Haunted Australia

‘Haunted Australia’, catalogue essay in Trace Elements: Spirit and Memory in Japanese and Australian Photomedia, 2008, Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery and Performance space edited by Bec Dean. English version, pp 52 – 57 of 142 page catalogue, ISBN 978-4-925204-22-4 C 0070

Every country has its ghosts, every country is haunted by spirits and memories. Even countries who once thought of themselves as being young, but are now realizing that they are in fact old, are finding themselves to be as haunted as anybody else. Thirty or so years ago if you had asked an Australian if there were many ghosts here they would have laughed — compared to England or Japan, no way! Sure, there was a ghost in our most popular national song, Waltzing Matilda — the ghost of a poor, sheep-stealing swagman who committed suicide rather than be caught by the colonial police — but that was about it. Recently, however, we have begun to see a persistent tradition of Australian ghosts emerging.

The swagman’s ghost stayed around the billabong in which he had drowned himself, mournfully repeating the refrain from his once cheerful song to warn and remind passers by of the injustice which had been done to him. And this pattern of repetition, mourning, warning and reminding conforms to many other ghost stories from the nineteenth century. On 16 June 1826 an ex-convict and successful farmer named Frederick Fisher suddenly disappeared, a few days later his ghost was seen sitting on a fence rail and pointing to a spot on the ground.  When the spot was dug up his body was found, leading to the arrest and hanging of his neighbour for murder. Fisher’s ghost survived in colonial society as an urban myth until 1859 when John Lang published an elaborated form of the story as The Ghost Upon the Rail. In 1924 Australia’s pioneer filmmaker Raymond Longford made a silent film of the story, and in 1960 Douglas Stewart wrote a play. Ken Gelder discusses Fisher’s ghost and others like him in The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories.

Fisher’s ghost appeared at the disjunction between the new convict-based settler society of Australia, the old established home of Britain from which the convicts had been cast out, and the prior possession of the land by Aborigines. In Lang’s version, in order to cover up his crime and get his hands on Fisher’s wealth, the murderous neighbour, an ex convict equally as successful in his new life as Fisher, used forgery and impersonation to create the elaborate ruse that Fisher had granted him power of attorney before disappearing home to England. To expose this delusion the spectre does not simply point to his own grave, as in the urban myth. Rather, he is seen sitting on the fence-rail with a gash on his forehead. But the light appears to shine straight  through him, and he is as impalpable to the touch as empty air.  An aboriginal tracker from the local tribe identifies ‘white man’s blood’ on the rail, then follows some faint tracks for nearly a mile to a dark pond scummed with ‘white man’s fat’. At the bottom of the pond is found a bag of bones, the rotting remains of Fisher’s body kept together only by his clothing. He wasn’t a world away in old England after all, but still here in new Australia all the time, demanding that justice be done. In addition, the ancient knowledge of the land held by the radically dispossessed Aborigines is needed to track his rotting body down. As Gelder says, ghost stories are one way ‘in which white settlement in this country is shown to be, in fact, fundamentally unsettled.’ [1] Ghosts are able to bring into conjunction times and spaces which are conventionally separated. They can reveal what was previously hidden, or dormant, or ignored.

In the early twentieth century Australian ghosts took on a greater role in bridging vast distances of time and memory. After 60,000 Australian Soldiers died and were buried on the distant battle fields of World War One an extraordinary cult of the dead grew up amongst those that were left to mourn them, but who had no grave to grieve at. This collective grief became focussed on the Anzac memorials being built in each town, and in the annual ritual of the Anzac Day Dawn Service and Commemorative March. Just before Anzac Day 1925 Melbourne Punch described Anzac Day as ‘that solemn day, on which … the spirits of the nation’s gallant dead come back again for a space, on ‘Home Leave’.’[2] Two years later the famous war artist and cartoonist Will Dyson published his best-known cartoon in the Melbourne Herald. In A Voice from Anzac two ghostly Australia soldiers left behind on the beachhead of Gallipoli draw solace from hearing the feet of the Returned Men marching in Australia. One of them says to the other: ‘Funny thing, Bill—I keep thinking I hear men marching!’.

By far the most popular painting of the period was Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, 1927, which depicted a psychic vision Longstaff had experienced during a midnight walk after the unveiling of the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, when he saw soldier spirits rising from the cornfields around him. When the painting toured Australia in 1928 and 1929 it was seen by perhaps half a million people, who filed reverently past it to the accompaniment of sombre organ music.[3] To this day the spooky painting still hangs in its own darkened grotto in the Australia War Memorial.

