What is so arresting in this image is the juxtaposition between the photographic plate and the human hair adorning the composition. Why is it there? Whose hair is it? Does it belong to the woman or to the baby?
While locks of hair were often treasured as keepsakes of distant or even dead friends, spouses, and relatives, the inclusion of the hair in the photograph is unusual and even jarring because it does not fit in with our regular expectation of what a photographic plate should include.
The child is almost certainly the focus of this portrait. As noted in the factual commentary, early photography usually involved a relatively long exposure time, so in portraits of very young children, we often see an adult present to keep the child from moving and blurring the image. The baby sits in the center of the composition, clearly the focus. Also, the baby’s clothing is tinted blue; such tinting cost extra, and it also indicates that this image, as a portrait, is at least intended as a portrait of the child.
If the photograph was intended as a portrait of the white child, then the young African American woman was probably the child’s caretaker or nanny. But is she a free servant, employed by the family, or a slave? Her clothes are ordinary but good quality, and she wears a brooch and a ring that are tinted gold, all of which would be quite unusual for a slave.
Even if she was free, what does her inclusion in this portrait mean? Was she simply used as tool to hold the child still? Keeping a servant was expensive; was the intent to display the family’s wealth? Also, keeping a servant of color was a status symbol for whites, a sign of social ascendancy and racial dominance available only to the elite. Or was she intended to be part of the portrait, as a valued member of the household? The fact that some of her possessions are tinted in the photograph indicates at least some attention for her as more than a mere prop. Or was it some combination of these motives?