Italian artist Linda Fregni Nagler’s book The Hidden Mother collects 1.002 children portraits – tintypes, ambrotypes, snapshots, daguerreotypes, cartes de visite and cabinet cards – taken between the advent of photography and the 1920’s by mostly anonymous authors.
At the time the photographs were taken, because of the slow exposure times, babies needed to be kept still by a parent concealed in the background. Covered in a cloth, cut out of the frame, even literally scratched away from the image, these hidden figures are the central theme of this work by Linda Fregni Nagler.
The effort once made to remove the mother’s presence in favor of the child’s identity, yet failed, vanishes as the artist invites you to look closely at the actual size images printed in the book, seeking for what you were originally not supposed to see at all.
At the end of the book, a detailed appendix reports physical qualities, texts written on the back and historical-anthropological elements of each photograph, as well as the personal keywords used by the artist in order to organize, catalogue and rearrange the large amount of materials. This process is in fact identified as an integral part of the artistic operation.
The original photographs were shown at the 55th Venice Biennale within “The Encyclopedic Palace”, curated by Massimiliano Gioni.
Linda Fregni Nagler’s collection was first featured with a text by our associate editor Francesco Zanot in Fantom #00, Summer 2009.
FZ (…) If we observe these photographs in the context of your work, the way in which we interpret them changes radically. Instead of focusing our attention on the protagonists of these portraits, we start to seek out that which cannot be seen (or only partially). Unlike all the image genres and typologies we know, the Hidden Mother images are defined on the basis of what is not there (or at least, what shouldn’t be there). Hence, they remind us that photography is not only to do with the objects and the situations captured between the four edges of the frame, but rather it treads a thin line between inclusion and exclusion. While they denote presences, these images reflect just as many attempts at evasion. Midway between the burqa and Houdini’s escapology, the gestures of these hidden mothers underline the importance of the invisible in photography, and introduce a sort of apology of disappearance, meant as a playful, social and political action.
LFN There’s a Latin word which defines the particular contents of these photographs very well: absconditum. That is, the object of hiding. A 14th century sculpture found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Shrine of the Virgin, illustrates this concept perfectly. The Virgin holds the baby Jesus in her arms, but this is only one of the two forms it may take: when closed, the sculpture envelops the absconditum, while on opening it reveals the adult Christ and the symbols of the Trinity. In the closed position, the Virgin Mary is a treasure chest guarding the holy revelation hidden within her. Believing it is an act of faith. There is another term, a Greek one, which may be used to refer to the Hidden Mother photographs: apocalypsis. It is used to express the ‘unveiling of the concealed’. It means discovery, manifestation or apparition. The final revelation.
FZ There is one further element that defines the category of the Hidden Mother: the very notion of their disappearance cannot be entirely successful (it might be more apt to speak of ‘Not-So-Hidden Mothers’ or ‘Wannabe Hidden Mothers’). Only the images that show a residue of this attempt may be included in this typology, for if the disappearance were complete, we would be unable to note any difference from an ordinary child portrait. This means that to a greater or lesser extent, all the photographs in The Hidden Mother bear the traces of failure. The Hidden Mother is an enormous and poignant anthology of errors. It tells of men’s ambitions and their inability to achieve them.
LFN Failure is in fact a key topic of reflection for me. I try to develop it in my works and I recognise it very often in those artists who interest me. For example, the axiom that guides the production of Francis Alÿs is: ‘Maximum effort, minimal result’. In photography, the progressive fall in the costs of an error and the fact that it may often be resolved simply by taking another shot, has led to a form of diseducation of the gaze: there is now no longer any means by which to safeguard discarded images. Here, on the other hand, scope for error correction may still be found, and in concrete terms this might mean tighter framing or a blotch of ink. It is this very failure of the attempt to hide the protagonists of The Hidden Mother that I celebrate here. I put it on a pedestal every time I collect a new photograph.
Extract from F. Zanot, ‘Houdini’s Burqa. A conversation with Linda Fregni Nagler’ in L. Fregni Nagler, The Hidden Mother, MACK, London 2013.
Linda Fregni Nagler, The Hidden Mother Co-published with the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco 432 pp., € 45.00. mackbooks.co.uk