The emotional power of Dyson’s and Longstaff’s  spectral imagery derived at least some of its legibility from Spiritualist photography. Spiritualist ideas were pervasive after the war. The period’s most famous proselytiser of Spiritualism was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the famous detective and arch rationalist Sherlock Holmes. Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during World War One, during which he lost his son and his brother. After that war, when virtually every other family was experiencing similar grief, the ‘sight of a world which was distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge’, had compelled him to use his fame and personal wealth to proselytise the Spiritualist cause in lectures delivered from platforms across the world.[4] In 1920 and 1921 he travelled throughout Australia, eventually speaking to a total of 50,000 people. His most popular lecture was on spirit photography, where he showed lantern-slides of photographs taken by mediumistic photographers at photographic séances. In these images the faces of the dead where captured floating above the living, they seemed to have finally returned to join their loved ones once more within the photographic emulsion. When projected onto the lantern-slide screens of packed meeting halls these photographic ‘proofs’ of the ‘truth’ of spirit return provided implicit comfort to the bereaved families in Australia, whose sons had died thousand of miles away. The Melbourne Age reported:

Unquestionably the so-called ‘dead’ lived. That was his message to the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War, and with the help of God he and Lady Doyle would ‘get it across’ to Australia.[5]

Since that time the Anzac tradition has developed radically. It has changed from being a collective cult of memory for the dead intensely focussed on the physical absence of fallen soldiers, to being a more generalised set of nationalistic and quasi-religious rituals through which every Australian is meant to feel bonded to their country.

At the same time the mechanisms through which ghosts are conjured has developed and widened. Images of people from the past increasingly pervade the present through the power of photography. In the photographic archive the past lies hidden and buried, whilst always containing the potential for exploration and retrieval. The archive has increasingly become a terrain in which some artists feel as though they can meet people from the past and even, in some sense,  bring them back to the present.

For example in 2003 two Sydney artists, Kate Richards and Ross Gibson, presented Life after Wartime at the Sydney Opera House. The work was an interactive  ‘performance’ of an archive of crime-scene photographs that had been assembled by Sydney’s police force in the decades following the Second World War. The artists sat at laptops and midi keyboards and brought up strings of images which, combined with evocative haikus, were projected onto two large screens. Beneath the screens, The Necks, a jazz trio well known for its ominous movie music, improvised a live soundtrack of brooding ambience. Although not directly picturing spectres, the texts and images generated open-ended non-specific narratives around a set of semi-fictionalized characters and locations in Sydney. These characters became invisible presences occupying the creepy emptiness of the crime scenes. The element of automation, in the way the story engine generated the loose narratives, preserved the integrity, the historical artefactuality, of the original archive. Ross Gibson wrote:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. … Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence. [6]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro titbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images. This sense of the palpability of other times preserved in the archive also informs the work of the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran. In 1997 she made a ‘metaphorical x-ray’ of a nineteenth-century historic house. She carefully removed items of the colonial family’s clothing from its drawers and cupboards and, in a darkened room, laid them gently onto photographic paper before exposing it to light. In the photograms the luminous baby dresses and night-gowns floated ethereally against numinous blackness. To Ferran, the photogram process made them look ‘three-dimensional, life-like, as if it has breathed air into them in the shape of a body … With no context to secure these images, it’s left up to an audience to deal with visual effects that seem to have arisen of their own accord, that are visually striking but in an odd, hermetic way.’[7]

Other Australia artists have gone beyond the generalised, enigmatic, uncanny ambience of the photographic archive, and have used archival photographs to directly create ghostly images. But these contemporary spectres — photographically produced apparitions from the past superimposed on the present — are not being invoked in order to console the living, as in the Anzac spectral tradition, but to cajole them, beseech them, or imprecate them, just as Fisher’s ghost did in the nineteenth century.

In 1980 Australia’s most eminent art historian, Bernard Smith, gave a series of lectures under the title ‘The Spectre of Truganini.’ In the nineteenth century, Truganini had been a much-photographed colonial celebrity as the ‘last’ of the ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aborigines. Smith’s argument was that, despite white Australia’s attempt to blot out and forget the history of its own brutal displacement of Australia’s aboriginal population, the repressed would continue to return and haunt contemporary Australia until proper amends were made.[8]

As aboriginal activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits such as those of Truganini, began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young aboriginal artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Their reuse attempted to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two-way corridor through time, or a sense of New Age channelling. In a meditation on nineteenth-century anthropological photographs, the aboriginal photographer and curator Brenda L. Croft retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in the 140-year-old portraits.

Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.[9]

But aboriginal ghosts face a lot of work to do yet before they can finally rest. Aboriginal ghosts are needed to remind Australia that there is unfinished business, that the process of reconciliation with the past is not complete. Rather than laying their ancestors to rest, many aboriginal artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various contemporary campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian aboriginal photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition Patterns of Connection travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. To make her large, deeply coloured photo[compositions she copied anthropological photographs from the State Library of Victoria, liberating them from the archive to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. For her, this process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: ‘From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.’[10]

King-Smith holds spiritualist beliefs of her own. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that ‘people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.’[11] Her work animistically gave the museum photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow aboriginal artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a ‘strategic essentialism.’

There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds …But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.[12]

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality, other aboriginal artists have also attempted to use the power of old photographs to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past. In a series of works from the late 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous (1996), I Split Your Gaze (1997), and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998). Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately reinscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. Although Andrew was also criticized for using the powerful portraits of the aboriginal subjects without appropriate consideration for their original tribal and geographical identity, these works have since become almost iconic in contemporary Australian art.

