This split between believers and entertainers has persisted throughout the history of occult photography, creating a polysemy that is often startlingly postmodern. Seen from these two divergent perspectives, the same exact images can (and do) “conjure up” completely different meanings, which coexist uneasily depending on the eye of the observer. Not surprisingly, perhaps, both the exhibition and the book The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult got swept into this vortex of ambiguity, and as a result began to seem at time as amorphous and mutable as the ethereal spirits they depicted. The show, which began at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, changed form radically as it changed venues. The French version of the exhibition, crammed with young artists and culture-seekers who spent hours seriously studying hundreds of images for their traces of ectoplasm or fraud, was very much an intellectual exercise. Its aim was clearly to provide an exhaustive catalogue of pictures from Europe and America in order to illustrate the sheer volume, diversity and ubiquity of occult studies created throughout the history of the photography.

Once the show moved to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, however, its scholarly aspects began to morph in two different directions. The New York curators wanted a smaller show, more tightly curated, where choices of images were made on the basis of their aesthetic quality, not their value as illustrations of ideas. The New York audience, on the other hand, wanted a Halloween party, and the media was more than happy to oblige. Articles and TV spots proliferated weeks before the show, emphasizing always the recreational aspects of ghost photography and the amusing credulity of our forebears; the opening featured green martinis bubbling over with dry ice, as well as projected spirits floating on the ceilings and ectoplasmic blobs climbing the walls; the crowds coming to see the show were the same ones who rush to see “Scream” at movie theatres (and they were disappointed by the small, documentary images, it must be said). When the exhibition traveled, it traversed more than the Atlantic Ocean. Its passage between nations and publics simultaneously altered its reception, and ultimately its meaning.

It is clear that the curators and authors of this project – Clement Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem and Sophie Schmit – were not surprised to see their work turn into a Rorschach test for cultural attitudes. Looking at occult photography with postmodern irony, the scholarly texts in the book describe iconographic pendulum swings throughout the history of this field that exactly conform to those experienced by The Perfect Medium itself. Knowing the polysemiotic playing field, they worked exceptionally hard to clarify and demystify their own aims and goals in the introduction to this exhaustive and fascinating book. Dividing their discussion into three sections – Photographs of Spirits, Photographs of Fluids (the vital force, the soul, and thoughts, feelings, dreams) and Photographs of Mediums – they refused to take the side of either the aesthetes who have collected and exhibited spirit photographs as art or the believers who have used them as proof of the reality of occult phenomena. Rather, they clearly adopted what they call the historian’s approach, which they describe (on page 14) as endowing these pictures with “a new potential function:…(to provide) useful information about…the history of human beings through the images they have made. Their photographic interest is thus overlaid with anthropological value…” For the authors, the book/catalogue The Perfect Medium became the repository of this information, and its aim – in spite of the projections of believers, aesthetics and entertainers alike – is to tell, as objectively as possible, the stories of the human beings who have used photography in the pursuit of knowledge about the hidden, the unseen and the unknown. Their experiments, their deceptions, their successes and scandals, are all grist for the mill here, and the result is a fascinating social history told through the evolution of a particular branch of Western imagery.

With its exhaustive scholarly accounts, its copious illustrations (of disembodied hands and ectoplasmic emissions, of levitating tables and mediums in the throes of possession, of auras and thought forms, to name only a few) and its clear and nuanced understanding of the changing fortunes of the occult throughout our history, the book in fact provides a much more valuable overview than the exhibition itself. This volume has been compiled by a number of well-known experts in the field; it will obviously serve as the foundation upon which further research on the subject will be built (and it must be said that studies involving non-Western cultures, and their use of photographic imagery, should be incorporated into this history soon. As it stands, this is a very one-sided story.) Stressing factual material and objective judgments, the authors have, with a straight face, told some hilarious stories of fraud and trickery, but also some astonishing tales of unexplainable feats and marvels.

Most of the images chosen date between 1870 and 1930 (when the most intense activity occurred in the intersection between photography and the occult), but the “thoughtography” created by the American psychic Ted Serios in the 1960s is included as well. Famous stories, like those of the Margery Mediumship and Conan Doyle’s Cottingley Fairies, are told and illustrated here, but so are fascinating accounts of the little known, and very important, trials of William Mumler, the first spirit photographer in America, and his European counterparts during the 19th century. Ultimately, the authors make it abundantly clear that what is on trial here is the true meaning of “belief,” whether it be cultural, political or metaphysical, and from this there is much to learn about both modern history and contemporary society.

That question of “belief,” of course, impacts on more than simply the question of immortality and the astral body. It also shapes our ideas about history, and about the nature of the objective world. One of the most fascinating trajectories described in the book is the movement, around the end of the 19th century, toward defining spirits themselves as thought forms: as projections of the medium’s memories and sensibilities rather than as independent and “real” beings. This attitude toward the unseen coincides directly with the movement, in photographic history at that time, away from the idea of documentary realism and toward the Pictorialists’ insistence that an art photograph is the trace not of the objective world but of the image-maker’s subjective vision of it.

This definition of artistic sensibility was born in England with Peter Henry Emerson, and it reached the shores of the New World through the repatriation of the young Alfred Stieglitz from Germany in the 1890s. But, like The Perfect Medium, the European concept of subjective vision changed shape when it arrived on American shores. Art photography in New York was defined by the conflict between the newly emerging mass culture and the elitist aspirations of Stieglitz’s Pictorialist circle; the emphasis on aesthetics and independent self-expression became the artists’ only protection against the incursion of Kodak cameras, amateurs, popular scientific curiosities and mass media reproductions. Art photography in Europe, on the other hand, continued to be fascinated with X-rays, animism and eventually psychoanalysis -- in other words, with the more scientific manifestations of the unseen, and the impact these have on aesthetic creation.

Because of these different emphases, the two continents have produced photographic histories that diverge at the end of the 19th century; the stories they tell are different. It is not surprising that all of the curators who organized The Perfect Medium are European-born, or that the French public received the information in a more knowledgeable, and less entertaining, way. These types of images already have a place in the European pantheon of human expression – a place that will be hard won in a country as materialistic and commercial as the USA, where their assertion of the value of what is hidden and unknown has little place in the historical narrative. In this sense, the imprimatur given to this material by a Yale University Press book and an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York is tantamount to a revolution in American thought. And it is a revolution that might bring the two continents closer, by opening up a fascinating dialogue about their divergent “beliefs” -- both toward the occult and toward the role of the photographic medium.

Copyright 2005 Shelley Rice.
Traduction française à paraître dans Etudes photographiques, n° 18, 2006.

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