The Perfect Medium.
Photography and the Occult.

Text by Clement Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, and Sophie Schmit.
Yale University Press, New Haven, 2005. 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 manifestations, spirit 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 Read Publisher's Description.

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