Ghosts in the Photos: Revealing What Is Hidden

A portrait photographer’s hardest challenge is persuading people to sit or stand still. That was even more true in the old days when camera shutter speeds were slower and the slightest twitch blurred the picture. The problem was compounded with babies, who are notoriously difficult to persuade to sit still.

One trick old-time photographers used when they were asked to make baby portraits was hiding the baby’s mother in the photograph. Hidden Mother photographs from those earlier times have recently gathered attention, with some studios even creating shows featuring the Hidden Mother (or “Ghost Mother”) theme.

Like many other repositories of old photographs, the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies at the Roberts Library likely has dozens of Hidden Mother photographs scattered among its collections. The example on the right is a Hidden Mother photograph, from the Boosey family collection, showing a child clearly being supported by his or her mother, who is covered by a cloth background.

Sometimes the mother would be disguised by a paper cut-out; other times she would stand to the side so the photographer could crop out her image when printing the photograph. This example on the right, though, is probably more typical, with the baby’s mother sitting on a chair, holding her child but covered by a cloth to make her invisible to the camera.

The following are some more examples in the Hidden Mother genre from the Butler Center’s collections:

Baby Fletcher: John Gould Fletcher Jr.

Baby Fletcher is John Gould Fletcher Jr., the Pulitzer prize-winning poet. The photograph was taken in Little Rock in 1886 by Davies & Rayburn. It is from the William L. Terry Papers.


Baby Hutchinson: Mary Sue Hutchinson

Baby Hutchinson is Mary Sue Hutchinson of Nashville, Arkansas, later a schoolteacher in that community. The photograph was taken in Nashville in 1913 and saved as a postcard. It is from the Lucille and Parker Westbrook collection.


Baby Westbrook: Lucille Westbrook

Baby Westbrook is Lucille Westbrook. The photo was taken in 1919 and also saved as a postcard. It is from the Lucille and Parker Westbrook collection.


Baby Edith: Edith Soles

This final photograph, identified as Edith Soles, is from the Connett-Gunn family papers (which are not yet opened to the public). It was taken about 1892.

Come visit us in the Roberts Library Research room or peruse our online collection of digitized items to do your own ghost hunting.

By Steve Teske, archivist at the CALS Butler Center for Arkansas Studies/Roberts Library




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