The Perfect Medium:
Photography and the Occult
|A Special Exhibition Review by Stan Parchin|
About the show:
From the middle of the Nineteenth Century through well after World War II, photography was used to record the real world as well as aspects of the paranormal. During its infancy, individuals found ways to manipulate photography, making ghosts, auras, psychic phenomena and the like manifest themselves in pictures. Addressing this subject is The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, a very cleverly titled and compact special exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The influence of Spiritualism and science on photography from the 1860s to the 1960s is explored through more than 120 works on paper. The Perfect Medium... is displayed in the renamed Hariette and Noel Levine Gallery and the Howard Gilman Gallery on The Met's second floor.
The belief that the spirit exists beyond the human body, and that the dead can communicate with the living, were two basic tenets of the Spiritualist movement. Its origins traced back to the 1850s, Spiritualism gave rise to the development of spirit photography, pioneered by American William H. Mumler (1832-1884) in 1860s Boston. His photographic techniques soon spread to London and Paris.
Of course, Spiritualism's devotees attracted those who sought to debunk their beliefs. One such detractor was the French illusionist Henri Robin, who performed in a mid-nineteenth-century Parisian theater. Robin openly admitted to using two-way mirrors to make spirits appear magically on the stage during his "phantasmagorical" feats. In Henri Robin and a Specter (1863), a promotional image for his show, Eugène Thiébault (born 1825) photographed the illusionist. In the print, Robin is frightened from behind by a heinous ghostly apparition, replete with its cold skeletal visage. Thiébault achieved the heart-stopping visual effect of the performer's pernicious pursuit by a dastardly diabolical demon through his intentional use of double exposure. A stroke of genius in the picture's composition is the empty hourglass on top of Robin's table, suggesting that with the ghost's appearance, the magician's time on Earth has run out.
Eugène Thiébault (French, born 1825)
Henri Robin and a Specter, 1863
Albumen silver print
22.9 x 17.4 cm
Collection of Gérard Lévy, Paris
Despite the protests of the few, popular fascination with Spiritualism and spirit photography continued to soar dramatically after periods of war, especially when people sought desperately to contact their deceased loved ones. This occurred most noticeably after the American Civil War (1861-1865), the bloody Paris Commune of 1871 and World War I (1914-1918) in Great Britain and parts of Europe.
Spirit photography's popularity received a serious boost in 1880s France with the development of a new emulsion and the rapidly growing number of amateur photographers. One of the eeriest pictures from this period is The Ghost of Bernadette Soubirous (ca. 1890). Soubirous (1844-1879) was a sickly, French farm girl from rural Lourdes. She experienced eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary during her lifetime. By virtue of her simple and holy life, Bernadette was canonized, making her a saint of the Catholic Church in 1933. In the show's haunting print, the viewer sees a garden outside of a building, perhaps religious in nature. The spectral image of a young woman, draped in a white robe and veil, peacefully proceeds to the left-hand side of the composition. Repeated five times with each impression becoming fainter, the "saint" gradually dissolves into the brick façade ahead, providing a convincing picture of Bernadette's fleeting spirit, staged and photographed well after her death.
Unknown Artist, French School
The Ghost of Bernadette Soubirous, ca. 1890
Albumen silver print
5.8 x 9.5 cm
Collection of Keith de Lellis, New York
Early twentieth-century Spiritualists sought to reconcile the intangible and corporeal worlds through séances. Scientific inquiry into psychic phenomena was all the rage at the time. And photography was employed to record manifestations of the spiritual world. An interesting picture of The Medium Eva C.... (1912) clearly demonstrates this point. Eva C., a questionable psychic, was investigated by the German psychologist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing (1862-1929). In the doctor's amusing photograph, a gentleman is transfixed by an ectoplasmic bright light that appears horizontally between the medium's outstretched hands. Here photography played a significant role in capturing a seemingly occult phenomenon for the believing viewer to behold.
Albert von Schrenck-Notzing (German, 1862-1929)
The Medium Eva C. with a Materialization on
Her Head and a Luminous Apparition
Between Her Hands, 1912
Gelatin silver print
24 x 18 cm
Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und
Psychohygiene, Freiburg im Breisgau
The Perfect Medium... concludes with examples of fluidic photography, a visual art form cultivated after the discovery of X-rays in 1896. In the show, images of flattened palms radiating light, produced purely by body heat, are interesting to observe. However, they were soon dismissed by scientists as accidents of the photographic process. Photography gracefully meets the seemingly paranormal in this unconventional, small-scale special exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
About the catalogue:
Chéroux, Clément, et al. The Perfect Medium:
Photography and the Occult (exh. cat.).
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
This oversized 288-page tome allows seven scholars to examine various aspects of the supernatural in the history of photography.
"The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult" is on view from September 27 through December 31, 2005 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue at 82 Street, New York, NY 10028 (Telephone: 212-535-7710; Website: www.metmuseum.org). The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday from 9:30 AM to 5:30 PM and Friday and Saturday from 9:30 AM to 9:00 PM. SUGGESTED admission is $15.00 for adults. Paid parking is available in The Museum Garage.
From your Guide: Stan Parchin, Senior Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in ancient, late-medieval and Renaissance art and history. His interests include: the art and culture of Old and New Kingdom Egypt; the Italian and Northern Renaissances; Church history; and witchcraft, heresy and social dissent in late-medieval and early Modern Europe.
See all Special Exhibition and Catalogue Reviews from Stan Parchin.