Since 1999 the photographer Darren Siwes, of aboriginal and Dutch heritage, has performed a series of spectral self portraits in Australia and the United Kingdom. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings, he refers to an aboriginal haunting, certainly; but because he is ghosted standing to attention while wearing a generic suit, he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalized, accusatory masculinity – exactly the same feeling that a memorial Anzac statue gives. Like much other contemporary aboriginal photography in Australia, Siwes’s photographs are mannered, stiff, and visually dull, but they have proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators in Australia and internationally. It is not the intrinsic quality of the art that is so persuasive, but the rhetorical force of the spectres. As overwrought and histrionic as they are, ghosts are still able to directly address historical and cultural issues of broad contemporary concern.

In their book Uncanny Australia Ken Gelder and Jane Jacobs use Australian ghost stories to describe the uncanniness of Australia’s relationship to aboriginal spirituality. Although it is supposedly a settler country, in many ways Australia remains ‘unsettled’. In Australia both aboriginal and non-aboriginal relationships to the land have to co-exist, while its often violent history of possession, displacement and oppression underscore both relationships in different ways. For over two hundred years generations of non-aboriginal, settler Australians have forged strong spiritual bonds to the land, but aboriginal claims for the full recognition of their prior occupation of the continent, and for the precedence of their sacred relationship to the land, often give non-aboriginal Australians the uncanny feeling they are ‘foreigners at home’. In these postcolonial terms Gelder and Jacobs see hauntings as a productive occurrence, a means of acknowledging the inherent postcolonial contradictions in modern day Australia:

‘Ghosts’ simply could not function in a climate of sameness, in a country which fantasises about itself as ‘one nation’ or which imagines a utopian future of ‘reconciliation’ in which … all the ghosts have been laid to rest. But neither can they function in a climate of nothing but difference, where the one can never resemble the other, as in a ‘divided’ nation. A structure in which sameness and difference solicit each other, spilling over each other’s boundaries only to return again to their respective places, moving back and forward in an unpredictable, even unruly manner—a structure in which sameness and difference embrace and refuse each other simultaneously: this is where the ‘ghosts’ which may cause us to ‘smile’ or to ‘worry’ continue to flourish.[13]

Ghosts have re-emerged because both white and black Australians are now spiritually immersed in their country in a way which goes beyond the mutually exclusive binary of possession versus dispossession.

The haunting experiences of everyday Australians are explored by the historian Peter Read in his book Haunted Earth. He uses oral history interviews with over forty non-aboriginal and aboriginal Australians to explore their relationship to what he calls ‘inspirited places’. These are places defined by the nexus of place and history, time and spirit. For Read ‘inspiriting’ is a reciprocal process between the Earth and humans, where both old and new Australians bring inspiriting mythologies, rites and beliefs with them to the land they inhabit, just as particular landscapes are experienced by the humans who inhabit them as ‘haunted’ with a kind of soul or essence. Like many contemporary cultural historians Read is trying to go beyond hackneyed ‘paranormal’ explanations for some people’s intense experience of spiritual presence. He wants to understand these uncanny feelings as something more interesting and complex than the self-limiting notion that they are just the ‘epiphenomena of an excited or deluded brain’.

He recounts the vivid experience of people living in the suburbs built on the sandstone ridges north of Sydney which were once intensively occupied by Aboriginal people. He meets three separate families who believe they have either seen or felt the direct presence of Aboriginal spirits. ‘To the haunted families, the land itself, and the memories that the land holds independent of humans, carry profound meanings clearly related to invasion, dispossession and violence.’ However this haunting is not something to be banally expiated. If all the ghosts were ever to be exorcised then something would be lost to our contemporary experience. As he comments, ‘Those untroubled, those unhaunted, by the ghosts of the past have missed something profound.’ [14]

Australia has a long and persistent history of haunting. And its ghosts are a long way from being laid to rest, indeed more seem to be accumulating. The means through which we make these ghosts appear might have changed — from the genre of storytelling, to drawing and painting, to photographic superimposition. And the uncanny, unsettled worlds between which the ghosts communicated may have changed — from distant countries sundered by space, to not-so-distant pasts sundered by historical forgetting. But in all their over the top kitschiness, in all their histrionic posturing, ghosts have always continued to contribute to our sense of ourselves.


[1] The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories, selected by K. Gelder, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. xi.

[2]  R. McMullin, Will Dyson: Cartoonist, Etcher and Australia’s First War Artist, London, Angus & Robertson, 1984, p226.

[3]  A. Gray, Will Longstaff’s Menin Gates at Midnight, Canberra, Australian War Memorial, nd, np.

[4] N. Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press, 1933, p106.

[5] ‘Conan Doyle in Australia’, Light, December 18, 1920, np.

[6] R. Gibson, ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile 58, 1999, p30.

[7] A. Ferran, ‘Longer Than Life’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 1, 1, 2000, pp166 -70.

