Spirit Photography

Martyn Jolly. Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography. British Library, 2006.

Until very recently, the spirit photographs shown here would have been regarded by all except the most credulous as nothing but an obvious and cynical fraud, battening on the bereaved. Now, it appears, historians of photography are increasingly viewing them as works of art, and as social documents. Photography historian Martyn Jolly argues that they in some sense sum up the power of all photography, the power to still time and summon up the dead. All the faces in these photographs, all of which are now 80 or more years old, are faces of the dead.

There are two major kinds of spirit photograph displayed here; one is the extras which appeared on developed photographs, the majority produced by what looks to the modern eye like obvious double exposures; the others are photographs of the various materialisations and ectoplasms which manifested in séance rooms. The former clearly show some standard artistic motifs, faces surrounded by cloudy haze for example, no doubt to emphasise their otherworldly origin and ethereal nature. In contrast the photographs of ectoplasm highlight its fleshy nature. Ectoplasm varied to meet the background of investigators; medical men encountered fleshily organic, indeed orgasmic, ectoplasm; an engineer like W.J. Crawford encountered ectoplasm which acted like rods and other mechanical devices. The materialisations seem to come from some in-between zone, representing liminal regions between matter and spirit and nature and artefact. These do not respect any conventional idea of beauty, often more than verging on the grotesque.

These pictures can be seen as both 'cruel hoaxes' and as artefacts whereby interior visions were made manifest in public space. If this were done by painting or drama, there would be little demurring, but the use of photography challenges our ethical sense because photography is (or was) meant to be a 'documentary record' of events already out there in the public space of 'hard facts'. These pictures subvert this documentary image, and often pioneered techniques which would be later used in film and other special effects.

Seeing these pictures one wonders how long it will be before UFO photographs receive attention as works of art. George Adamski's flying saucer photographs are clearly iconic images which have had a major impact on popular culture. Like the spirit photographs, they are hidden works of art which are never meant to be submitted to galleries, but rather to provide visual accompaniment to a powerful folklore. They can be seen therefore as modern forms of folk art in much the same way that crop circles can.

Perhaps an even more subversive thought is whether those spirit or UFO photographs which are not the product of conscious artifice, such as pictures showing natural relections, artefacts of the development processes, unusual lighting conditions or 'ordinary' objects seen at strange angles can also be regarded as art. Art created not by an external artist but by the imagination of the beholder. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 93, September 2006

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