Feature: Recently Read
The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult
by Ed Bateman
October is the time for spooks and ghosts and this book, produced in conjunction with a 2005 show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, is the prefect Halloween treat. The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult
is a collection of images of ghosts, spirits, and otherworldly manifestations. The majority of these images date from between 1870 and 1930, but there are a few as late as the 1970s. Rounding out the book is a collection of essays, which give a good background on the photographs, the people involved, and the beliefs of the times.
The authors take an historical approach to their subject matter but admit to being influenced by the esthetics of the photos in question. Indeed, many of the images have qualities that will appeal to a contemporary viewer. Although some of the images were originally created as proof of paranormal happenings, the authors go to lengths to state that "no defense or criticism of the occult will be found here." However, history alone condemns many of the people examined in this book.
With such a broad range of photographs represented, the authors organize their subject into three (admittedly) overlapping categories: Photographs of Spirits, Photographs of Fluids, and Photographs of Mediums. In the section on spirits, the ghosts were not visible to the participants but revealed through the properties of the camera and sensitized surface. Fluids recounts the history of depicting the souls and emanations of the living imprinted directly onto the film without the use of the camera. In the final category, Mediums made the spirit realm manifest and photographs were used to document - and hopefully validate - the phenomena the mediums were able to conjure up.
Photographs of Spirits
Soon after photography was introduced to the United States, a system of beliefs broadly called spiritualism swept the country. The essence of these beliefs was that spirits existed and could communicate and interact with the world of the living. Though popular, this view was considered quite radical and was opposed by both mainstream religion and the scientific community; perhaps the last time these two institutions would agree to join forces.
Although ghostly images were reported in photographs as early as the 1850s, the use of the camera to regularly depict spirits didn't begin strongly until the 1860s in the U.S. and the 1870s in Europe. It seems no coincidence that an interest in souls surviving death increases after wars.
From our contemporary vantage point, it is hard to imagine that these photographs were convincing. The sitter would go to the photographer and spirits, invisible at the time, would be revealed when the photograph was developed. This book presents a large collection of these images including Mrs. Lincoln and the spirit of her husband, the slain President, as well as many, many others. Nearly all of these photographs have a crude, amateurish quality. However, they often take on a touching aspect because we know that the sitters in these images had powerful hopes to make one last contact with their loved ones. Often the sitters would insist on the genuineness of the photograph in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The history of spirit photography is a poignant mixture of hope and fraud.
The Perfect Medium
also shows the work of some photographers who openly admitted the techniques in creating their photographs in hopes of revealing the deceptions of others. By the late 1880s, faking photographs of spirits was considered part of the repertoire of tricks that an interested amateur could indulge in. Especially fun is a contrived ghost photograph by a young Jacques Henri Lartigue.
Photographs of Fluids
This chapter has some of the most abstract and formally beautiful images in the book and many would not be out of place in a contemporary photo exhibit. These images were conceived of as scientific in origin and sprang from a belief in "animal magnetism." Originally, this was though to be a kind of fluid that animated life, much like an electromagnetic field. The discovery of X-Rays gave credence to the possibility of capturing undiscovered energies on film. Researchers using photography were soon crediting anomalies as depictions of the souls of the living. Thoughtography, as demonstrated by Ted Serios, was the ability of the human mind to imprint image directly onto film.
Photographs of Mediums
Mediums were alleged to have specific powers to bridge the gap between the world of spirits and the everyday, ordinary world. The photographs of mediums differ from those of spirits or fluids primarily in that they record the visible rather than the invisible. These images were used to document the mediums special powers and were used as (hopefully) compelling evidence. Here are photographs of levitations, transfigurations, and mysteriously produced objects and substances.
One of the strangest (and best documented) phenomena of this period was ectoplasm: a strange material "exuded" by various mediums. It is reported that during a séance, the medium would go into a trance and begin to produce "materializations." These were described as beginning as "cloud - or vapor-like shapes" that evolved into "extremely fine, membranous veils" and later into pseudopods occasionally revealing human forms. Albert von Schrenck-Notzin, one of the researchers of the day, felt that mediumistic activity was akin to the process of artistic creation. It is hard to imagine that the ability to regurgitate fabric would have such a powerful effect on people. Although filled with numerous examples, the cover of the book has a particularly wonderful instance. A gentleman in a bow tie leans back in a seeming state of ecstasy with what looks like a wrinkled rag draped around his head and tucked into the corned of his mouth.
It is surprising that when the possibility of fraud seemed likely, that true believers (often noted scientists) would go to great lengths to contrive convoluted rationales justifying the validity of the phenomenon. An example is when the noted medium that went by the name Eva C. was photographed with a cut out from a magazine clearly showing the title of the publication. The apologists claimed it was a manifestation of a magazine that the medium had previously seen and was projecting into physical form.
From a purely visual stand point, the images are tremendous. Some of my favorites are the ones depicting levitation. They have a spontaneous, unposed quality that seems unique for the time. This lends them a dynamic and believable feeling. They have a drama that comes from the seriousness of the creators in the face of the (seemingly) impossible.
No one is likely to have their beliefs in life after death challenged by this book - that is not its intention. But it is a great reminder of that spooky feeling that comes with telling ghost stories and the approach of Halloween. It is a reminder of how strongly we want our beliefs and hopes validated. And a reminder that right from the beginning, photography was seen as a plastic medium that has always tread the line between objective truth and visual imagination. I believe that any photograph is made better with the passing of time. And although photos can be faked, they are always historical documents and part of their power derives from that. The magic comes in their ability to create wonder and occasionally, a little shiver.
