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“The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult”
A Special Exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
On View from September 27, 2005–December 31, 2005

Reviewed by Erin L. Mallay

  Eugène Thiébault (French, b. 1825)
Henri Robin and a Specter, 1863
Albumen silver print; 22.9 x 17.4 cm
Collection Gérard Lévy, Paris

If someone told you they had a picture of a ghost and asked you if you wanted to see, would you decline, stating, “No silly, I don’t believe in ghosts?” Of course not— you wouldn’t say so until after you saw the picture. But even if you are totally convinced the picture is a hoax, even if you tell yourself you are an intelligent, educated person living in the twenty first century, could you really convince yourself there’s no such thing? Isn’t it more fun if it is possible?

That’s probably the sentiment that would get you to visit “The Perfect Medium: Photography of the Occult” exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this fall. Well, that’s what got me there, anyway.

Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright (British, 1908–1986 and 1901–1988)
Fairy Offering a Bouquet of Bluebells to Elsie, 1920
Gelatin silver print; 15 x 10 cm
Fonds Camille Flammarion, Société Astronomique de France, Paris

While gazing at tiny photographs that seemed to scream out to me of double exposures and cheap parlor tricks, my first reaction was, “Jeez, turn of the century folk sure were dumb; I could fake better pictures of ghosts with a Polaroid and some inventive lighting.” It only took a few more seconds to realize that exhibition wasn’t so much ridiculing the credulous nature of those unlucky enough to be born into a world yet to be oversaturated by a bombardment of media (suckers). Instead, it turned out the show was a rather fascinating examination of society’s fixation with the unknown at an important moment in the course of technological advancement—an advancement seemingly dedicated to the pursuit and documentation of truth.

The advent of photography coincided, or perhaps brought with it, a refreshed fervor for the occult. Always poplar just outside the scope of proper or mainstream society, the occult, the paranormal, the mystical and the supernatural represent a somewhat creepy side of the human capacity for curiosity and wonder. And we, collectively, have always been pretty excited by the prospect of seeing the unseen and knowing the unknown. So it’s not surprising that photographers specializing in the portraiture of deceased relatives and other ghosts managed to make a living in the cities of turn of the century Europe and America.

The first section of the exhibition focused on this fad, displaying dozens on tiny prints that featured the ephemeral shades or specters of the formless. The small scale of early photography lent itself nicely to the intimate nature of these images, inviting viewers to lean in closely and whisper in hushed tones, as if the spirits that haunted the Victorian studios still lingered in the galleries. The second section dealt with the documentation of “vital fluids” believed to emanate from certain individuals, like auras or psychic powers. A fascinating use of the mechanical process of photographic developing, these images tested the boundaries and capabilities of the medium, employing them in inventive ways and producing eerie, arcane and even beautiful pictures. The séances and mystical activities of mediums featured in the third section were mostly documented as part of a scientific pursuit either to support or debunk supernatural claims. These images were perhaps the most exiting, exhibiting thrilling, more kinetic phenomenon and harboring the juiciest back stories regarding their subject matter.

Theodor Prinz (German, act. 1900s)
Ghost, ca. 1900
Gelatin silver print; 22.8 x 17 cm

For occult enthusiasts, photography seemed to be the perfect means of studying a field characterized by its intangible temperament. Photography was a super-prosthetic for the human eye; it could enhance the human ability to see by freezing a single, elusive moment onto a physical plane for the purpose of infinite examination. So is it really such a far stretch to believe it could also capture the form of those things without physicality that surely live amongst us in our empirical world? Isn’t it our best tool in our quest to divulge the unknown, a task about which humanity has always felt so strongly? Interestingly enough, humanity, it seems, has also felt particularly strongly regarding the opportunity to exploit other people for financial gains. It kind of makes you wonder, is human genius at its strongest when it is trying to discover or understand the nature of the unknown, or when it is trying to dupe some people out of their money? Either way, the bounds of creativity, technical finesse and scientific ambition seem limitless as seen through these photographs.

The curators’ choice to “present the photographs on their own terms, without authoritative comment on their veracity,” is the crux of the exhibition, the objectivity that which makes it such an interesting and powerful endeavor. Whether or not you believe the photographs to be factual representations of the invisible and immaterial world of the supernatural (and the simplistic and formulaic composition of some of the images along with an inherent distrust in the medium of photography may push one toward the skeptical side of the debate) is completely irrelevant. The point is lots of people did believe them, and continued to believe them even after famous occult photographers were publicly debunked or discredited.

Maybe in the end, the exhibition’s impartiality over the authenticity of the photographs, even their surprising reluctance to employ words such as “authentic,” gave the show the ever so subtle creepy quality that managed to pervade this viewer’s entire experience—a proverbial shrugging of shoulders and raising of eyebrows, “It could be fake, or, you know, it could be real…”

Regardless, it is an appropriately intellectual take on some Halloween fun at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and certainly well worth the visit.

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