Photographs are unquestionably deemed to be accurate representations of the real; whereas a painting is inherently considered to be a fictive interpretation of its subject, a photograph simply reports its subject as it is. Or does it? How is this promise of visual fidelity compromised by the familiar repertoire of tricks known to photographer and developer?
The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s intriguing exhibition, “The Perfect Medium,” which runs until December 31st, expertly exploits this inherent credibility of the photograph in its comprehensive overview of occult or supernatural photography, a popular practice which mostly flourished during the late 19th century and enjoyed a brief resurgence during World War I.
Occult photography caters partly to a scientific penchant for “proof” and partly to a common titillation before the luminous presence of the supernatural. It is not difficult at all to attribute the work of the photographer to infernal agency – especially if you’re some rube from Missouri seeing these photos at the county-fair. Or consider the similarity between the processes of alchemy and photography: both take place in darkened laboratories, both involve an assortment of noxious chemicals, and both require a complicated series of steps to be followed to the letter. In addition, both processes result in a ‘miraculous’ product: gold in the case of alchemy (theoretically) and a frozen slice of reality in the case of photography. Given this otherworldly stigma in conjunction with the popularity of spiritualism, mediums, and séances – and not to mention the basically ghostly appearance of most 19th century photography in the first place – it was inevitable that photography be pressed into service for the investigation, illustration, and display of the occult.
Scientists, psychologists, amateurs, and even the mediums themselves vied to secure compelling photographic proof of the spiritual phenomena purported to take place at séances and similar occasions. Just as the vampire eluded the mirror’s reflection, so these phenomena were able to elude the naked eye, but not the mechanical one. Among the events enterprising bunches of fraudsters set out to capture were telekinetic acts, ectoplasms (an amorphous, phosphorescent emanation), materializations, auras, and even the comings and goings of the spirits themselves.
Typically a photographer would set up his equipment in proximity to some suspect scene and flash away. The developing process would reveal later whether some spectral visitor had graced the occasion. Some photographers abandoned the principle of capturing a likeness altogether, resorting instead to other techniques of detection nonetheless involving the photographic apparatus. For instance, some would expose the photosensitive plate to darkness for an extended period of time. Later they would attempt to interpret the strange swirls and hand-like impressions left upon the plate – reminiscent of the heat-sensitive novelty mouse-pad I found endlessly fascinating as a child – as the residual signs of some spirit’s perambulation. And of course it must have been the ultimate coup to capture a picture of a wholly nonexistent scene– e.g., a photograph of the President in front of levee-repairs which never happened.
In the movie I Know What You Did Last Summer, one of the best parts of the film not involving Jennifer Love Hewitt’s breasts occurs when Sarah Michelle Gellar, sitting onstage for the annual pageant, observes the killer creep up behind Ryan Phillipe as he waves in answer to her admonitory gesticulations. The characteristic tension of the moment is predicated on the fact that while we (and Gellar, the scene’s audience-identification device) are acutely aware of the killer’s impending presence, Phillipe is blithely and fatally oblivious. Many of the museum’s pictures employ a similar disjunctive tension between what the photograph shows and the environmental awareness of its human occupants. Thus, for example, we see a bourgeois Frenchwoman calmly sitting with a specter perched next to her. Or in Fig. 2 we see a bored trio of gentlemen seemingly unaware of the angelic blob hovering menacingly above them.
Although on the whole I enjoyed the exhibit, I didn’t find the exhibit’s design itself to be of any particular quality. The lighting was lackluster – especially in comparison to the symphony of light bathing the adjacent Prague exhibit. The spatial arrangement of pieces on the wall was uninspired and ineffective given the volume of people visiting the exhibit.
To see these photos is to witness a visual morphology of occult phenomena and to explore the dynamics of visibility, presence, awareness, and spectatorship – all within the context of an emergent technology of representation. However, the mainstay of interest, for me at least, was to see in action the history of photographic artifice and the business of deception. It is true that some of these ostensibly occult phenomena sprang from an aleatory principle – a suggestive smudge, a chemical encrustation, a light-contaminated darkroom, a lens-anomaly, a heat-current, or a few errant droplets of the wrong solution.
However, for the most part, these depictions were the result of conscious contriving, whether for profit or fame. Fig. 1 was probably made through a process of multiple exposures proportioned in advance, followed by a dodging of the few rightmost figures (for evidence of this, note the variable discoloration of the mortar). Fig. 2 was probably made through dodging the desired outline on the print after taking a regular photograph.
Ultimately perhaps the most mendacious medium of all is the retina, and the most persistent spirit is that of money-making through tricking people in a congenial fashion – especially if they’re from Missouri.