In the 1870s, the first French spirit photographer, Édouard Isidore Buguet, operated “a little industry turning out ghosts” (as one chronicler called it) from his Parisian studio. After a long wait, with his client finally settled, Buguet would enter the room in a trance, perform a series of incantations and magnetic passes over the camera, place his head in his hands, and groan. At last a portrait was taken: When developed, it sometimes showed spectral beings invisible to the naked eye, hovering near the sitter. The beloved features of a drowned brother, a deceased wife or child might be discerned among their veiled and swirling forms.
Buguet was convicted of fraud in 1875; during his sensational trial, he confessed to using double exposures and jointed, cloaked dummies to create his illusions. Yet despite these admissions, many of his clients persisted in recognizing in his pictures the faces of their lost relations. Buguet had provided them with consolations too deep to be denied.
“The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,” a rich and fascinating exhibition organized by the Metropolitan Museum and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, explores the fertile cross-pollination of two beliefs: faith in the spirit world and in the power of photography to capture hitherto unknown reaches of experience. Its curators, Pierre Apraxine, Sophie Schmit, and at the Metropolitan, Mia Fineman, have focused mostly on the period from the 1860s to the 1940s, following the great waves of spiritualist practice that arrived in the wake of mounting casualties from conflicts such as the Civil War, the Paris Commune, and World War I.
Photography, at the beginning of this era, was a relatively new technology; its powers seemed magical and its promise was largely untested. Might it be mobilized to capture the ever encroaching army of the dead, to summon the precious and irrefutable evidence so many longed for of their continued existence beyond the grave?
For skeptical observers, photography appeared to offer an unparalleled tool of investigation. Where exactly were the medium’s hands when the table began to levitate? Was that viscous substance pooling between her legs really ectoplasm? And what about the curious resemblance between the white-robed figure who suddenly materialized in mid-séance, claiming to be the daughter of a 17th-century pirate, and the medium supposedly lying spellbound in the next room? The camera’s glare (so “disturbing” to the spirits that they would sometimes signal, by mysterious knocks etc., just when the shutter should be clicked) brought a bit of the hard light of day to bear upon things glimpsed in the pale red illumination the mediums often preferred, when the very curtains seemed to tremble with queer animation.
Eminent scientists and cultural authorities, as well as ordinary folk, could be found on both sides of this debate. (No less a figure than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of that icon of logic Sherlock Holmes, was one of spiritualism’s most passionate advocates.) And photography would prove to be a most ambivalent witness. Darkroom antics—double-or over-exposures, Rayograms, and the like—could lend the appearance of authenticity to all manner of phantoms, auras, vital fluids, etc., but they also made every picture suspect. Had it been manipulated?
What seemed convincing in the febrile ambience of a séance could appear in photographs oddly artificial—you’d suddenly notice, for example, the uncanny similarity between a fin de siécle faerie and a magazine illustration or between ectoplasm and cheesecloth smeared with goose fat. And yet nearly any picture, when stared at intently enough, can make you doubt your senses. Alone in the chilly galleries while this show was being installed, I gazed fixedly at a photograph documenting the table used for séances at the Institut General Psychologique in 1906, until I almost felt an icy hand upon my shoulder.
“The Perfect Medium” is best enjoyed in the state of suspended disbelief its curators have worked hard to cultivate, though a minority will undoubtedly find confirmation here for their wildest conjectures. (Consider the case of Ted Serios, for example, a Chicago elevator attendant who, in the 1960s, discovered his still unexplained ability to project his thoughts onto the film in a Polaroid camera.)
Others will be distracted by the multiple strains of desire coursing through these pictures, like those taken by the turn-of-the-century German doctor and criminologist who liked to photograph his comely female mediums stark naked or tightly stitched—à la the Marquis de Sade—into hooded black leotards, ostensibly to prevent trickery. And still others will find in photographs like one Parisian neurologist’s nearly abstract records of “digital effluvia”—made by pressing fingers into wet negative plates—an astral beauty.
Mostly though, these documents of collaborations between observers and the observed remind us that photography’s natural province was once the strange and marvelous. The big Cibachromes that have spread like the plague across the art world in recent years, all bulked up like athletes on steroids, have largely lost their ability to astound us. To have restored this power to photography, however briefly, is a gift.