A Brief History of Baby Pictures by Lindsey Harding

Baby albums were often stored in flowery photo boxes. Married women in their first homes kept the boxes, already matte with dust, on high closet shelves, neatly labeled by year and age-range: Birth to One Year, 1983, for example. Each year these boxes inched deeper and deeper into closets. Storage space was needed for a radio alarm clock, curlers, a jewelry box full of oxidized earrings, and a growing stack of blouses and slacks with loose hems and missing buttons that needed just a bit of thread and a few minutes to stitch them back into workweek wardrobes.

While the world lingered in a postpartum state, 9/11 still in its infancy, these married women started getting pregnant. Two years into the 21st century, they felt the fragility of their bodies, structures that despite elastic, blemish-free skin and calcium-fortified bones could fall at any time. Now, more than ever, creating seemed so important, so necessary, and they were ready to activate their wombs.

Women at this time were just starting to use digital cameras. This was before women snapped shots of their positive at-home pregnancy tests. This was before, but just barely, digital pregnancy tests let women know a full week before their missed periods, practically from the moment of implantation on, whether or not their eggs had been fertilized. Women weren’t yet taking weekly pictures of their pregnant bellies. They weren’t yet planning Gender Reveal Parties. They weren’t yet sharing the big news on Skype or Facebook. They still talked on their flip-phones, often in voices a bit raised, an octave too eager.

In their second and third trimesters, pregnant women bought thematic albums and frames: Pooh Bear, princess, and choo-choo train. Above all, such albums exemplified the value of cuteness. Pregnant women received more albums at their showers and more frames from co-workers and great-aunts: soccer-ball studded ones, ribbon-wrapped ones. By the time the babies were born, they had a very physical, very real need for baby pictures. All the empty picture-displaying containers suggested a troubling lack. They watched the mail and paper for JCPenney, Sears, and Picture People coupons.

At this time, department store and stand-alone studios employed mostly young female photographers, recent college graduates who may have had Glamour Shots on their resumes and careers as elementary school teachers in their futures. They enthusiastically signed contracts with Olan Mills to take portraits of wee little ones lost in frilly finery, sucking thumbs, pacifiers, or else their parents’ keys. Perhaps, though, they underestimated how hard it would be to get a baby to look at snapping fingers, return a cheek-scrunching grin, or control wildly flapping limbs.

And perhaps, too, the young female photographers underestimated how hard it would be to deal with the mothers, especially when their coupons had expired the day before their scheduled shoots, especially when their babies weren’t latching quite right, especially when their nipples ached against nursing pads despite regular use of Lanolin.

Mothers often became frazzled during photo sessions. They had Pampers to buy. They had daycare facilities to pay. They didn’t have enough Elmo dolls, enough Baby Einstein books, DVDs, and CDs. They had so much guilt. When was the last time any of them had a haircut and color treatment? When had they last worn an underwire bra? Their lives now presented a new host of concerns, more pressing, likely more tedious. In the nursery closet hung a flower-embroidered baby gown with a tutu skirt and matching headband, nearly out-grown and still unworn, not yet photographed in a portrait studio.

Portrait studios offered a standard line-up of shots, props, and backdrops. Mothers who scheduled appointments routinely added their own set of conventions. The babies, too, executed conventional behaviors, demonstrated conventional moods. The mechanistic quality of the whole process bored the young photographers, disturbed the babies, but satisfied the mothers. Baby pictures were, after all, a to-do list item, reoccurring in regular intervals and demanding enough to be stressful.

Sheets of ordered images were in a lot of ways like baskets of folded laundry or two-dozen bake-sale cupcakes cooling on a wire rack.

Three features dominated the photographs snapped in a portrait studio: Sunday best, teddy bears, and benches painted a shade of white. Girls wore lacy pastel dresses with stiff collars that dug into soft neck pudge and left red marks that lingered until the next morning. Boys wore argyle sweater vests and coordinating knee socks and clunky shoes that caused them to stumble when they tried to run. The color palette was muted, soft, and obsessively coordinated. Petite hair bows matched satin trim running around dress waists. Even bald baby girls wore bows. Siblings arrived in matching home-sewn polka-dotted outfits with complimentary scalloped necklines and bowties. In the studio, backdrop options included a pasture at sunset, a wildflower field on a sunny afternoon, a living room with a fireplace, and three plain panels in black, blue, and multi-blend. Props were set specific: hay bale, cowboy hat, and saddle for the pasture scene, for instance. The white bench was the only versatile piece, used for the wildflower scene and the fabric panels. The poses, a set of ten, were also scene specific. They required rigorous effort from the young photographer and the mother. They tended to be uncomfortable and occasionally tear-inducing for all parties.

