The Perfect Medium.
Photography and the Occult.
Text by Clement Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, and Sophie Schmit.
Yale University Press,
288 pp., 280 color illustrations, 9x11".
Without knowing it, the world has been waiting for this
book for a long, long time. What a treat it must have
been for the curators of the traveling exhibition from
which the book is drawn, to delve into the hitherto
demeaned field of “spirit photography”. The photographs
have the freshness of a newly-plowed field,
though they have been well-known to the specialists
who have accumulated and archived these images in
special collections in New York, London and Paris. From
the early days of the medium (pun intended), light sensitive
materials have been used as “proof” of otherworldly
phenomena, including auras, the
movements of magnetic fluids
in the living and the dead, ectoplasmic
mediums’ ability to commune
with the departed, levitation,
thought projection, and so forth.
Regardless of one’s beliefs, the
sheer variety and ingenuity of
the often crudely executed
images is fascinating. From a 21st century vantage point,
the pictures read as some sort of century-long Euro-
American conceptual art project. Less cynically, the existence
of the whole field might be traced to short life
expectancies, high infant mortality, and the pressing
need for a generalized “scientific” basis for an afterlife.
The poignancy of the ferocious battles fought between
believers (including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), charlatans
and debunkers is laid out in detail in the lively text. But
the real cream of the book is the imagery of mediums
extruding ectoplasm, or in the throes of spiritual transport,
the tracing of “vital fluids” on photographic plates,
“thoughtography,” and on and on. Anyone who feels a
twinge of nostalgia for the days when photographs were
considered objective (The Pencil of Nature) will be
unnerved to realize just how long photography has been
praised as the light of Truth by some, at the very same
time that it has been condemned by others for casting a
shadow of deception. PHIL HARRIS
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