[8] B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, Sydney, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980.

[9] B. L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, in Portraits of Oceania, ed. by J. Annear, Sydney, 1997, p9, p14.

[10] J. Phipps, ‘Elegy, Meditation and Retribution’, in Patterns Of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[11] L. King-Smith, ‘Statement’, in Patterns of Connection, Melbourne, Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992, np.

[12] A. Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive’, History of Photography, 23, 2, 1999, p117.

[13]. K. Gelder and J. M. Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998, p42.

[14] P. Read, Haunted Earth, Sydney, University of New South Wales, 2003, p59.

Faces of the Living Dead

‘Faces of the Living Dead’, paper, Junk Writing Conference, University College Worcester, UK, 2002,  7 — 9 August.

In the aftermath of the World War One spirit photography became extraordinarily popular in Britain and Australia. Among its high profile advocates was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of that arch rationalist Sherlock Holmes. In 1919 Doyle went to Britain’s most famous spirit photographer, William Hope, to try to obtain a photograph of his son who had died as a result of wounds received in the war. He published the resulting image in Britain’s Sunday Pictorial, and in Melbourne’s Herald, and wrote:

I opened the packet in the darkroom and put the plate in the carrier. I had already carefully examined the camera and lens. I was photographed, the two mediums holding their hands on top of the camera. I then took the carrier into the darkroom, took out the plate, developed, fixed and washed it, and then, before leaving the darkroom, saw the extra head upon the plate. On examining with a powerful lens the face of the ‘extra’ I have found such a marking as is produced in newspaper process work. It is very possible that the whole picture, which has a general, but not very exact, resemblance to my son, was conveyed onto the plate from some existing picture. However that may be, it was most certainly supernormal, and not due to any manipulation or fraud. [1]

Doyle’s testimony is characteristic of many people’s experience of spirit photography. There was a ‘laying on of hands’ by the spirit photographer; the presence of the sitter during the alchemical processes in the darkroom;  and despite obvious signs that the spirit image had been appropriated from another source, ultimate belief because the sitter felt a compelling sense of recognition for the spirit extra.

Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during the war, in which he not only lost his son, but also his brother. Virtually very other family was experiencing similar grief. Since the war the, “sight of a world which was distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge”, had compelled him to use his fame and personal wealth to proselytise the cause in bluff pugnacious lectures delivered from platforms across the world.[2] In 1920 and 1921 he spoke to 50,000 people in Australia alone. According to Melbourne’s Age the message of his lectures, that the dead lived and could communicate, would provide implicit comfort to, “the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War”.[3]

In 1920 another medium photographer, Mrs Ada Deane, joined William Hope in offering sittings for one guinea each at the British College of Psychic Science in West London. The satirical newspaper John Bull sent two anonymous investigators to a sitting.

We were asked to sit on a wicker settee before a dark screen or background. Then, handing us each a hymn book, a hymn was selected and sung. At the close of this Mrs Deane commenced to sing vigorously We Shall Meet on the Beautiful Shore, and intimated that we should ‘join in’. … Mrs Deane then collected our slides in her hands, placing one at the top and one at the bottom. She instructed us to place our hands in a similar manner over hers, and in this position we recited the Lords Prayer.[4]

They took some of Mrs Deane’s photographic plates to the photographic manufacturer Ilford who examined them and reported that they had been pre-exposed to light in a plate-holder. The paper headlined with: AMAZING SPIRIT CAMERA FRAUDS, PSYCHIC EXPERIMENTER CAUGHT RED HANDED IN TRANSPARENT DECEPTION AND TRICKERY.

But many Spiritualist believers simply couldn’t understand how such a ordinary, earnest woman, as Mrs Deane so obviously was, who had brought comfort and joy to thousands of sorrowing hearts, could be periodically attacked by sceptics and accused of cheating her clients with elaborate sleight-of-hand tricks. Mr F. W. Fitzsimons, for instance, found Mrs Deane to be a cheery, pleasant faced old soul, simple and uneducated in the ways and evils of the world of men, and with the hallmark of absolute honesty imprinted on her face. On one of his visits to Mrs Deane, Fitzsimons encountered a sad, care-worn-looking man in the garb of a clergyman. The clergyman was clutching a psychic photograph of his recently deceased wife. “My wife and I had been married twenty years, and we were childless”, he explained, “she was all I lived for. Recently she died, and my religion has given me no comfort or solace. I was in despair, and grew resentful against God. A friend told me about faces of deceased people appearing on photographs. I had four exposures made. Two were blanks, one had the psychic face of someone I did not recognise, and the other held that of my wife, and here it is”. “Can such a thing be true?”, he asked Fitzsimons, tears gathering in his eyes, “To me it seems impossible, yet I succeeded in getting the picture of my wife”. “If such a thing be true, why does not the suffering, anguished world know about it?”, he cried. “Because”, Fitzsimons answered, “people as a whole are steeped in materialism, self-conceit, ignorance, intolerance and bigotry”.[5]

Spirit photographs functioned in quite a different way to the monumental, closed, mute, funeral portrait. The portrait photograph has often been associated with the irrevocability of death because it freezes a moment of life permanently in the past, while giving it only a vicarious presence in the present. In this morbid theory the photograph intimates our own mortality because one day we, too, will remain frozen in time. In a sense the photograph ‘corpses’ time. Spirit photography was such a compelling idea during this period because it took the ‘corpsed’ photograph and miraculously revivified it as evidence of life beyond the grave. By inserting a ghost into the photograph, it made the photograph itself less corpselike. It reversed the past tense, the ‘that has been’ of the photograph, into a future tense: ‘this will continue to be’.