Some young photographers lacked multi-tasking proficiency. They struggled to hold their cameras and swivel baby bodies into correct positions. Mothers couldn’t decide: the blue or the multi-blend, hay bale centered or flush right. Thirty-minute session slots proved grossly optimistic, and delays by five o’clock stretched into bath time, especially when three mothers in a row attempted to nurse wailing newborns in last-ditch attempts to get one workable picture each.

In crowded waiting rooms, mothers no longer discussed Martha Stewart’s sentence. Instead they wondered about the sanitization of the props. How many children had put the saddle horn in their mouths?

One by one they took their children, still in formal wear, out for ice cream and then to a park. They started to consider all of the places they weren’t: castle playground, the grocery store, puppet hour at the library. Sitting, waiting, pacifying infants a Cheerio at a time, they felt the burden of brushed hair, wide smiles, wrinkle-free outfits, shiny shoes, and cry-free eyes. They started to skip months in the studios. They shrugged when new coupons arrived in the mail and deposited the glossy cardstock directly in the recyclable bin.

When portrait studios became less popular, the young studio photographers were moved from their slow studios to the store proper. At first they continued to dress all in black until a manager told them they needed to look more cheerful. “Happy clerks mean happy shoppers and happy shoppers spend more money.”

Driving to and from the mall, these displaced photographers dreamed up ways to get back to work with a camera. All those families not coming into the studio for their Christmas card picture and framed triptychs to give to grandparents still needed Christmas card pictures and framed triptychs for grandparents.

Amateur family photography began with simple blogs and advertising on Facebook and Craigslist, over email to previous babysitting employers, and through fliers affixed to walls in church fellowship halls. These advertising campaigns often centered around a common plea to mothers: Let me capture your child’s unique personality. After the Participation Trophy Era, this is precisely what mothers wanted.

No session fees, no printed images. Instead, for a set amount, mothers would receive a collection of digital images to select from and print as they pleased.

Even early in their careers, amateur photographers regularly booked at least one session a weekend. Demand was high. As long as there was sun, they arranged to meet mothers and their children at local outdoor spaces. The standard trunk of an amateur photographer carried an assortment of props to the location (e.g., colorful quilts, large plastic balls, butterfly nets, and various seasonal décor). They often arrived early, with charged DSLR cameras and extra memory cards, to evaluate the light and background textures. Shoots lasted whole mornings or whole afternoons, but breaks were allowed and stain-free snacks encouraged.

Mothers and photographers and babies formed a single collaborative unit seeking the most authentic, personal representation of a specific childhood moment awash in the splendor of the day, the season. To this end, they experimented. They played. They frolicked.

Babies crawled through beds of cotton-ball snow during a pre-winter session. Toddlers marched with their butterfly nets across real dandelion fields in a spring shoot. Mothers and young photographers expressed exceedingly high levels of contentment over the success of these affairs. They were on to something. Hugs were routinely exchanged. Mothers often returned to their cars with tears in their eyes while babies gummed handfuls of grass they had smuggled from the fields.

Initially, props met two criteria: they had to photograph well and appropriately signal childhood. Mothers then began to make requests, claiming they had seen too many pictures of baby girls draped with pearls. They demanded flair. They insisted upon the special they had been promised. For instance, mothers who adopted pets scheduled shoots featuring menageries of stuffed animals. For mothers committed to sustainability, photographers constructed sets from cardboard and cork. For very literal mothers, photographers framed sleeping babies with actual oversized frames positioned on the ground.

In photographs, the prop is elevated to set piece. Babies are seen clutching heirloom spoons or else TV remote controllers. Young children ogle lollipops as big as their faces or else tangle themselves in strings of lit Christmas lights.

In a popular diptych, a sleeping two-month-old in only a striped cape grips the handle of a samurai sword while a seated seven-month-old with a paisley-print bandana wrapped around her smooth head chews the steel handcuffs hanging from her chubby wrists. Under the weight of the steel, the baby’s arms rest in her lap, and her whole body folds forward, her mouth gaping, so she can get the metal to her mouth.

Eventually, objects inundated the frame. The lens as levee failed to control the surging item levels, the rampant proliferation of stuff that saturated the shots. Images called to mind church yard sales, attics, consignment stores, everything lost to Hurricane Katrina.

