From September 27, 2005-December 31, 2005, the show “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,” was on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I attended the show in mid-November and must report that it does not cater to a rather specialized clientele. Rather, it is of interest to people of varied purpose- photographers, spiritualists, debunkers of spiritualists, scientists, historians, sociologists, and the downright curious. The place was packed with people of all ages, who were at least as interesting as the photographs. My impression? While it would appear at first blush to be nothing more than a historical novelty, it is much more.
Why would a photographer want to see this show?
From a photographic perspective, there are many images that prompt the photographer to think, “How did they DO that?” For example, the lightning between the woman’s fingertips.
But there are other images that cause one to one wonder who they were trying to kid. See for instance, the cutout fairies pasted onto the photo or the “levitating” chair featured in this article.
Was darkroom trickery invented the day after Daguerre made the first successful metal plate photo in 1839? Remembering that Photoshop was not extant, this begs the question: if it was okay to do this in the darkroom and have it perhaps considered art, why is digital photographic manipulation looked down upon by photographic purists? What were the purists saying about Man Ray at the height of his career? But I digress.
Why would others want to see this show?
The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult was essentially a history how advocates of spiritualism in the late 1800s, early 1900s tried to use photography to provide proof of the otherworldly: spirits of the dead, dreams, auras, and thoughts. An interesting use of the technology, as the Met reminds us that a unique characteristic of photography has always been its ability to record the visible, material world with truth and accuracy.
What was the exhibit like?
The show consists of loads of double-exposure parlor tricks of 1850s ghost photographs and scores of photos from public and private collections throughout Europe and North America. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the exhibit focused primarily on the period from the 1860s to World War II, when occult and paranormal phenomena were most actively debated and both supporters and skeptics used photographs as evidence. The photos are exhibited on their own terms, without judgment or comment on their authenticity. Along with the groups of lame photos of hands “floating” from between two curtains, there were several scientific sections. One showed electromagnetic emanations (Kirlian photography) captured on film, and another, radiographs (x-rays). Think of the skeptics Willhelm Roentgen must have had when he told the world about his discovery of x-rays in 1895!
During the unveiling of the science of photography, no one quite knew its capabilities. Could it document spiritual presence during a seance? Roentgen knew only that x-rays (he called them this because of their unknown origin) could be used to photograph the inside (bones) of a human. Was it really that far-fetched to believe that some other form of photography could document our thoughts? I’d like to leave this discussion by telling you what I heard a young woman tell her four-year-old daughter at the show: “…this was from before we knew any better.” Everyone starts out as an opening act. If the ridiculed phrenologists didn’t come up with their theories in the early 1800s, our later understanding of the functions of various lobes of the brain might not have happened the way it did. (For a fascinating account of this, see Stanley Coren’s book, The Left-Hander Syndrome.)
The naked spiritualist Eva C. -Juliette Alexandre-Bisson’s photographs of Eve C., the naked spiritualist introduces us to a great gimmick, if nothing else. Nothing up HER sleeve…! She’s featured on the cover of the book with the luminous apparition between her hands.
Ectoplasm – Sort of a milky or fabric-looking substance that allegedly exudes from the body of the medium and can be transformed into materialized limbs, faces and even the entire spirit bodies.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – There was a photograph showing Conan Doyle’s (author of the Sherlock Holmes stories) son Denis with his dead father’s likeness appearing above him. Conan Doyle was a true believer in spiritualism. The photo above, “Fairy Offering a Bouquet of Bluebells to Elsie,” was “authenticated” by Conan Doyle!
Parlor Tricks (My Favorite Photo!)
It was easy enough to create such an image on film with a box camera having a 10-second shutter speed-the “mortal” holds the pose and the “spirit” walks into the scene, pauses long enough to faintly materialize on film, then backs out. But think of how creative and difficult this must’ve been! Think of the outtake plates! As Georgia O’Keeffe (1977) said: “The cliffs over there, you look at it and it’s almost painted for you, you think until you try.”
Is the show worth seeing?
The 120 stunning and surprising works in this exhibition reflect an attempt to reconcile the physical and spiritual worlds. Much of the show as well as the book, deliver sometimes beautiful photographs of us – people – and what we sometimes believe. You really never experience anything without learning something new!
Albert Von Schrenck-Notzing (Germany, May 17, 1912)
The medium Eva C., cover of book The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.
Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright (British, 1908-1986 and 1901-1988)
Fairy Offering a Bouquet of Bluebells to Elsie, 1920
Edouard Isidore Buguet (French, b. 1840)
Fluidic Effect, 1875
Eugene Thiebault (French, b. 1825)
Henri Robin and a Specter, 1863