I’ve been guiltily fascinated by spirit photography for a couple of years now. Very much against my better judgement I’ve devoted my time to becoming an expert on spirit photography, and have published a small biography of Mrs Deane. I just haven’t been able to stop myself going back day after day to libraries and archives to find out more about Spiritualism and early spirit photographers. In the Cambridge University Library I came across nearly one thousand spirit photographs taken by Mrs Ada Deane, pasted in grids of twelve into the pages of four large leather bound albums. I got Cambridge to make copies of some of the photographs for me and I burrowed into them with Photoshop to produce a series of art works for an exhibition. I found myself gravitating not to the spirit ‘extras’, but to the faces of those who had paid for their sitting with Mrs Deane. These people, once so desperate for an image of their departed loved ones, are now themselves all dead also, but ironically revenant in the photograph. As they were photographed in the act of channelling an image from the Other Side their faces appeared confused, doubtful, worried, tired and distracted.

I also published a small biography of Mrs Deane which I conceived of as a kind of artist’s book. The Spiritualists where prolix writers and enthusiastic publishers, and I found many journals, pamphlets, proselytising tracts and reminiscences to draw on. I collected all the ones relevant to Mrs Deane and then ordered them into a narrative and strung them together by either directly quoting, or closely paraphrasing them. I tried to retain the flavour of their original prose—which is always pulled between the breathless excitement the writer obviously feels for what they are experiencing, and the need they also feel to appear to be sober and dispassionate in their reporting of positive evidence for spiritualist phenomena—while homogenising and modernising the texts just enough to make it a smooth read. I sometimes thought that I was acting as an amanuensis for these people. Although I remain a materialist, my enthusiasm for their enthusiasm matched their enthusiasm for what was to them the manifest truths of spirit photography and automatic writing.

Besides spirit photography there were many other ways in which the dead made their continuing existence known to the living. Spirit guides acted as go-betweens, taking possession of the medium, speaking with her voice, and relaying messages from relatives and loved ones whilst she was in a trance. Spirits also moved planchettes or ouija borads to speel out messages letter by letter, or tapped in code. But beside the direct voice trance medium the most common means of communication was automatic writing. This was done either in a complete trance or whilst semiconscious.

Within Spiritualism theories of automatic writing didn’t draw on models of inspiration, delirium or poetic suggestion, rather they drew on technological models of telecommunication. For instance the experience of William Howitt is described by his daughter.

My father had not sat many minutes passive, holding a pencil in his hand upon a sheet of paper, ere something resembling an electric shock ran through his arm and hand; whereupon the pencil began to move in circles. The influence becoming stronger and ever stronger, moved not only the hand but the whole arm in a rotary motion, till the arm was at length raised, and rapidly— as if it had been the spoke of a wheel propelled by machinery—whirled irresistibly in a wide sweep, and at great speed, for some ten minutes, through the air. The effect of this rapid motion was felt by him in the muscles of the arm for some times afterwards. Then the arm being again at rest the pencil, in the passive fingers, began gently, but clearly and decidedly, to move.[6]

This was a mechanical model, seeing the medium as a kind of human telegraph machine. Within this model even infants could become automatic writers. Mr Wason, a well known spiritualist from Liverpool, saw a six months old baby write: “I love this little child. God bless him. Advise his father to go back to London on Monday by all means—Susan.” Celina, a child of three and a half, wrote: ” I am glad to manifest through a charming little medium of three and a half who promise well. Promise me not to neglect her.”

This direct machinic model of automatic writing was complemented by another model of collaborative amanuensis. This relied on a more complex quasi Freudian model of an inner and outer mind which separated an imagistic notion of an essential ‘thought message’ out from the language and scriptography into which it was translated. When the psychic pioneer Frederick Myers died he continued to write from the Other Side through a medium called Miss Cummins. His discarnate spirit wrote:

The inner mind is very difficult to deal with from this side. We impress it with our message. We never impress the brain of the medium directly, that is out of the question. But the inner mind receives our message and sends it on to the brain. The brain is a mere mechanism. The inner mind is like soft wax, it receives our thoughts, their whole content, but it must produce the words that clothe it. That is what makes cross-correspondence so very difficult. We may succeed in sending the thought through, but the actual words depend largely on the inner mind’s content, on what words will frame the thought.[7]

