O Death


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Judging by its austere style, this picture might have been taken by a member of the Crewe Circle, a group of British spirit photographers active in the early twentieth century. It could possibly be the work of Ada Emma Deane (1864–1957), who was in her late fifties when she first started taking photographs that included the faces of the dead. Her career was tumultuous and brief. Although she apparently managed some two thousand sessions, fame and consequent downfall came to her in 1922, when she photographed the annual Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph in London. The resulting picture shows the scene blanketed by a sea of faces, purportedly those of the war dead, hovering in vapor. The Daily Sketch, however, matched many of the faces with those of living athletes, including some as famous as the Senegal-born boxing champion Battling Siki. Despite her insistences and the support of the consistently credulous Arthur Conan Doyle, she became an object of public ridicule and retreated to her suburban faithful, whom she photographed with their “extras” for a few more years before fading into complete obscurity. 

Spirit photographs never fail to be eerie, if only because of their tawdriness. Like most, this one is indifferently composed; the lighting is garbage even under the circumstances; the sitter, who seems aware that she is not the subject, wears her at-home dyspeptic face, touched with apprehension. If you could see the backdrop it would be oppressive wallpaper. And then there is that thing hovering above her head, a scrambled egg with a face in it. It is all redolent of clammy houses, coal stoves, lumpy upholstery, dust in the corners, digestive biscuits, weak tea, rice powder, Florida water barely masking perspiration, ticking mantelpiece clock, air being gradually pumped out of the room, the atmosphere turning into gelatin. In such a setting, ectoplasm seems not only unsurprising but inevitable.

Photographer and sitter are both in the second or third generation of spiritualists, followers of a movement that, like so many other persuasions—the Mormon religion, for example—originated in the 1840s in the “Burned-Over” district of western New York after the Second Great Awakening. Spiritualism was also a late-breaking manifestation of Romanticism in the American heartland, and it bounced across the sea and swept up the late Romantics in their turn. Spirit photography, much disputed among adherents as well as infidels, was discovered by William Mumler in Boston in the 1860s, apparently by accident. He was successfully prosecuted for exploiting his find, as later were all the spirit photographers in France, but that didn’t stop others in other places from trying their luck. Despite much-publicized exposure a century ago by crusading skeptics such as Houdini, they haven’t stopped yet, although technology has in recent decades helped produce very different, very abstract work.

There were technically accomplished spirit photographers, such as the Briton Robert Boursnell (1832–1909), although his technical facility can sometimes make his pictures look like honest studio fakes of the kind turned out by commercial novelty firms. The best spirit photos mostly look like trash because it suggests that what is captured by the lens is genuinely unexpected, visited upon photographer and sitter alike, who were rendered helpless by the experience. The spirits are always and without exception posed in the conventional attitudes of their day, and it is never hard to distinguish the ones that originated as photographs from those drawn from printed illustrations. British photographers tend to limit their apparitions to one or two per plate, while the ambitious Americans often go for rings of half a dozen faces, generally including someone in a turban and someone else in a war bonnet. The pictures are nearly all sunk in darkness, although Dr. Enrico Imoda, who photographed a series of séances featuring the medium Linda Gazzera in Turin around 1910, preferred a brightly lit room. His pictures, in which a swooning Gazzera surrenders to abandon while she conjures veil-draped figures as flat and crude as chromolithographs, are perhaps the most deeply louche in the business. They look somehow pornographic, even though no body parts are uncovered.

Even a modest run-of-the-mill spirit photo like this one shares a bit of that moral squalor, not just as a penny-ante swindle but also because of the sitter’s vast and inchoate longing, and the sordidness of its display, for us to look at from a great distance, casually judging. We are intruding on a scene that should be too private for anyone’s consumption—but it was printed as a postcard. Spirit photographs were also always propaganda for the cause. At least in principle, the sitter wanted us to look. Is it wrong that we know more than she does? Does the triangulation make it art?

Luc Sante’s most recent book is The Other ParisHe is one of the Daily’s correspondents, reviving his blog on pictures, Pinakothek. Luc was interviewed in our Spring issue. (He contributed the portfolio, too.)