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The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult

Overview

In the early days of photography, many believed and hoped that the camera would prove more efficient than the human eye in capturing the unseen. Spiritualists and animists of the nineteenth century seized on the new technology as a method of substantiating the existence of supernatural beings and happenings. This fascinating book assembles more than 250 photographic images from the Victorian era to the 1960s, each purporting to document an occult phenomenon: levitations, apparitions, transfigurations, ectoplasms,...

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Overview

In the early days of photography, many believed and hoped that the camera would prove more efficient than the human eye in capturing the unseen. Spiritualists and animists of the nineteenth century seized on the new technology as a method of substantiating the existence of supernatural beings and happenings. This fascinating book assembles more than 250 photographic images from the Victorian era to the 1960s, each purporting to document an occult phenomenon: levitations, apparitions, transfigurations, ectoplasms, spectres, ghosts, and auras. Drawn from the archives of European and American occult societies and private and public collections, the photographs in many cases have never before been published.

The Perfect Medium studies these rare and remarkable photographs through cultural, historical, and artistic lenses. More than mere curiosities, the images on film are important records of the cultural forces and technical methods that brought about their production. They document in unexpected ways a period when developing photographic technology merged with a popular obsession with the occult to create a new genre of haunting experimental photographs.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Given its subject matter, it's no surprise that this massive volume is more than a little spooky-and this despite its eschewing cheap sensationalism in favor of a sober, art historical tack. Focusing primarily on images from the late Victorian era through the 1930s, the authors tackle three major categories in exploring the long relationship between the photograph and occult phenomena. The first, "Photographs of Spirits," explores the appearance of otherworldly beings and objects in photographic images. The second section, "Photographs of Fluids," reveals how the discovery of the effects of radiation on the photographic plate coincided with an explosion in the photography of radiances, auras and other "effluvia." Rife as they are with obvious trickery and manipulation of the film itself, these two sections offer a fascinating perspective on the photographic medium's early formal and technological development, but the final section, "Photographs of Mediums," provides genuine visceral impact and aesthetic depth. Depicting mediums and onlookers in the midst of seances, these images capture the essentially human face of occult occurrences, be they actual or fraudulent. Levitation, the appearance of the "ectoplasmic veil" and other "materializations" pale beside the awe and ecstasy pictured in these photos' earthly subjects. (Oct.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
The emergence of spiritualism and the invention of photography coincided in the mid-19th century. By the 1860s, the camera was considered more "credible" than the human eye, making it the perfect tool for capturing the supernatural. In this thorough and fascinating catalog, which accompanies a major exhibition at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art appearing through December 2005, the history and practice of spirit photography is examined. These rare, controversial images are divided into three categories: "Photographs of Spirits" (images of "spirits" and "ghosts" on film), "Photographs of Fluids" (images made directly from the mediums' actual bodies), and "Photographs of Mediums" (photographs of mediums at work). Each section contains extensive scholarly essays and historical case studies on all aspects of the genre of spirit photography by historian of photography Cheroux, curator Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine (director, Howard Gilman Foundation, New York), art dealer Denis Canguilhem, and film editor/screenwriter Sophie Schmit. Generously illustrated with more than 250 fantastic color images of alleged fairies, ghosts, skeletons, levitations, s ances, and psychic auras drawn from the archives of American and European occult societies and private and public collections, this book is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Recommended for all graduate collections.-Shauna Frischkorn, Millersville Univ., PA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300111361
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 10/11/2005
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 9.24 (w) x 11.64 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

CLÉMENT CHÉROUX is a historian of photography and assistant editor-in-chief of the review Études photographiques. ANDREAS FISCHER is the Curator of Photographs at the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene in Freiburg, Germany. PIERRE APRAXINE is director of the Howard Gilman Foundation in New York. DENIS CANGUILHEM is an art dealer living in Paris. SOPHIE SCHMIT is a film editor and screenwriter.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2005

    Gloriously Defying Logic and Embracing the Occult

    THE PERFECT MEDIUM: Photography and the Occult is first a catalogue for an exhibition now titillating the public at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Hopefully this exhibition will travel: if this fine book/catalogue is any indication of the exciting realms the exhibition explores, it should be a popular success.For those who regularly visit channelers, mediums, spiritualists, or who follow tales and histories of the world of the occult then this volume of history and photographs will not be as shocking as it is for those less willing to suspend logic. The photographs contained in this book trace auras, spirits, and phenomena dating form Victorian times to the 1930s. It would appear that the advent of the camera proved to confirm the dalliances of the mediums who summoned the spirits of the departed for the eager (and willing to pay!) clients. Photographs here show weird auras, shadows of beings, and phenomena not readily seen by the critical eye: are these the tomfoolery of the photographer manipulating photographic plates, staged bizarre frameworks that defy explanation outside the camera lens, or are these truly captured moments? That is for the viewer and the fine writers to dissect.The latter portion of the book samples photographic portraits of various mediums, at times alone and at times with their assembled clients. One of particular interest is the medium Eugenie Picquart who was said to enter a trance and 'become' the voice and guise of Sarah Bernhardt and Mephistopheles! Spectacular theatrics that glow with both humor and invention - at the expense of the clients! The first spirit photographer, one William Mumler, concocted a photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of the deceased Abraham at her side. Such was the credibility of public in the PT Barnum age - and beyond. It is a book that opens the discussion of what is photographic art - representation or manipulation of an image - and if it is both (as we routinely see in galleries today), it is a powerful addition to the history of art making. This is an entertaining, well-presented book of images only imagined by most. Highly recommended. Grady Harp

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