection)

In addition to the exposure time, Victorians also experimented with aligning two different exposures. Curiously, what seemed to fascinate them most was creating decapitations.

Headless photograph (via Laughing Squid)

Headless photograph (via Laughing Squid)

Headless soldiers (via Curious History)

Headless soldiers (via Curious History)

Double People

Two people doubled (via the American Museum of Photography)

Two people doubled (via the American Museum of Photography)

However, sometimes it wasn’t always so creepy, at least in the disembodied way, as people also had photographs taken with themselves through double exposures.

Post-Mortem Photographs

Propping up a corpse for a post mortem photograph (via Victorian Visual Culture)

Propping up a corpse for a post mortem photograph (via Victorian Visual Culture)

Many people didn’t get their photograph taken until they weren’t around to appreciate it, but that didn’t stop them from looking alive, or as close to it as painted eyes can get you.

Eyes painted on the dea (via Wikimedia)

Eyes painted on the dea (via FlickrWikimedia)

The Painted Backdrop

Children with a live goat and a garden backdrop (via George Eastman House)

Children with a live goat and a garden backdrop (via George Eastman House)

And finally, something that might not seem like a trick, but reflects how the medium of painting was still very much present in the way photographs were stage (in addition to the painted eyes).

Cowgirl on what seems to be a fake horse, with a backdrop (via SMU)

Cowgirl on what seems to be a fake horse, with a backdrop (via SMU)

Linda Fregni Nagler’s The Hidden Mother (published November 2013) is available from Mack Books.

  • Subscribe to the Hyperallergic newsletter!

Hyperallergic welcomes comments and a lively discussion, but comments are moderated after being posted. For more details please read our comment policy.
  • Pierre Gustav

    Ms. Meier: Again, you ferret out the frighteningly bizarre.

  • Barbara Davey

    Cindy Sherman showed some of these in the room she curated at the Venice Biennale this year. I understand they wanted a picture of the child, but why wouldn’t it be okay or even better (and more relaxing for the child) to see the mom holding him/her?

Previous post:

Next post: