Earlier Photography And The Esoteric Camera Obscura

Chris Webster

Chris Webster

References to the iconography of the magical and strange are widespread in the history of photographic image making. Indeed, even in the pre-history of photography, early experimenters with the camera obscura had used this seemingly esoteric reproduction of the living as a tool of entertainment, illusionism and theatricality. For example, the Jesuit priest, Rosicrucian, and alchemist Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) documented many types of methods for experimenting with camera obscura phenomena, also effectively developing and describing the uses of a magic lantern (modernly called a projector).

Athanasius Kircher noted experimentations with a projection (he claimed to have been able to project letters up to five hundred feet) and at night, he projected slogans or figures onto the windows of the houses opposite his own (there were paper windows in Rome then). Athanasius Kircher thought it important for the conversion of unbelievers to project images of the devil, as a warning to them.

Similarly, in Johann Spies’ (1540-1607) Volksbuch (1587), Johann Spies mentions Johann Fausten’s (1480-1540) use of a “magical mirror” for the entertainment of his students. Johann Fausten was for some years at Erfurt, in Germany, and lectured at the University of Erfurt.

On one occasion when he is lecturing on Homer, the student’s request him to conjure up the ancient heroes of Greece. He promises to do so at the next lecture, which is consequently fully attended.

The heroes duly appear in their armour — Menelaus, Achilles, Hector, Priam, Alexander, Ulysses, Ajax, Agamemnon and others, followed by the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, who looks as though he would like to devour one or two of the students.

The development of silver photography itself was presaged in the period up to the invention by presentiments of its arrival that related to the mysteries of alchemy and the occult. In 1727, Johann Heinrich Schulze (1684-1744) professor of anatomy at the University of Altdorf, in Germany, attempted to recreate an experiment first made by the physical alchemist Christoph Adolph Balduin (1623-1682) in 1674.

Christoph Adolph Balduin had dissolved chalk (calcium carbonate) in nitric acid, this then formed another substance called calcium nitrate. The interesting property of this substance for Christoph Adolph Balduin was that it was deliquescent, that is, it absorbed moisture from the air. Believing he was close to acquiring the Philosopher’s Stone, he discovered that the substance glowed in the dark after heating and cooling. As a result, he called this substance hermetic phosphorus.

His observations were published in his text ‘Aurum superius et inferius auræ superioris et inferioris hermeticum’ (Amsterdam, 1675). However, in Johann Heinrich Schulze’s experiment, the nitric acid was contaminated with silver. Johann Heinrich Schulze’s dissolved chalk created silver carbonate as well as the anticipated calcium nitrate.

The compound turned a deep purple colour on exposure to light, and while testing this he exposed the same compound to heat with no effect and concluded that it was light and not heat which had affected the change.

Exploring further Johann Heinrich Schulze fixed a stencil to a container of the substance: “I covered the glass with dark material, exposing a little part for the free entry of light. Thus I often wrote names and whole sentences on paper and carefully cut away the inked parts with a sharp knife. I struck the paper thus perforated on the glass with wax.

It was not long before the sun’s rays, where they hit the glass through the cut-out parts of the paper, wrote each word or sentence on the chalk precipitate so exactly and distinctly that many who were curious about the experiment but ignorant of its nature took occasion to attribute the thing to some sort of trick.”

Not to be outdone by Christoph Adolph Balduin, Johann Heinrich Schulze named this substance “Scotophorus” (which translates to “bringer of darkness”), and his results would have been perceived as a prima materia — the “dark materials” of alchemy where the presence of “hidden treasure” was suspected.

In addition to symbolic alchemical references that seem to relate uncannily close to the process of photography with light, silver and dark chambers, there were fantastic stories and illustrations that seem to prophesy the fixed camera image through the mirror of the camera obscura device.

For example, the novella ‘Giphantie’ by Charles-François Tiphaigne de la Roche (1722-1774) was published in 1760 and tells a fantastic tale of a hero stranded in a miraculous land where spirits can coat a canvas with a viscous substance that can capture images on its surface once it is left to fix in a dark room.

Even before the official announcement in France of the invention of photography in 1839, the mirror image was already associated with the concept of a captured image and once again the process is linked to the strange.

In the traditional history of photography as propounded by the Helmut Erich Robert Kuno Gernsheim and Beaumont Newhall axis the fact of these alternative histories of photography and the manipulation of the transformative space that the photograph could become was sparsely acknowledged.

