Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Ghost in the Darkroom with Flusser

In Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Flusser writes of how photography was invented when historical thinking was at its peak in its struggle against the image (human thinking was increasingly rational as opposed to magical - images being regarded as having transcendental or eternal properties), and popular understanding of the world as a historical march was both widespread and cheap (due to popular, cheaply printed texts on the subject). Photography then reinvigorated the image, at once retaining the said magical aspects of the image while maintaining an objective facade: Flusser writes that viewers see them "not as images but as windows", "symptoms of the world through which it is to be perceived."

This review of a New York show of spectral and occult photography touches on elements of this struggle between historical and magical thought, using the "magic" of the image as evidence of other more explicit sorts of magic.

The Ghost in the Darkroom - New York Times: "...The 120 pictures in the exhibition are by turns spooky, beautiful, disturbing and hilarious. They are also, by and large, the visual records of decades of fraud, cons, flimflams and gullibility - though there are also some pictures, like those produced by an eccentric Chicago bellhop, Ted Serios, said to be purely from his thoughts, in the 1960's, that have never been adequately explained.

...The pictures are a window onto a bizarre, and almost forgotten, period of American and European history, when the camps of spiritualism and strict rationality battled it out on the front pages of newspapers. The 1869 fraud trial of William Mumler, a Boston and New York photographer who was the first known practitioner of spirit photography, became a public spectacle. The mayor of New York himself ordered an investigation into his practices, and P. T. Barnum testified for the prosecution, speaking as the Amazing Randi of his day. But Mumler had many defenders. His patrons included Mary Todd Lincoln, who visited him after her husband's assassination; she took away a photo that shows his ghostly form standing behind her. (Mumler was acquitted at his trial, but discredited, suspected of manipulating photo plates.)

Spirit photography began in a typically American burst of entrepreneurship, and for this reason serious European spiritualists were slow in joining. One wrote that while the United States had taken the lead in many things, it had also 'left us far behind in the invention of false rumors.' But the practice soon took off in France and England, and produced groups whose names seemed to be lifted right from the pages of H. G. Wells or J. K. Rowling: the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, the British College of Psychic Science, the Occult Committee of the Magic Circle.

By World War II interest had peaked, but the exhibition makes clear that it has never really gone away. The show includes some of the famous Polaroid images produced by Mr. Serios, who claimed to be able to project his thoughts onto film and whose work remains one of the best documented and most hotly debated cases in the field. Even today, fascination with the practice is widespread, aided by video technology and the Internet - just type the words 'ghost hunter' into Google and you can find thousands of examples of contemporary images purporting to show otherworldly emanations."

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