Ordinary photographs themselves are the shades of the dead, the actual reflection of the thing photographed captured in silver, recorded as the light was reflected from the skin on the darkening silver. Photographs have an ironic nature in that they serve to confirm mortality rather than ensuring immortality. When discussing Roland Gérard Barthes’ posthumously published text ‘Camera Lucida’ (1980) John Tagg confirmed the status implied by Roland Gérard Barthes: The camera is an instrument of evidence. Beyond any encoding of the photograph, there is an existential connection between the “necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens and the photographic image: every photograph is somehow co-natural with its referent.” What the photograph asserts is the overwhelming truth that “the thing has been there:” this was a reality which once existed, though it is a reality one can no longer touch.
Photographs from the early period of portraiture carry an inherently magical quality about them. The photographer Gaspard-Félix Tournachon (1820-1910), for example, when discussing the inventions of the nineteenth-century remarked in his memoirs: “But do not all these miracles pale… when compared to the most astonishing and disturbing one of all, that one which seems finally to endow man himself with the divine power of creation: the power to give physical form to the insubstantial image that vanishes as soon as it is perceived, leaving no shadow in the mirror, no ripple on the surface of the water?”
Photography from its inception was perceived to work “at the very point that divided the visible and invisible worlds. Many occultists could understand it as a tool that was as sensitive to communications from the other world as the physical eye is to this world.” Just as in alchemy, as in Honoré de Balzac’s ‘Theory of Spectres,’ the transformative medium is light. Light is the keystone in the Swedenborgian system, the conduit between the world of sense impression and the world of spirit. It was in terms of a luminous image that the departed chose to put in their spectral appearances at the nineteenth century séance. And after 1839 it required only a baby step in logic to conceive of recording these apparitions photographically.
Like the dancing phantoms of Athanasius Kircher’s magic lantern projections, light provided the physical key to confronting such mysterious emanations. Although many spirit photographs appear to be crude constructions there is an inherent strangeness to some of these types of images that denotes the nineteenth-century understanding of the ability of the photograph to see where the human eye cannot and more than this, to see ghosts as if they are projections or collaged photographs
Sometimes fuzzy, of varying scale, unmatched lighting between spirit and sitter, variations of technical skill and unconvincing dress, it would seem almost inconceivable to believe that anyone could accept these images as veracious representations of a supernatural origin. But, then, it might seem incredible to us in an age of virtual reality and cinematically projected computer generated imagery that people were terrified by the images produced with the aid of a “magick lanthorn” “a small Optickal Macheen, that shews by a gloomy Light upon a white wall, Spectres and Monsters so hideous that he who knows not the secret, believes it to be performed by Magic Art.”
Throughout the nineteenth-century photography was associated with the occult as the medium’s advent so closely coincided with a period where there was a general reaction to the end of metaphysical certainty through the rational arguments of science. In her study of psychical research in the United Kingdom, Janet Oppenheim explored this trend: “Victorians themselves were fully aware that the place of religion in the cultural fabric of their times was scarcely secure. In an effort to counter that insecurity, to calm their fears, and to seek answers where contemporary churches were ambiguous, thousands of British men and women in the Victorian and Edwardian eras turned to Spiritualism and psychical research.”
And, according to Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the interest in phenomena and new movements such as Spiritualism could “crop up autochthonously when a particular view of the world is collapsing, sweeping away all the formulas that purported to offer final answers to the great problems of life.”
This “autochthonous” reaction to the arrival of rationalism was particularly marked in the nineteenth-century fin-de-siecle especially in Paris where it was claimed that in the late 1890s the city boasted fifty thousand practising alchemists. This occult craze was the crucible in which occult ideas and photography became overt. Elizabeth K. Menon has examined images from Paris of this period: in which prostitutes are depicted as wicked females of subversive nature. In some cases, the portrayals consist of magical or allegorical-alchemical elements which were incorporated into the pictures, in order to enhance the assumed occult nature of these sexually threatening women.
Certainly, as Andreas Nicolas Fischer argues, there is a greater understanding amongst art historians today of the importance of these images to contribute to a deeper understanding of the period of their nascence and that “only recently it was recognised that the occult and spiritualistic phenomena reflect a broad social movement, which has also inspired many cultural fields, for example, literature and the fine arts, especially the beginning of modern art.” But Andreas Nicolas Fischer also argues that the popularity of these images “is not only of historical interest, it also underlines the fact that such phenomena are still of great interest to many people today.”
By the end of the nineteenth-century the firmly re-established emergence of occult traditions, explorations of the unconscious by the emergent sciences of analytical psychology and psychoanalysis, and the new quantum science affected and influenced art practice throughout the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first. Experimentations with alchemy and occult symbolism are apparent in the manipulations of Johan August Strindberg’s (1849-1912) occult inspired experiments with photography at the end of the nineteenth-century. In 1894, he had arrived in Paris and had begun his infamous inferno period when he would immerse himself in alchemy and the occult.