This predominant canon seemed to deem such content as either unpalatable as an area for serious study or regarded such “histories” as irrelevant or peripheral to their reading of photographic “history.” Over the last two decades, there has been a revision of this position and even general histories of photography are less hierarchical in relation to the variety of uses of photography.

Certainly, recent exhibitions have indicated an interest in the more unusual applications of the medium. For example, in February 2005 an exhibition was held in Paris at the Maison Dollarspéenne de la Photographie of occult photography, ‘Le Troisième œil.’ ‘La photographie et l’occulte’ (2005) which plotted, “the history of modern spiritualism and psychical research from the massive upsurge in the second half of the nineteenth century almost to the present day.”

In the nineteenth-century, the photograph seemed to affirm that science could transcend the confines of raw nature and that through man’s ingenuity photography would be the medium that allowed nature to record itself unfettered by the imperfect mark making of the human hand.

One extreme example of this was the case recorded in The Photographic Times of 1863 where a murder victim’s iris was photographed, the negative enlarged and when viewed under the magnifying glass the outlines of a human face, the murderer’s imprint, could be made out: So exaggerated then was the efficacy of the all-seeing mechanical eye and so readily was its recorded image acceptable that those present had no difficulty in seeing the details of the face of the murderer.

They saw what they wanted to see: long nose, prominent cheekbones, black moustache and other sinister distinguishing features.

From its inception, the medium of photography was quickly associated with the genesis of an extension of the self, a fragment of the soul, captured in the silver. Indeed the very process of allowing any image to be produced as likeness was linked to the concept of soul replication.

As Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941) pointed out in his seminal anthropological work ‘The Golden Bough’ (appearing in twelve volumes between 1890 and 1915) many individuals believed the soul to lie in the shadow or reflection.

The nineteenth-century travelling photographer often discovered as a result that photography was considered a dire threat to the lives of those photographed and the photographer’s reception was often hostile.

For example: When Dr Catat and some companions were exploring the Bara country on the west coast of Madagascar, the people suddenly became hostile. The day before the travellers, not without difficulty, had photographed the royal family, and now found themselves accused of taking the souls of the natives for the purpose of selling them when they returned to France.

Nor were such concerns only recorded in relation to the non-western “other.” In one portrait of 1840, the Danish artist Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770-1844) can be clearly seen to be making the horned symbol with his hand to ward off the evil eye. Indeed, by the mid-nineteenth-century the strangeness of the photographic space was being described by a group of photographers who saw that the machine itself, the camera, could become chimera, projecting fantastic visions of other worlds that because of its very association with the veracious, with truth, would serve as a problematic guide to the world that contained not only raw empirical nature in all its manifestations but spirits too.

That the camera might be able to record beyond the sight of the human eye seemed in itself evident from the product of the machine. Photography arrested time, whilst simultaneously it could be applied to long exposures, for example, drawing the path of the sun and stars across the heavens.

Photography would go on to prove the mechanics of animals in motion and indeed see through the flesh to reveal the map of our bones when Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen (1845-1923) produced his first x-ray photographs at the end of the nineteenth-century.

It seems only natural on reflection that the camera image should be used to resolve the form of spirits when considering the history of the development of camera and magic lantern equipment.

According to Daniel Schwenter (1585-1636) when he discusses the camera obscura and mirror projection: “One writes a great deal about magicians and witches who pretend to be able to make spectres and ghosts appear; this, however, is mostly a natural occurrence and has its origin in the Catoptrica or art of using mirrors: because the majority of these male and female so-called artists use a good mirror in the shape of a cylinder or round column for their fraudulent purposes and hang it in the closet of a dark chamber.”

In the case of spirit photography, the camera was employed because of its perceived relatedness to the real. The photograph represented authenticity; thereupon the plate where nothing had been before was a trace, a certainty of life beyond life. It was this photographic veracity, this machine’s verdict, which served to convince that these images were a scientifically recorded truth.

According to Rosalind Epstein Krauss, “photography was the first available demonstration that light could indeed exert an action… sufficient to cause changes in material bodies.” Although often clumsy, the iconography of spiritualist photographs worked on a level not dissimilar to the interventions developed by early Modernist practitioners of photo-collage.

Indeed spirit photography was influential on the Surrealists as an iconography of the bizarre to be celebrated.

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