Photography and the Occult

03 October 2005

“There’s a lot of people,” she said, “dead people, who don’t want to go where they’re supposed to go, you know?”

By Kate Hawley

Theodor Prinz, “Ghost”

Journalism about the occult usually files under “news of the weird.” But the opening of a new exhibition of photographs at the Metropolitan Museum last week has faced the press with an unusual task: to grapple with the paranormal as a spiritual and cultural practice. While they praise the exhibition, most critics misunderstand it.

The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult” features 120 photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries in roughly three categories: images of ghosts (white, transparent images that often hover over the shoulders of their living relatives), pictures of mediums at work, and photographs of bodily fluids thought to give off spiritual emanations. The Met has avoided declaring the photographs fakes except in cases where there is demonstrable proof, leaving viewers —- and critics —- to question their veracity and interpret their meanings.

The New York Times pronounced the exhibition comedy. “Hands down it’s the most hilarious, not to mention the most charming, exhibition the museum has done in years,” wrote the critic Michael Kimmelman. The New York Post’s James Gardner takes a similar tack, saying, “all but a handful of visitors, surely, will come to this exhibition to laugh at the kitschy, campy nonsense that it portrays.”

A few of the pictures were taken for comic effect, and many others are unintentionally funny. In one image, a medium dramatically pulls back a curtain to reveal a ghost that is obviously a cardboard cut-out. Images like these produced a few incredulous chuckles from onlookers when I went to the exhibition. But focusing purely on the silliness is a mistake. These photographs reveal a great deal about their time, and our own.

Maggie and Kate Fox

Kimmelman suggests that the exhibition is “sneakily serious,” but he declines to explain how, except through general assertions like, “the exhibition’s deeper subject is the dreamer in all of us,” and that “art is a wonderment defying logic.” Leslie Camhi of The Village Voice reveals a sharper understanding of the photographs’ psycho-sexual dramas, pointing out that there are “multiple strains of desire coursing through these pictures.” For example, to prevent any slight of hand, a German doctor and criminologist named Albert von Schrenck-Notzing photographed female mediums naked or sewn into tight leotards and hoods that covered their faces — rendering them, in effect, like fetish objects. One image, called “Birth of Ectoplasm,” shows a cloudy, white substance emerging from a mass of dark curly hair, the context shrouded by black curtains.

Supernatural power funneled through the corporeal world —- and the body —- is bound to raise questions about gender and sexuality. It’s no accident that the first proponents of spiritualism, the belief that spirits of the dead can speak to the living, were two women, the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York. With its opportunity for dramatic self-expression, spiritualism capitalized on so-called feminine qualities — subjectivity and sensitivity — and at the same time transcended them by taking women into the public sphere and making them arbiters of divine power. The Fox sisters’ spiritualist powers lent them fame and influence far beyond the women of their time and station.

There was a healthy market for their brand of belief. The exhibition labels connect the popularity of spiritualism to the Civil War, when many were anxious to speak to their loved ones from beyond the grave. Kimmelman says that spiritualism is experiencing a resurgence in our time—through books and TV dramas like Supernatural, Ghost Whisperer, and The Medium.Could our current war, and the specter of terrorism, be responsible for the current pop culture preoccupation with talking to the dead? The New Republic’s Lee Siegel thinks so. “Thanks a lot, Al Qaeda, for among other things, ruining the fall season,” he writes. “We now share with Islamic fanatics an all-consuming desire to escape into fantastical imaginings of the Beyond.”

Eugene Thiebault
“Henri Robin and a Spector”

But we can’t blame it all on Osama. Spiritualism gained popularity because it addressed a range of cultural anxieties, from war to sexuality and advances in science and technology. When spirits spoke to the Fox sisters, they did so through telegraph code —- what was at the time brand new, and unsettling, technology. In her review of the exhibition in Newsday, Ariella Budick writes that, “Science and spiritualism occupy separate zones of our experience.” Wrong. Though modern science may reject it, spiritualism relies for its very definition on scientific ideas. Even today, spiritualists describe the movement of spirits as radio waves.

Because it incorporated emerging scientific ideas, spiritualism was, in its heyday, a liberal, progressive religion with faith in the future. And photography, a new medium in the 19th century, carried the weight of documentary truth in a way that no longer does in the age of Photoshop. Still, most critics take the anachronistic view that only the credulous and foolish would believe these photographs. And so many writers who tackled “The Perfect Medium,” perhaps afraid to be tainted by gullibility, missed the aesthetic and historical understanding that illuminates belief.

And there are believers, or at least those willing to suspend disbelief. When I saw “The Perfect Medium,” the exhibition hall was packed, and because the pictures are for the most part very small, people stood close to them, and to each other. It was hushed, and although there were a few laughers, there were a great many more who gave the pictures reverent attention. Two young women murmured to each other about ghost stories they’d heard. “The most convincing stories I’ve heard have been on battlefields,” said one. These weren’t crackpots. They turned out to be graduate students in journalism at NYU. Another young man in a Hawaiian shirt furrowed his brow and said to the girl with him, “Part of me was hoping this would have that one photo that was like, hmmm. But none of these are like, hmmm.” And as I bought the exhibition catalog, the saleswoman, looked at me and said, “You don’t want to get too scared, eh?” I asked if she believed in ghosts. She’d never seen one, but she knew people who had. “There’s a lot of people,” she said, “dead people, who don’t want to go where they’re supposed to go, you know?”

Cue creepy music. Kimmelman and others are right to point out the strangeness of believing in ghosts and the even greater strangeness of trying to prove their existence on film. But the strangeness isn’t the story. It’s merely the hook that draws us towards a deeper understanding of our history, our desires and our fears, towards something that may be, when we come to understand it, not strange at all, but human — even familiar.

Kate Hawley is a graduate student at New York University and an assistant editor of The Revealer. Her last piece for The Revealer was “Dobson Antichrist.”

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