There’s so much to see inside of Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters—and when something like The Pale Man is there to greet you as soon as you enter, it’s easy to become obsessed with the detailed terror of the exhibition’s life-size sculptures of him, the Faun or Frankenstein, and even the creepy stares of writers Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft.
But if you look closer at some of the photographs in the exhibition, you might find something even more eerie.
A selection of the AGO’s collection of so-called “Hidden Mother” photographs is on display in the first of the exhibition’s themed sections, Childhood and Innocence. These photos, taken during the 1870s, feature children next to mysterious shrouded figures. Creepy? Yes. But, practical too.
Imagine how hard it is to keep an infant still for a snapshot today (and you can have as many takes as you want with your smart phone). Now imagine the long exposures needed for early photographs, which were very popular at this time but nowhere near as accessible as they are today. Now called “Hidden Mother” photographs, infants were commonly photographed held in place by an accompanying adult—presumed to be their mother or father, but no one knows for sure today—who was hidden behind furniture, underneath cloaks of fabric or scratched out entirely.
(There’s another more macabre reason for getting children photographed at an early age: in Victorian times, infant deaths were so common that it was important to have them photographed as soon as possible. Yikes!)
We asked Sophie Hackett, the AGO’s curator of photography, about this unique collection of photographs:
AGO: Where did the AGO get its collection of Hidden Mother photographs?
Sophie: In 2009, an anonymous donor gave the AGO a group of 41 of these portraits of children with shrouded figures – mostly tintypes, but also a couple of ambrotypes.
AGO: What was your first reaction to them?
Sophie: I was delighted with the donation because these photographs are relatively rare and so curiously strange, at least to our eyes today. Together, the group highlights that this practice wasn’t just an isolated occurrence, but rather something that a number of 19th century photographers did.
AGO: What do we still not understand about these photographs?
Sophie: What’s mysterious is why these shrouded figures—which could have been a parent, a nanny or an assistant to the photographer—are so visible in the portraits. Some have speculated that it’s due to pricing, with some photographers charging more for a portrait of two people than for a portrait of a single person. Others have indicated that it may be due to certain theatrical or humourous sensibilities at the time (visual jokes became prevalent in photographs) and the newly-affordable tintype process may have encouraged more experimentation.
AGO: Besides the inherent creepiness, why do you think they’ve found a home in At Home with Monsters?
Sophie: I think these photographs resonate beautifully with Guillermo del Toro’s vision of childhood as a stage in life where one is subjected to so many unfamiliar rituals, like a visit to the photographer for a portrait.
These obscured adults wanted the children to be the stars of these photographs, but now all focus goes to the ghostly figures looming in the background. Take a look at the “Hidden Mother” photographs on display in Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters below, and see them in person in the Gallery!
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