Lazy Saturday Reads: Victorian Photo Tricks, Homeschooling Horrors, and Hillary and Boko HaramPosted: May 10, 2014
This might turn out to be a strange post; I’m not really sure yet. I’m writing it somewhat in response to Dakinkat’s Friday offering. I was really taken with the images she used of Victorian women and babies with bat wings, so I decided to share some Victorian baby pictures I came across recently.
In addition, following on what Dak wrote about home-schooling, I have some articles on people who survived homeschooling horrors. I think it’s an outrage that child abuse like this is permitted in supposedly civilized countries. The government should not be kowtowing to fundamentalist Christian sects that engage in uncivilized behaviors. I’m still trying not to think too much about politics, but I have some follow-up info on Boko Haram and it’s use in the latest Hillary-bashing episode.
The Hidden Mother
I originally saw these photos on Twitter (of course), but I found them so fascinating that I tried to find out a little more about them. You’ll notice in the photos at the top of this post that there are ghostly fabric things behind or beside the children. Those are the hidden mothers keeping their kids still for the slow-developing cameras of those days. Lots of the photos look really eerie, and they hardly ever show the children smiling. Here’s an article from the Guardian from December 2013 that provides an introduction to the strange Victorian practice of “hidden mother” photography: The lady vanishes: Victorian photography’s hidden mothers.
Babies may be insatiably photogenic, but somehow they don’t really suit the whole business of photography. The flash makes them startle. They wriggle. They cry. They blink. You prop them up with cushions – and seconds later, they’re upside down gnawing their own toes. They make Dr Evil hand-signals. They fall asleep. They drool.
And if it’s bad now, it was worse then. Now we have cameraphones to record every last gurgle, but for the Victorians it was much more complicated. A 19th-century parent would have to dress the baby in a starchy gown, transport it and perhaps its siblings to the nearest photographer’s (orambrotypist’s) studio as early in the morning as possible, climb several flights of stairs to the skylit attic, arrange the family group against the studio backdrop, get everyone to remain completely still for 30 seconds or so, part with a large chunk of money, and then wait several days for the copies to be finished, before sending them round to family and friends as calling cards, or pasting them into albums.
The main problem was the length of the exposure. 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).
These photos recently came to light in a book called The Hidden Mother, by Linda Fregni Nagler
Though there are plenty of Victorian studio portraits of family groups, there are also many in which the mothers are concealed: they’re holding babies in place while impersonating chairs, couches or studio backdrops. They wanted a picture of just the baby, and this was the best way to achieve it. Sometimes, the figures are obvious, standing by the side of a chair and waiting to be cropped out later; sometimes, they really do appear as a pair of curtains or as disembodied hands. To a 21st-century viewer, the images look bizarre – all these unsmiling children strangled by smocking and framed by what appears to be a black-draped Grim Reaper, or by an endless succession of figures in carpets and chintz burqas.
The book also highlighted another weird Victorian practice–photographing the dead. Some of the children in the photos are dead.
Until the 1880s and the advent of mass-market photography, most people might only have a snapshot taken once in a lifetime. Since many children did die in infancy, 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.
It turns out that not just children were memorialized in photos after death. Below you can see a photographer taking a postmortem picture of a corpse propped up in a chair with eyes open.
Weird, huh? Sometimes they even painted in eyes to make the person look more alive. Another “Victorian photo trick” was “headless photographs.” Here’s an example:
You can read more about these strange Victorian photographic practices and see more examples at the following links.
Hyperallergic art blog: Victorian Photo Tricks, From Hidden Mothers to Eyes on the Dead (1/2014)
Pinterest: Mothers, Photographs, and Memento Mori.