Towards the end of 1922 a London medium began to receive messages from the Other Side, via automatic writing, that a photographic group of ‘Tommies’ and sailors who had passed on in the war had been prepared, and if she carried out their directions they had every hope of getting this image onto a photographic plate. The spirits requested that Mrs Deane take a picture at Whitehall during the Two Minutes Silence. A group of spiritualists were placed in the crowd to produce a ‘barrage of prayer’ and so concentrate the psychic energy, and Mrs Deane took two exposures from a high wall over the crowd, one just before the Silence, and one for the entire two minutes of the Silence. When the plates were developed the first showed a mass of light over the praying Spiritualists, and in the second what was described by the spirit as a “river of faces” and an “aerial procession of men” appeared to float dimly above the crowd. Further spirit messages gave details about how the images were produced:

Material is used from the active body of the medium to build up the picture. The material is either impressed by the communicator directly himself, or moulds are made beforehand. The armistice photographs were probably prepared beforehand in groups and either impressed upon the plates before, during, or after the Two Minutes Silence.[8]

I am interested in spirit photographs because, on the one hand, in the emotional effect they had on their audience, and in the visceral connection with their absent loved ones which they gave them, they seem to confirm all that is most powerful about photography; however, on the other hand, in their structure and execution, and in their use of amateurish ‘special effects’, they seem to erode the very ontological foundations on which that photographic power is built. For me, therefore, spirit photographs enable an, admittedly eccentric, critique of the normative epistemology of twentieth century photography.

Spirit photographs are performative. Their power lies not in their relationship to a pro-filmic Real elsewhere in time and space, but their audience’s relationship to them in the audience’s own time and place. They solicit a tacit suspension of disbelief from their audience, while at the same time they brazenly inveigle a tacit belief in special effects. These special effects are traded from other genres such as cinema or stage-craft using the currency of the audience’s thirst for belief. They shamelessly exploit the wounded psychology of their audience to confirm their truth, not by their mute indexical reference to the Real, but through the audience’s own indexical enactment of their traumatic affect. Their truth is not an anterior truth, but a manifest truth that is indexed by the audience as they feel the shock of recognition of their departed loved ones.

The theory of the spiritualist portrait does not conform to the more obvious model of the photographer’s studio, with spirits manifesting themselves to be photographed in front of the camera. Rather the dominant model is the printer’s press, or sculptor’s foundry, where image moulds are prepared on the Other Side, and then impressed into soft photoplasm during the sitting. On an obvious level, the elaborate explanations which spiritualist researchers came up with to explain the effects were their attempts to maintain belief in the face of what were more easily explainable as signs of fraud (flat looking extras, hard cut-out edges, the presence of half-tone dot screens, different lighting, and so on). But in doing so they invented and sustained an extraordinarily compelling, moving, and poetic photographic system.

The complex theory of spirit photography sees the spirit photograph as a completely different thing to the ordinary photograph. The locus for the spiritualist system of photography is not the camera, the lens and the shutter. That technical assemblage, of a shutter vertically slicing a rectilinearly projected image, has been central to photographic theory, with a direct lineage going back to the renaissance. Instead, the locus for spiritualist photography was the sensitive photographic plate alone.

The process of making a spirit photograph is not that of ‘snapping’ an image of an anterior scene and thereby making a direct stencil from the Real; rather it is a process of activating the photographic emulsion as a soft, wet, labile membrane between two worlds — the living and the dead, experience and memory. The spirit photograph’s emulsion is sensitised chemically by the application of developers, and magically by the meeting of hands and the melding of mutual memories. The resultant image is not the mute and inert residue of an optical process, decisively excised from time and space, but a hyper-sensitised screen which two images had reached out from opposite sides to touch, both leaving behind their imprint.

Photographic emulsion — creamy, gelatinous, sensitive to light, bathed in chemicals, and cradled by hands — became poetically and technically related to the most mysterious, potent substance in the spiritualist’s world: ectoplasm. Ectoplasm was rooted in the materiality of the body, it was feminine, moist and labile and often smelt of the bodily fluids it was imagistically related to (because, in fact, it was usually chiffon secreted in the medium’s vagina, or ingested by her before the séance). Ectoplasm could form itself into shapes (in the nineteenth century it could even embody, or body forth, complete material spirits who would walk around the room), but it could also act as an emulsion — receiving imprints or filling moulds. In spirit photography ectoplasm was not only a physical stage in a process of transubstantiation, but also a technological interface, a bio/techno diaphragm.

To me the recently renewed interest in spirit photography reveals the continued power and enigma of the photographic image, despite predictions in the 1990s of its digital demise. The spirit photograph of the 1920s resonates with the ways the photograph as artefact is still used today in both public and private rituals of memory, mourning and loss.

Martyn Jolly

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Son, Harbinger of Light, 1919, October 1919.

N. Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press Limited, 1933,

Conan Doyle in Australia, Light, 1920, December 18, 1920.

B. W. C. Pilley, AMAZING SPIRIT CAMERA FRAUDPSYCHC EXPERIMENTER CAUGHT RE HANDED IN TRANSPARENT DECEPTION AND TRICKERY, John Bull, 1921, 17 December 1921.

