“Where’s Ma? Oh, she’s the one ensconced in the rug.” (Part II)

“I am almost certain that the last picture shows a deceased subject.”

“Actually it looks like four of them are deceased imo.”

“They all look alive to me, but I’m often wrong.”

“Ok; pictures 2 and 3 are 100% photographs of deceased children.”

“Actually I disagree about most of these photos being memento mori.”

“None of these children are dead.”

“I can guarantee that shots 2 and 3 are post mortem in fact.”

“there is the possibility that one or two of these might be post mortem.”

“I don’t agree that these depict deceased children.”

Everyone is concerned about whether or not the kids are dead.  Which, don’t get me wrong, is a valid concern (except, of course, that they are all dead, by now). The quotes above, excerpted from responses to Hidden Mothers in Victorian Portraits, steer the conversation away from the mothers-ensconced-in-rugs-issue and into macabre memento mori terrain.  So my questions in this, Part II of my post on mothers-as-furniture, are as follows: 1) what does it say that people become so angsty about whether or not the kids were dead in these images, and 2) doesn’t the fact that the memento mori conversation has somewhat hijacked the hidden mother conversation ironically reproduce the very problem illustrated in the hidden mother images to begin with?  In other words: these mothers are effaced, and instead of debating this issue, we instead efface them further by focusing on dead babies.

This problem–alive or dead?–is interesting, don’t get me wrong.  It is creepy to see a photograph of a person who was clearly dead; it is creepier still to see a photograph of a dead (?) person posed as though still alive.  The prevalence of nineteenth-century memento mori indicates that this creepiness factor is not transhistorical: we have become less comfortable with this kind of proximity to death (somehow it is okay to watch graphic violent deaths on the evening news, but taboo to have a photograph of your dead uncle in his coffin hanging on your wall).  At the same time, we remain obsessed with these images of death, and–as the dialogue excerpt above indicates–obsessed with being able to identify them as such.

Like My Last Duchess, the children in the Hidden Mothers images all look as if they were alive, and so to me this conversation exposes a desire to know whether these poses are real.  Viewers are either skeptics or believers in this realism, and the debate suggests that realism itself is on the line.  How much do we trust the stories these images tell?  If a given image is “not real”; i.e., if the child is dead and posed to look alive, what might that say about other elements within the image we take for realism?  What might it say about similar images?  Photography at large?  Realistic representation at large?  Some of these are grandiose questions and I’m not suggesting we answer them here; my point, however, is that the weight of these underlying, implicit concerns might explain some of the responders’ impassioned and absolutist arguments.

So we want to know whether or not the images we look at are “real.”  But there’s an additional hysteria at play here, I would suggest, because these are children.  And if anything is creepier than a memento mori, it’s a memento mori of a child.  Or a potential memento mori of a child.  And what I find so interesting about this is, as I mentioned above, thatallthe people in these nineteenth-century images are by now quite dead.  The argument is about whether the dead people–specifically, the dead children–were dead at a certain point in time.

We want to know when we are looking at life or death.  And our inability to truly know contributes, I would suggest, to the tenor of the debate on the Hidden Mothers page.  One commenter might say he or she can “guarantee” an image is post mortem; another states bluntly that “None of these children are dead.”  Everyone is so sure, and it’s starting to remind me of the time one of my graduate school advisors told me, “Susan, you can’t prove a point simply by stating it 100 times.”  But we need to know if these kids were alive or dead, and since we can’t know, we have to insist we know anyway (this need underlies the horror of the vampire and the zombie–albeit in different ways–as I will discuss in a future post).

It also leads us away from the other very creepy–and central–aspect of these images.  The images illustrate the effacement of the Victorian mother.  It is therefore extremely ironic that effacement falls into the background (yet again) in the response section of this post.  Ironic and, to my mind, just as creepy as dead babies.

7 thoughts on ““Where’s Ma? Oh, she’s the one ensconced in the rug.” (Part II)

  1. Pingback: More hidden mothers in Victorian photography: post-mortem photographs or not? | The Museum of Ridiculously Interesting Things

  2. I’m not so sure the hidden mother pictures are about effacement of the mothers. I’m no expert on Victorian photography, but I am an expert on trying to get portraits of babies. I was a “hidden mother” numerous times from 1999-2008 (and didn’t even realize it). The only difference was that most of me was cropped out. Sometimes you want a portrait of baby by himself and there aren’t many ways to go about it.

  3. Its just a shame that these debates about exactness, knowledge and a verisimilitude of reality versus representation cloud such photographs.

    I think its great. Theres absolutely no concrete way of knowing if the child was dead or alive. Thats what is so interesting about them as photographs. If they were paintings, it would be somewhat lost. Photography’s ability to objectively record is what causes this confusion in a strange way.

    It seems that people are more concerned with knowing something about a photograph rather than seeing it.

  4. David, I agree: there is no concrete way of knowing if the child was dead or alive. Why isn’t this very interesting fact worth exploring? What does it mean to really “see” a photograph? Why do you think conversations about reality vs. representation “cloud” photographs?

    Catheryn, you are right–there’s a very practical reason for effacing the people holding the children (it would be really weird indeed to find a series of photographs in which the effacement was the subject of the image!). But even though the effacement was probably not intentional or “the point” of the photograph, there it is. A thing can exist even if it is not intentional. And we perpetuate the effacement by turning the conversation around on whether or not the kids are dead, continuing to ignore these draped figures.

  5. I think the reason I’d like to know if the children were alive or dead is because they were real people, and I like to wonder about what their lives were like after that time, so knowing whether they are dead or not at the time is quite significant, just like the fact that we’ll all be dead in 120 years time doesn’t make it insignificant to us whether we die at 20 or 80!

  6. Seems that disease was more common in the old days. One would expect that parents of a child with say, tuberculosis, would get a photo while that child still lived.
    Of course those who would be potographed in death would have died suddenly or had family which did not want to confront death until it was a must after sickness ran it’s course.
    I know this is a little late for the discussion however I wanted to throw down my two cents as I did not see this angle opined upon.

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