Mothers’ wallets, dining room walls, and personal blogs showcased diapered children planted alongside herbs in giant stone pots. Newborns were tucked into open violin cases and propped against rusty push-mowers. Babies peeked out of stockpots and golf bags. They held up fistfuls of dollar bills and waded through penny-filled troughs. Then they toppled cereal boxes. They tore apart 500-piece puzzles and baskets of freshly folded laundry. They leveled block towers and shredded construction paper packs. With 90,000 square miles of America ravaged by water, destruction in photos seemed so fitting, and babies happily participated.

Eventually props dominated the shots. Photographers snapped dozens of pictures while children slept in their carseats off to the side. Mothers didn’t notice the absence when they scanned the images later and selected their favorites for the mantle display.

As a direct response to the Cluttered Picture, photographers cut everything out. Everything except the baby. The Great Prop Recession of 2008. Now they concentrated the lens on bright, upturned faces and started snapping sun-lit strands of hair. Mothers become mesmerized by their babies’ eyes, so round and clear, twinkling in arrest. “I can’t stop staring!” one confessed. They cried over the inches of baby skin they saw, the surface unkissable, glossy, preserved.

Close-ups were replaced by Closer-ups: single feature shots. Photographers trained cameras on feet, knees, noses, shoulders, and hands. They dismantled babies frame by frame and then gave the pieces back to mothers who studied the remarkable detail. “Look! Her third toe is the longest of the bunch!” a mother pointed out. Upon hearing such exclamations, photographers wondered if mothers looked at their children at all except in photographs.

Then came the Even Closer-ups: eyelashes, a dimple, a mole, nostril shadows. Again, mothers and photographers lost babies in the pictures. This time they were right in front of the lens but completely absent in the final JPEG files of veins and hair follicles.

At last, babies came back into the picture in whole. Props returned occasionally, but only a handful. The featured objects contributed a bit of strangeness to the shots through their size, positioning, or nature. For instance, frilly crinolines created fabric seas five feet in diameter around bare-chested infants. Twin babies were tucked into tuxedo sleeves, a head poking out the left, other feet out the right. Children hugged stuffed bunnies: monstrous, polyester-batting-filled creatures that reminded mothers of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.

For the photographers, though, the bunnies were just bunnies, and they couldn’t be anything else. Ever since the 2016 Election, they wanted—needed—to have things be the things they were. So they recalled the stuffed ones they had named Bunny-Boo or Kit that their grandfathers had given them the day they were born, which they had cuddled next to night after night until middle school. That’s when the bunnies, threadbare and lumpy, were moved from beds to closet shelves, then later from closet shelves to garbage bags. In the pictures they took now, the bunnies were resurrected, fluffed and enlarged, precisely as they had always been to the little girls who tucked them under their arms for tea parties.

And so the photographers dreamed backward, pulling their childhood into props, angles, and filters. They created fantastic, familiar shootscapes. Babies lay asleep in mailboxes that could hold a dozen Fed-Ex packages and a card from Grandma, carefully selected, signed, and dated, then folded around a five-dollar bill. Children wore snowsuits warm enough to thaw the Eggo waffles they ate for breakfast, even as their mothers worried about melting ice caps and rising sea levels. They sat in wooden chairs ten feet tall with woven rattan centers, worn enough to make mothers’ hearts pound but holding, holding, holding.

Photographers zoomed out to include more memory in the frame, and babies became smaller. At one point, the ratio of baby to surroundings was 2:98. Crying six-month-olds sat beneath towering tricycles, wooden blocks the size of barns. A baby posed on a toilet seat built around a swimming pool, and another lay in the white bristles of a ladder-length toothbrush, behind which a tooth stood—shiny, white, and bigger than a backyard playhouse.

Siblings traipsed along stone pathways, dwarfed by green, flowering plumes to where the Wild Things were. The child became a geometric shape, reduced by the overwhelming air of childhood nostalgia. Sometimes she was a crescent. Sometimes a square. A line segment in a field of sepia grass.

Passivity came to dominate the pictures. Children lay about looking at the camera that looked at them. “What’s the point?” their vacant stares and flailed limbs asked. “It’s no use,” they whispered. “Nothing we do can stop what you started.” For now, at least, the playground—with a dozen slides, two dozen swings, and a troll-guarded bridge—appears in the background an elaborate construction, just quiet wood and slowly rusting nails.




Lindsey Harding is the Director of the Writing Intensive Program at the University of Georgia. Her flash fiction and stories have appeared in apt, Spry, Soundings Review, The Boiler, and others. She lives in Athens, Georgia, with her husband and four small children. You can find her online at www.lindseymharding.com.



(Front page image via Cristi López)

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