Memento Mori and Hidden Mothers

Let me warn you now that I'm not attempting comedy on this one because, though totally bizarre, I found it too fascinating and macabre to be flippant. And also I don't want to go to hell. There is no gore or anything of that nature, but if you have any triggers surrounding death photography (especially when they are photographs of infants and small children) please don't read further.

Apart from a few blanks I'm filling in with my own knowledge, the rest I got from this one blog (two separate posts) found here and here. They were very useful posts and have tons more photos than the ones I'm showing. You should definitely read them for yourselves.

As many of you are aware, the Victorians had a serious thing for death. I haven't made any formal study of this, but they were well known for keeping mementos of the dead–mostly locks of hair which they had put into rings or necklaces to wear at all times. There was a whole elaborate culture surrounding death, especially funerals. When Prince Albert died, Victoria went into mourning for forty years, ending only with her own death. Funerals were major events, sometimes more important to a family than a wedding, since they more aptly reflected a family's financial and social status. There were stories about extremely poor families who, if someone was seriously ill, would let the person die outright so they could afford the nice funeral, rather than pay for a doctor and only have a 50-50 chance of the person surviving, anyway.

When photography got more popular and more affordable, people began using it to take memento mori ("remember the dead") photographs, in which they propped up or held their dead relatives and obtained perhaps the only photograph in existence of that person. Below are some images showing how they did it.

It was pretty ingenious, actually. It's amazing what people thought to do with photograph technology. For example, a lot of charlatans figured out how to make 'ghost' photography by half cleaning an image off the plate and then reusing it to photograph a person who desperately wants to make contact with a deceased loved one. Here is the famous picture of Mary Todd Lincoln with the 'ghost' of Abe Lincoln.

Anyway, memento mori became a huge hit with mothers in particular whose children had died. They would place the kids in postures of repose with their favorite toys, making it look as though they were merely asleep. They were even able to prop open eyelids or paint the negative so it looked as though the child was awake. They added color to their cheeks. If you see a black and white photograph of a child and its cheeks are rosy, it is very probable that that child is actually dead:

As the author of the other blog said, "It's a bizarre and even repugnant concept to us, but not to them".

However, one of the strangest things about these pictures, something that got a nervous giggle from my colleagues and me when we first learned about this, was the idea of "hidden mothers", or a photograph of a living or dead child (usually dead) in which the mother is holding or propping up the child, but is hiding behind a chair or has a blanket thrown over her head. For such a serious moment, it tends to look really ridiculous and I don't understand why the mother did not just pose with the child (unless, of course, they were crying and unable to hold the necessary still face). In the case of live children, it was usually because the mother wanted a picture of her child, but the child squirmed too much and needed someone there to make them stand still. But with dead children? I'm not sure why the mother was needed.

Some photographs were okay, and you actually had to look to see that it was a person, not just a chair:

Others were . . . less good, with just a towel over the mother's head:

There's actually been an equally ridiculous twist on the hidden mother photograph in modern times, though CLEARLY these children are still alive and just need someone to help them pose:
I have tons of baby pictures without my mother in a full bodysuit in the background, so I think this is totally unnecessary. But to each his or her own, I guess . . .

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One Response to Memento Mori and Hidden Mothers

  1. Pingback: Victorian Mourning | BizarreVictoria

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