It’s a tall order to take a nice picture of a screaming baby even with Photoshop, so how are there so many vintage photos of well-behaved children at a time when it took up to 30 seconds for a camera to take a single picture? The clue is in the furnishings. That’s no ordinary pattered armchair– that’s the child’s mother in disguise….
An original cartoon from Harper’s Bazaar showing the ‘hidden mother’ practice
According to Bella Bathurst of The Guardian, the exposure time of the cameras posed the biggest problem when shooting children. “However bright the photographer’s studio, it took up to half a minute for an image to register on wet collodion. Getting an adult to sit completely still for half a minute is a challenge, but getting a wakeful baby to do so is near-impossible. The photographer could position anyone old enough to sit on a chair by placing an electric chair-style head clamp behind them, but the only way of photographing a baby was for the mother to hold it (or dope it with enough laudanum to keep a grown man rigid for a week).”
A 30 second exposure was too long to keep a toddler smiling so photographers would ask all other subjects of the photo to match the infant’s serious demeanor. Brooding faces, a creepy tints and human furniture aren’t exactly the Christmas cards we send to grandma today.
Just to make you squirm like a baby, Bathurst notes that by the look of their sunken eyes, some of these cherubs appear to be, erm, dead. She then continues on to speculate that, given the high rate of infant mortality at the time, “the only memento the parents might have would be the single posthumous photograph of their baby propped up to look as if it was merely asleep.