Photography and spirit
by Tom Ruffles
[ strangeness | bookreviews ]
The last couple of years have seen a spate of books on photography and the paranormal: the magisterial The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (2005), produced to accompany an international touring exhibition that shamefully failed to reach the UK, despite drawing on numerous English sources for its content; Martyn Jolly's Faces of the Living Dead (2006); and Melvyn Willin's Ghosts Caught on Film (2007). Now they are joined by John Harvey's Photography and Spirit, and the immediate question has to be: do we need another book on the subject?
The answer turns out to be a resounding 'yes' because Harvey has taken an interesting approach. Rather than adopt a straight chronology tracking spirit photography in its various manifestations, or a thematic examination grouping images according to type, or just a random anthology, he has looked at the subject from three perspectives which he argues were the most significant domains of 19th- and early 20th-century culture and thought, namely religion, science and art. Contemporary debates surrounding spirit photography highlighted tensions between them, in particular the first two, and a consideration of all three helps to provide a rounded picture of the phenomenon.
He begins by looking at representations of spirits before the advent of spirit photography, showing how they varied according to prevailing cultural norms and the physical characteristics of the materials used, and how tropes from earlier periods were carried over to photographic depictions of spirits. Thus steel-plate engraving from the 1820s allowed a delicacy of line that enabled spirits to be portrayed with an ethereal texture not possible with coarser woodcuts, and this style evolved into the type of depiction seen in spirit photography later in the century. There were other visual influences, however, and these are touched on briefly, for example the magic lantern and the Phantasmagoria. The advantage of photography over other forms of illustration is that the supposed indexical link between event and record provides evidence of the phantom's veridicality. As Harvey puts it, spirit photographs publicised phenomena hitherto the preserve of the sťance room, making them the "visual propaganda of Spiritualism".
Harvey's particular strengths are expertise in art history, and a good grasp of the religious situation in the 19th century. He deftly sketches the theological background to the rise of spirit photography, locating spiritualism within the ferment of religious ideas swirling around Europe and North America. Roman Catholicism tended to eschew imagery that might be construed as endorsing the notion of direct communication between the living and their dead relatives, concentrating instead on documentary-style pictures of visionaries having visions. Harvey suggests that this was because the Roman Catholic hierarchy felt that it was not wise to associate the phenomenon with photography, given the problems with fraud that spirit photographs caused to spiritualism; but while this is most likely true, another issue would be the doctrinal emphasis on the dead resting until the Day of Judgment, which contradicted the idea that the two realms could interact. Other strands of Christianity exhibited no such qualms, and spirit photography fitted into both the traditions of retaining personal items associated with the dead as mementos and, what seems macabre to us in our sanitised age, taking photographs of dead bodies.
Harvey sees a strong link between relics and spirit photography, and shows a 17th-century painting of The Veil of St Veronica alongside a photograph by Fred Barlow of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures apparently of Ada Deane, her face semi-obscured behind a veil of 'ectoplasm'. (Conan Doyle did not run the SSSP, as Harvey says and is commonly thought; rather, Fred Barlow was Hon. Secretary and Conan Doyle became a vice-president at his invitation.) Another example of a striking similarity is a photograph by Mrs Deane herself taken during the 1924 Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph, crowded with the faces of dead servicemen, alongside a composite picture featuring 74 famous Welsh preachers (doubtless a drop in the bucket), which for Harvey shows the influence of Deane's working-class Protestant visual culture, presumably a culture little enamoured of veronicas. (Even so, it suggests a degree of cultivation at odds with Estelle Stead's patronising portrait of Deane - "a pleasant little woman" - in her 1925 book, from which Jolly lifted his own title, Faces of the Living Dead: Remembrance Day Messages and Photographs.) It is always difficult to know for sure in such cases whether correspondences are conscious, unconscious or arise simply by chance, but they are certainly intriguing. Either way, Harvey is able to show how the appearance of spirits in photographs was affected by conventions developed in paintings on Christian themes, and which in turn fed into later representations - or at least interpretations - of religious beings such as Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, who are sometimes caught on camera and generally identifiable by their inner glow.
Moving on to his second strand, Harvey examines the relationship between spirit photography and science. He covers some of the same ground as Jeffrey Sconce's Haunted Media, showing how spirit communication was seen as an analogue of technological advances (most notably the Spirit Telegraph), what Harvey calls the 'simultaneous spiritualization of science and "'scientification' of Spiritualism". The latter was probably more in evidence than the former, however hard scientists like Alfred Russel Wallace, William Crookes and Sir Oliver Lodge might try. So, for example, Harvey mentions W T Stead's view of Edison's phonograph and kinetograph as a possible means of recording hauntings. Actually, Edison, a believer in life after death, actively speculated about technology that would allow communication between worlds. (Harvey gives no volume number and the wrong year for the Stead article; it is in volume 2 of Borderland, 1895, not 1894.)