Exhibition Review: Provo
Candida Hofer: Architecture of Absence
by Jim Frazer
Occasionally, there is a place and time -- a school, a salon, a section of a city -- which seems to be a focus for more than its share of talented artists. One such place was the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf between 1973 and 1987. During that time, Bernd Becher was professor of photography and Candida Hofer, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Ruff, among others, were the students. Each of these students has followed their teacher to prominence in the international art scene. The work of each, though clearly different from the others, is just as clearly influenced by the work of Bernd Becher and his wife, Hilla, who work together as a team. The work of one of these students, Candida Hofer, is currently on exhibit at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art through January 6, 2007. This exhibit, which consists of 50 chromogenic prints spanning her 30-year career with a concentration on recent work, provides Utah a rare opportunity to see contemporary fine art photography from the international scene.
When I first saw the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, they seemed outside the familiar context of the American photographers I knew, so plain as to make Walker Evans appear romantic. Nine gray water towers arranged in a grid like a catalog. They were, in the museum I was visiting, hung next to a photograph by Hamish Fulton, the “walking artist” whose work is clearly conceptual in nature. The concept behind the stark, flatly lit, hulking relics of industrial architecture depicted in the Bechers’ photographs, however, is simply that they are making a catalog, or typology as they put it, of every kind of vanishing industrial structure: cooling towers, silos, lime kilns, blast furnaces, coal bunkers, gravel plants and many more. They are always the same size, the same shape, have the same tonal palette, and are arranged in the same, or a very similar way.
By contrast, Hofer’s photographs are in color, sometimes vivid, sometimes muted. The images in Candida Hofer: Architecture of Absence at the BYU MOA are mostly square depictions of architectural interiors. The subjects, especially the ornate interiors of European museums and libraries, often look unfamiliar to an eye accustomed to American interiors. The relationship of Candida Hofer’s work to that of her teacher Becher sometimes appears to be like that between the dull grey of the outside of a geode and the glittering crystals found inside it. For instance, in Spiegelkantine Hamburg IV 2000 (Employees Café for Der Spiegel magazine, Hamburg, Germany), orange pyramids grow from the ceiling towards the delicate wire mesh of the chairs below amidst dizzying patterns of repetitive wall and floor motifs.|0|
Despite their apparent slickness, these images are not taken like standard commercial photographs, which usually use elaborate lighting setups to make it seem as if you are seeing the room in natural light. Photographs such as Hofer’s, which really are taken with available light, show an entirely different relationship between the sources of illumination and the objects or spaces illuminated. Light sources become glowing presences, such as those hovering over the Bourse Du Travail Calais IV 2001 (Worker’s Stock Exchange, Calais, France).|1| Windows to the outside such as those in Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Venezia I 2003 (National Library Marciana, Venice, Italy) radiate light that destroys not only their frames but also the floor of the large hall facing the viewer.|2| The large statue in the foreground to the right seems to cover herself against the brilliance.
Both Hofer and the Bechers use a standardized, common viewpoint for all of their photographs. Although Hofer has many photographs of the same types of spaces - museums, libraries, etc. she does not create the kind of exhaustive typologies that the Bechers are known for. There is, though, a sameness to the approach to the spaces in all the photographs - uniform viewpoint; camera the same height above the floor, a straight on perspective - which allows the viewer to concentrate on the geometric interrelationships of the elements within them and the spaces which they define.
There seems an occasional touch of humor in the objects our attention is drawn to in the absence of people. In Porzellansammulung Dreseden II 2002 (Porcelain Museum, Dresden, Germany) the huge, white empty hall contains at the far end a menagerie of life size white porcelain animals, mostly dogs, peacocks and geese seemingly contained behind velvet ropes. |3| In the few works which do contain figures, such as BNF Paris XX 1998 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France/National Library of France, Paris, France) |4| one is temped to draw comparisons with the work of her fellow student Thomas Struth. Hofer’s figures, however, are clearly beside the point in the image, blurred out of recognition, dwarfed by the space, and literally blending into the furniture. The space is the subject matter.
Before going to see Candida Hofer’s exhibit, take a moment to check out the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Seeing work like Hofer’s in context will add to your experience of it. For a more formal approach (and a more expert opinion) Virginia Heckert, associate curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum and one of the curators of the exhibit will present a free lecture, "Contextualizing Candida Höfer's Architecture of Absence" on Friday, Oct. 13, 2006 from 7 to 8 p.m. in the Museum Auditorium. Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence represents a rare opportunity to see contemporary fine art photography from the international scene in Utah. The exhibit remains on view through January 6, 2007.
Organization Spotlight: Salt Lake City
New Programming at the Salt Lake Art Center
3 in 30:
This new lecture series is held the first Thursday of every month at noon and 4pm in the Center's auditorium.
In these bite-sized, 30-minute presentations Jim Edwards and Jay Heuman relate three artworks -- by the same artist, in the same medium or of the same subject or season -- with a focused glance and at a fast pace. October's 3 in 30 looks at Robert Taplin before his Five Outer Planets, and November's is titled "America's Army: Reality vs. Simulation."
The newest program at the Center, developed by members of its board, is an informal gathering and opportunity to learn more about an artist and his/her influences. The First ART Rumble features Tony Smith, long-time professor of art at the University of Utah, on Tuesday Oct. 10th at 3:00 PM. Smith will discuss his favorite art and artist and their impact on his own work. Coffee and cookies provided.