The photographic experiments that Johan August Strindberg produced in this period are beautiful renditions of the light of the moon and night sky produced in an unorthodox manner by simply laying photographic materials in a developing bath in starlight. His Celestographs (as he called them) utilised, indeed relied upon, elements of chance and chaos — an approach that refuted the didactic approach embedded in photographic practice as to the correct use of materials and methods. He then believed that the emanations of the stars would directly record on the paper surface.
These “celestographs” may not be objective replications of the night sky but they are light exposures of “something.” Indeed they have the appearance of nebulae. Johan August Strindberg’s images prophesy the images made through the Hubble Space Telescope a century before its launch. He was pushing the physical-chemical processes of photography and although he was working automatically, his use of the medium relates back to the concept of the indexical properties of the photograph in conjunction with its supposed occult abilities to record the “unseeable.” Moreover, his combination of occult practice and artistic intent with these photographic materials make him a bridge to the early modernist experiments that would lead to surrealist hybrids of occult and art theory.
Twentieth-century art movements were deeply influenced by the iconography and esoteric ideas central to occult practices that emerged in the nineteenth-century. French occultist Eliphas Lévi (1810-1875), for example, profoundly influenced André Breton and the development of the surrealist manifestos. For instance, Eliphas Lévi wrote “Analogy yields all the forces of nature to the Magus. Analogy is the quintessence of the Philosophical Stone, the secret of perpetual motion, the quadrature of the circle, the science of good and evil.” André Breton later echoes him: “The poetic analogy has in common with the mystical analogy that it transgresses the deductive laws in order to make the mind apprehend the interdependence of two objects of thought situated on different planes, between which the logical functioning of the mind is unlikely to throw a bridge.”
It can be argued that in photographic practice, in particular, the thread of surrealism and its occult iconography was continued to the late twentieth-century and beyond by photographers and in reaction to the straight purist aesthetic that predominated Modernist photography especially in an American context.
In a contemporary context, artists have continued to reappraise occult symbolism and the referential presence of the photographic form as a means of reconnecting with the strange and with the numinous often absent from an increasingly secularised society. As occult practitioners had historically utilised art as a communication form for the recording and perpetuation of its encoded ideas so too have artists utilised the often adumbrative and mysterious symbols of the occult as analogies for a metaphorical communication. This might not only allow a deeper engagement in the work by the viewer but could also form part of a process of self-expression on the part of the artist that contributed to a process of self-analysis towards individuation.
In 2003, an exhibition entitled ‘Disembodied Spirits’ opened at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Maine; the exhibition set out to demonstrate that in contemporary practice many artists were exploring the sublime and the uncanny through imagery that draws upon historical sources, often making direct reference to spirit photography itself. The exhibition explored the relationship between photography and the “indexical imprint of a that-has-been emerging from the presence of something that is no longer present.” The exhibition curator, Alison Ferris, explained: “The ‘Disembodied Spirits’ suggests that the representations of ghosts can be understood as more and other than novelties and can, in fact, open the way for new understandings of vision and reality in our contemporary, digitised, hypermediated world… The ‘Disembodied Spirits’ features works by artists such as John Clarence Laughlin, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Duane Michals, and Francesca Stern Woodman, all of whom depict the ghost in a manner that evokes the same pathos Roland Gérard Barthes finds in photography — an indexical imprint of a that-has-been emerging from the presence of something that is no longer present. John Anthony Baldessari, Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, and Michael Kelley each have created works that directly quote, sometimes ironically, the history of spirit photography. Bill Viola, Tracey Moffatt, and Sally Mann grapple with what modern history has rendered ghostly. They employ or suggest historic photographic and film techniques to intimate that history, like a ghost, haunts our present… Others, such as Ann Hamilton, Cornelia Ann Parker, and Nancy Burson, use the suggestion or metaphor of spirits to explore how art can breach fantasy and materiality, the psychic and the physical.”
In this exhibition, Alison Ferris brought together a disparate group of artists where the link between their practice was the fact that they exploited the photographic referent as indicative of something beyond the frame, as suggestive of the psychic and the physical. This is the idea that the indexical nature of the photograph is subverted to create an aura of strangeness as a link to suggesting the sublime, the unconscious, and the otherworldly. It is a discourse that has emerged as a direct result and reaction to, the emergence of new technologies in imaging.
In the one hundred and sixty years since its chemical inception, artists utilising the ghost trace of light in photography have explored the strange characteristics of the medium through the staged photograph. Often such making existed on the fringe of the recognised canon of the history of photography.
Athanasius Kircher’s projections of devils with his magic lantern equipment, Johann Fausten’s manifestations, and “spirits” walking in the air in public demonstrations of the camera obscura — all form part of a history of associations through to the photographic period with its ghosts, soul stealing and evidential structures. The photographic space is still accredited with the ability to “see” where the human eye cannot and photographic related technologies that “see” wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye serve to confirm the notion that it is still feasible in the dark chamber of the camera obscura to capture a ghost through the lens. Here the physical universe is transmuted like lead into gold to become a re-enchanted and numinous space.