The ghost hunter Harry Price acted as the grand inquisitor of Spiritualist claims, and became the scourge of mediums who claimed to capture spirits on camera; far more scoundrelly than his targets, he profited from the fascinated hope, first entertained by the Victorians, that new scientific inventions might prove the existence of another world. His archive, kept in Senate House Library, University of London, includes some rare books about conjuring as well as many photographs of ectoplasmic production, paranormal phenomena, and varied apparitions, which persuaded sitters at séances that they were in the presence of spirits. Only ten years ago, this material was not considered worthy of serious attention: it represented the detritus of a bankrupt phase in intellectual and religious activity, either degraded or absurd.
That has changed: considerable contemporary artists (Mike Kelley, Susan Hiller, Tony Oursler) and writers (Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel) have entered into the consciousness of psychic researchers and experimental mediums, while in entertainment generally, telepathic communication, teleported travel, poltergeist activities, and other themes that the Victorians and Edwardians explored have come to dominate plots—for example David Lynch’s films (“Twin Peaks”, “Lost Highway”, “Mulholland Drive”) and Philip Pullman’s stories (His Dark Materials, now made into a movie, “The Golden Compass”). Exhibitions have followed thick and fast; the most magnificent—and unexpected—being “Le troisième œil” (The Third Eye), which began in Paris and travelled to the Metropolitan in New York, no less. Curated by the connoisseur Pierre Apraxine, himself a surprising believer by his own account, this rich and startling show included previously undiscovered spirit photographers such as Madge Donohue, an Australian journalist living in London who in the Thirties channelled the spirits both of a Pharaoh and of a Native American chief called Golden Cloud to make—without means of a camera—“scotographs” or pictures of her thoughts.
As John Harvey points out in this judicious, sympathetic, and richly illustrated essay Photography and Spirit, styles of spirit imagery reflect current aesthetics. Donohue is a pioneer abstract impressionist rather in the same mode as Schoenberg, while earlier apparitions beam themselves down below in the form of mysteriously veiled Symbolist visions as it were by Medardo Rosso or Fernand Khnopff.
Professor Harvey’s study forms part of a new series edited by Mark Haworth-Booth, the former Keeper of Photographs at the Victoria & Albert Museum, and one of the most influential forces today shaping the appreciation of photography, a scholar with a quite exceptional understanding of the processes involved and their different aesthetic effects in the history of the medium. Professor Harvey’s approach to spirit photography correspondingly inquires into the interplay of technique and image: superimposition, over-exposure, doublings that in an era of innocence obviously helped summon ghosts and spectres. But at a deeper level, new media (from the magic lantern and the phantasmagoria to the digital phone-camera of our time) act symbiotically with individual fantasies and the collective cultural imaginary to reproduce desired phenomena, and when the potential of the media is not yet fully known, these emanations can be widely persuasive. Professor Harvey takes Dickens’s Christmas ghost stories as particular examples of the interplay, since Scrooge’s spectral visitors coincide with the very beginnings of photography; Dickens’s descriptions influenced the way Victorian ghosts were conceived, while his illustrators, such as the witty and admirable John Leech, in turn impressed their conception on pioneer ghost photographers. The transparency of the wraith, conjured movingly in Homer when Odysseus reaches out to clasp his mother and finds his arms pass through thin air, could be caught so perfectly by the camera that it seemed photography had been finally discovered in order to reveal the truth of such ancient intimations of immortality.
Photography and Spirit follows hard on the heels of Martyn Jolly’s Faces of the Living Dead, which focuses on the British Library’s splendid archive of spirit photographs. Many of these were collected by the investigator—and believer—F.W. Warrick from the famous Crewe Circle of mediums, who also features in several images in Professor Harvey’s book. Jolly’s is a most lucid and lively account; predestined by his name, he is a more light-hearted commentator on the phenomenon than Professor Harvey, though likewise, he does not scoff at the believers. The procedures of some of the practitioners, such as Ada Deane, a former charlady from North London, still remain bafflingly skillful. Deane never admitted any chicanery, so took her methods to the grave with her; nor did she return to earth afterwards to reveal them to her many enthusiasts.
A professor at the University of Aberystwyth, John Harvey is concerned with the religious bedrock of the enterprise, and makes interesting connections between Non-conformist radicals, evangelicals and Baptists from the valleys with the rise of Victorian spiritualism and the careers of spirit photographers such as William Hope, whose father had been a preacher. He also prints an image of the Welsh materialising medium Jack Webber (d.1940), a rare male in an activity dominated by women: his spectrally veiled features contrast strongly with his formal suit, square-set pose, and large, capable hands grasping the arms of his chair, and make this photograph a vivid example of genre. Professor Harvey sensitively captures its peculiar character when he writes: “The images exude a mood that mingles doleful melancholy, expectation and anxiety. They conjure up a surreal poetic, born of the juxtaposition of the commonplace and the incongruous.” The questions now in response to such creations do not need to focus on folly or faith, deception or honesty, belief or disbelief. Far more urgent than those issues (which themselves belong to Victorian epistemology) are our present conditions of reality, when film dominates the record and memory of actual experience, and digitised and virtual representations are becoming native to photography and its products. In a parenthesis, Professor Harvey says: “The nexus between reality and image has been broken for ever.” This is a new stark reality in itself, and spirit photographs helped to disclose it, to reveal the over-arching power of imagination to draw technology and scientific inventions into the ambit of fantasy and turn them to serve its unconscious purposes.
Her latest book, Phantasmagoria, will be published in paperback next month by Oxford University Press (£11.99, ISBN 9780199239238)