Flickr page, Hidden Mother: Tintypes and Cabinets
Home Schooling Horrors
Again I came across this on Twitter. There’s apparently a Twitter group made up of home schooling survivors, and they were having some kind of home schooling awareness day awhile back to call attention to a law in Virginia that gives religious exemptions to parents who don’t want to send their kids to school. I started reading their descriptions of what they had experienced, and I was just horrified. I saved a few links at the time that I’ll share. From The Washington Post: Student’s home-schooling highlights debate over Va. religious exemption law.
Josh Powell wanted to go to school so badly that he pleaded with local officials to let him enroll. He didn’t know exactly what students were learning at Buckingham County High School, in rural central Virginia, but he had the sense that he was missing something fundamental.
By the time he was 16, he had never written an essay. He didn’t know South Africa was a country. He couldn’t solve basic algebra problems.
“There were all these things that are part of this common collective of knowledge that 99 percent of people have that I didn’t have,” Powell said.
Powell was taught at home, his parents using a religious exemption that allows families to entirely opt out of public education, a Virginia law that is unlike any other in the country. That means that not only are their children excused from attending school — as those educated under the state’s home-school statute are — but they also are exempt from all government oversight.
School officials don’t ever ask them for transcripts, test scores or proof of education of any kind: Parents have total control.
Powell’s family encapsulates the debate over the long-standing law, with his parents earnestly trying to provide an education that reflects their beliefs and their eldest son objecting that without any structure or official guidance, children are getting shortchanged. Their disagreement, at its core, is about what they think is most essential that children learn — and whether government, or families, should define that.
Josh’s story is heartbreaking and inspiring. The scariest thing about this law is that the children wishes are given no consideration at all. After years of struggle, Josh finally cobbled together an education managed to get accepted to Georgetown, but it was a long road and at the time of this article he still worried about his siblings who had not been able to escape the home schooling nightmare.
In 2008, Josh Powell wrote to Buckingham school officials, telling the board that he didn’t share his parents’ religious objections to public school and asking to enroll.
He said the administrator he spoke with was kindly but dismissive.
Crushed, he tried a home-school co-op for a while, then a class to study for a high-school equivalency test. “I figured if I can’t make any headway with my parents, can’t make any headway with the school board, what . . . am I going to do?” he said.
He Googled “financial aid” and applied to Piedmont Virginia Community College. A neighbor gave him a ride, an hour each way every day, until he had earned enough to afford an apartment nearby. It was terrifying, he said, as he was unsure how to behave in a classroom or whether he was going to embarrass himself answering questions. But he was thrilled.
“With the addition of lectures, the structure, the support, the tutoring — things just finally clicked. I remember my first semester sitting in my developmental math class. No one wanted to be there except for me. I was thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I have a chance to learn!’ ”
It’s a long article, but well worth reading in full. Here are a few more links for more info:
An interview with Josh Powell at NPR: Brother Wants Parents To Stop Siblings’ Homeschooling
Anthony B. Susan blog: It’s Time To Rethink Virginia’s Homeschool Laws.
A blog devoted to Homeschooling’s Invisible Children – “Shining a Light on Abuse and Neglect in Homeschooling Environments.”
It doesn’t just happen in the U.S. Some information on a homeschooling religious cult in Germany:
Yeshua Here I Am (Part 11, with links to parts 1-10).
Hillary Clinton and Boko Haram Follow-up
As I wrote on Thursday, the latest GOP attack on Hillary is over her supposed failure to deal with Nigeria’s Boko Haram when she was Secretary of State by adding them to the State Department’s list of terrorist groups. I’m not going to get deeply into this argument, because it just makes me tired; but here are a couple of in-depth treatments of the issues involved.
Tom Cohen at CNN: Clinton’s handling of Boko Haram questioned.
Howard LaFranchi at The Christian Science Monitor: Why Hillary Clinton’s State Dept. didn’t list Boko Haram as a terrorist group.
Chris McGreal at The Guardian UK: Nigeria kidnapping: why Boko Haram is a top security priority for the US
And from Mother Jones, a background article on Boko Haram: What is Boko Haram and Why Do Its Members Kidnap Schoolgirls?