Spiritualists themselves were happy to adopt scientific terminology, such as 'ether' and 'fluidic substance', although they were building on a foundation laid by the mesmerists, with their talk of electro-biology and magnetism. It enabled them to distance themselves from religious tenets by allowing them to argue that they did not have to rely on faith, as their evidence, as they saw it, proved the continuation of life after death. In terms of photography, scientists used cameras to document séance proceedings, such as Crookes with Florence Cook and Baron Albert von Schrenck-Notzing with Eva C. Other researchers too adopted a scientific approach, such as Tomokichi Fukurai, who coined the term thoughtography. Also included are examples of Kirlian and aura photography, tangential to the theme of the book but both beautiful and pushing the boundaries of photography.
At the same time that photography was capturing laboratory phenomena, spirit photography - that is, studio photographs with extras - was in decline, its products increasingly crudely produced. Critics, too, were sharper, better able to spot the sources of images incorporated in spirit photographs and how the photographs were stitched together, using the science that spirit photographers had hoped to co-opt for their own ends. Showing how much more relevant to life in the twentieth century science was compared to religion, the chapter on religion peters out some time in the early part of the century, apart from one picture from 1973 featuring an alleged demon on a little girl's shoulder. The one on science however proceeds to recent years, covering Uri Gellar, Jule Eisenbud, who worked with Ted Serios, and the Scole group in Norfolk, subject of an exhaustive 1999 issue of The Society for Psychical Research's Proceedings, by Montague Keen, Arthur Ellison and David Fontana (which Harvey doesn't cite, though he does mention the more popular book on the subject by Grant and Jane Solomon.)
The final section, on art, looks at photography as one among a number of methods used by mediums to convey information from the world of spirit, others including painting and drawing as well as audition, automatic writing, planchette and psychographs (in the sense of spirit writing rather than the dial planchette). This chapter comes closest to a chronological survey of spirit photography, referencing such practitioners as David Duguid, Georgiana Houghton, Robert Boursnell, William Hope and the Crewe Circle, and others. It draws interesting parallels between spirit photography and what was happening in the world of art, particularly painting and non-spirit photography (including magic lantern slides), showing similarities in composition and style. Depictions of dreams or visions in paintings (and early films), for example, were often shown inset in a way that echoed the appearance of spirit extras. The Cottingley photographs are also discussed, the fairies bearing a marked resemblance to the productions of Arthur Rakcham and Edmund Dulac, and which were eventually shown to derive from illustrations by Claude Shepperson in Princess Mary's (not May's) Gift Book.
There is a lengthy section on the legacy of A Christmas Carol and other supernatural tales by Charles Dickens, and the illustrations that they inspired. Harvey has once again found two pictures that side-by-side show a remarkable correlation, this time a picture by John Tenniel, 'Redlaw and doppelganger', produced to illustrate Dickens's The Haunted Man, and a photograph of Mrs Deane and her double, in each case a phantom version shown leaning over the living counterpart from behind. There is an engraving of Dickens published after his death, surrounded by his characters in much the same way that dead soldiers later surrounded the Cenotaph, or like a parade of Welsh preachers for that matter, and there are other examples of spirit photographs showing multiple heads surrounding the sitter.
Coming up to date, spirit photography can be seen as a more direct source for artists to plunder, and it is clear that any correlations are now indeed conscious. Thus a 1909 photograph by Edward Wyllie of a sitter with an extra's head superimposed on his stomach prefigures a similar photomontage by Hannah Hoch in 1931. The use made by Francis Bacon of spirit photography is mentioned, though not his copy of Schrenck Notzing's Phenomena of Materialisation which, with the illustrations heavily manipulated, was found in his studio after his death. There is a brief examination of the work of Zoe Beloff, which is clearly related to séance room phenomena, for example her installation The Ideoplastic Materialisation of Eva C. This is an interest that is perhaps not surprising given that her father was John Beloff, one of the most distinguished psychical researchers of the late twentieth century. To round off his survey, Harvey considers how anomalous images from the pocket camera, the webcam and the camera phone take the paranormal picture out of the sťance room and studio and into the hands of everyday folk, though in a way the results are just as magical as the first pictures by the pioneer spirit photographers.
He concludes with Roland Barthes's influential book Camera Lucida. Barthes meditates on a photograph of his deceased mother and how we view portrait photographs. The subjects in them will die, but in a sense the dead appear to be still alive. For Harvey, the function is the same in spirit photographs, even though they were never evidence for the existence of spirits in themselves. As products that reflected the concerns and anxieties of the age, they have to be seen through the prism of beliefs and attitudes in other areas of life. He does not draw out the eroticism that for viewers now surrounds photographs of such mediums as Kathleen Golligher, Mina Crandon ('Margery'), neither of whom, sadly, is present here, and Eva C. This is perhaps because it does not readily fit into his tripartite scheme, or because the publishers limit the number of illustrations in this series to 80 or so. But overall, Harvey has done an excellent job in outlining how the three domains fed into the phenomenon of spirit photography, and how its fascination endures.