F. W. Fitzsimons, Opening the Psychic Door: Thirty Years Experiences, London, Hutchinson & Co, 1933,

E. Stead, Faces of the Living Dead, Manchester, Two Worlds Publishing Company, 1925,


[1]Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Son, Harbinger of Light, 1919, October 1919.

[2]Doyle entry in, Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press Limited, 1933.

[3]Conan Doyle in Australia, Light, 1920, December 18, 1920.

[4]Pilley, John Bull, 1921, 17 December 1921.

[5]Fitzsimons, Opening the Psychic Door: Thirty Years Experiences, London, Hutchinson & Co, 1933, .

[6] Automatic writing entry in, Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press Limited, 1933.

[7]

[8]Stead, Faces of the Living Dead, Manchester, Two Worlds Publishing Company, 1925, .

Photographing the dead

Early Spiritualist Photography

In 1848 two young sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, who lived in a small house in upper New York State, began to hear rapping sounds in their bedroom, and modern Spiritualism was inaugurated. Thirteen years later mysterious ‘extra’ figures began to appear on the glass plates of the Boston photographer, William Mumler, and spirit photography was inaugurated. Public interest in Spiritualism and spirit photography peaked in the 1870s but had subsided by the turn of the century. But both underwent an extraordinary revival from the time of the First World War and throughout the 1920s.

The most famous example of spirit photography in the nineteenth century phase was the documentation, in the mid 1870s, of the full body ectoplasmic materialisation of the spirit Katie King, supposedly produced by the medium Florence Cook. Katie King was the daughter of a 200 year-old pirate. Florence Cook, the teenage medium from Hackney in London who produced her, was sponsored by, and the photographs were promulgated by, the eminent chemist Sir William Crookes, the discoverer of the element Thallium and researcher into cathode rays. This erotically charged ménage-a-trois, of an older, scientific, patriarchal sponsor and proselytiser; a supposedly passive, honest, ingenuous female medium; and a young coquettish spirit ‘control’ from beyond the grave, was quite common within spiritualism.

As with all of the cases I’m going to discuss, it is only within the dynamics of the various personal investments of these relationships, the personal desire of the client to believe, and the seductive scenarios enacted by the medium, that we can account for the fact that time and time again obvious fakes are believed. Sir William Crookes built up an ongoing relationship with the spirit Katie King. He reported that she was supremely beautiful, and felt and breathed like a living person, and he was convinced that she had a different height, heart rate and hair colour than the medium who ectoplasmically produced her as she supposedly lay in a supine trance in her cabinet.

And we too, at a stretch, can just be convinced how Crookes, flattered by the attentions of this Pre-Raphaelite spiritual beauty in the crepuscular hush of a Victorian parlour, lit by a galvanically powered arc light,[1] could be persuaded to momentarily believe she was supernatural, and then out of pride and scientific arrogance, refuse to recant for the rest of his life. It is probable that in fact Crookes, a married man, was having an affair with his young and beautiful medium at the time of the Katie King materialisations. [2]  Also, in the 1870s, still in the period of the photographic glass wet plate, before the mass dissemination and reproduction of the snapshot, the medium of photography was removed enough from the public ken to still be mysterious enough in itself to sustain the overheated theatrics of these documents.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William Hope

The most famous British medium photographer of the early twentieth century was William Hope who worked with a partner from a studio in the north of England from the 1900s and regularly produced images with what were called ‘extras’, spirit manifestations of the living dead. Often these extras appeared swathed in cocoons of material which was identified as an ectoplasmic like substance.

Hope’s work was eagerly examined and endorsed by the SSSP, the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, which had been formed by a group of well credentialled and eminent Spiritualists in 1918

Spirit photography had several high profile advocates. The famous creator of that arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was an evangelical spiritualist. He went to William Hope in 1919 to try to obtain a photograph of his son who had died as a result of wounds received in the Great War. He published the resulting image in Britain’s Sunday Pictorial, and in Melbourne’s Herald. In his testimonial letter Doyle wrote:

The plate was brought by me in Manchester. On reaching Mr Hope’s studio room in Crewe, I opened the packet in the darkroom and put the plate in the carrier. I had already carefully examined the camera and lens. I was photographed, the two mediums holding their hands on top of the camera. I then took the carrier into the darkroom, took out the plate, developed, fixed and washed it, and then, before leaving the darkroom, saw the extra head upon the plate. On examining with a powerful lens the face of the ‘extra’ I have found such a marking as is produced in newspaper process work. It is very possible that the whole picture, which has a general, but not very exact, resemblance to my son, was conveyed onto the plate from some existing picture. However that may be, it was most certainly supernormal, and not due to any manipulation or fraud. [3]

This quote is characteristic of many people’s experience of spirit photography. There was a ‘laying on of hands’ of the spirit photographer, the presence of the sitter during the alchemical processes in the darkroom, and, despite obvious signs that the spirit image came from another source, ultimate belief because there is nonetheless a revelation of recognition, and it appears as though fraud was impossible.

Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during World War One, during  which he lost his son and his brother. Virtually every other family was experiencing similar grief. Since that war the, “sight of a world which was distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge”, had compelled him to use his fame and personal wealth to proselytise the cause in bluff pugnacious lectures delivered from platforms across the world. In each town and city he gave three lectures, two on spiritualism, and one, illustrated by lantern slides, on spirit photography. Conan Doyle’s lectures provided implicit comfort to the bereaved. The Melbourne Age reported:

Unquestionably the so-called ‘dead’ lived. That was his message to the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War, and with the help of God he and Lady Doyle would ‘get it across’ to Australia.[4]

Spirit photographs, in their openendedness, functioned in quite a different way to the monumental, closed, mute, funeral portrait. Spiritualism was always followed for selfish reasons. It was not concerned with the transcendently numinous, so much as the immediate desires of each individual soul for solace. For instance, when the Fox sisters publicly confessed to their childhood fraud in front of a packed house at the New York Academy of Music in 1888, forty years after they began Spiritualism, it was reported that, “spiritualists throughout the house cried out at having to face again the loss of loved ones they thought restored to them for ever”.[5]

The Spirit Photography of Mrs Ada Deane

In 1920 another spirit photographer joined William Hope on the British Spiritualist scenes: Mrs Ada Emma Deane. Although she had had many psychic experiences as a child it wasn’t until 1920, when she was 58 years old, that she began to develop her psychic powers. Her husband had left her many years before, and she had brought up three children on her own by working as a servant and charwoman. With the children grown she branched out into other occupations. She began to breed pedigree dogs, and she purchased a rickety old quarter-plate camera for nine pence with which she photographed her children, friends and neighbours. She also became involved in Spiritualism.

She finally obtained her first psychic photograph in June 1920. Her reputation soon spread amongst Spiritualists and she became one of Britain’s busiest  photographic mediums, holding over 2000 sittings where clients were photographed and, upon development, spirit ‘extras’, faces of their Departed, appeared on the plates.[6]

Late in 1920 Mrs Deane visited the Birmingham home of the psychic researcher Fred Barlow, secretary of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, to submit herself to a series of tests and experiments. He had supplied Mrs Deane with a packet of photographic glass-plates two weeks before the tests for ‘pre-magnetisation’ (derived, perhaps, from mesmerism’s theory of ‘animal magnetism’, this process involved keeping the plates close to the medium’s body). On development, the portraits Mrs Deane took held the faces of psychic extras swathed in either chiffon-like, or cottonwool-like surrounds.

“It appears”, Barlow reported, “as though the plates in some peculiar way became impregnated with the sensitive’s aural or psychic emanations”. The psychic extras had a flat appearance, which led Barlow to suggest, “I do not think the lens had anything to do with the formation of the psychic images which appear to have been printed on the photographic plate”. Closely examining the plates Barlow found signs that the shape of the plate-holder’s guiding channels had been exposed twice onto the edges of the plates. To him this was consistent with a psychic double exposure where the plate was, indeed, exposed twice: once to the normal spectrum through the lens, and once again at some other indeterminate point in the process when the wafer-thin space between the dark-slide of the plate-holder and the surface of the plate became filled with a psychic light, imprinting the psychic image. Barlow also noticed that some psychic extras were exactly duplicated, although the arrangement of their diaphanous surrounds had altered; to him this suggested that somehow the psychic images had been kept and used again by the mysterious operators from the Other Side of the Veil.

A final photograph, taken just before they said goodbye, confirmed for him that he had discovered in Mrs Deane an extraordinary phenomenon. Using his own half-plate camera, and his own photographic plate, Barlow took a group portrait of himself and his wife, along with Mrs and Miss Deane, arranging and then at the last moment rearranging the group himself. During their stay the mediums had mentioned several times that their spirit ‘guides’ had promised to be with them. After exposure he immediately developed the plate and was delighted to see that the beautiful guides of the ‘sensitives’ were to be seen on the negative and in correct relation to the sitters: ‘Bessie’, Mrs Deane’s guide appeared right above her head; whilst ‘Stella’, the guide of Miss Deane appeared above her’s. To Barlow the manifest beauty of this psychic picture was in itself wonderfully evidential.[7]

A World Distraught With Sorrow

Mrs Deane did have her detractors, though. By this stage she had joined William Hope, in offering sittings for one guinea each at the British College of Psychic Science in West London. The satirical newspaper John Bull sent two anonymous investigators to a sitting. They had refused to send in their plates for pre-magnetisation and didn’t receive any clear extras. But, amazingly, Mrs Deane agreed to give them some plates which she had already pre-magnetised. They immediately took these to the photographic manufacturer Ilford who examined them and confirmed that they had been pre-exposed to light in a plate-holder. The paper headlined with: AMAZING SPIRIT CAMERA FRAUDS, PSYCHIC EXPERIMENTER CAUGHT RED HANDED IN TRANSPARENT DECEPTION AND TRICKERY.

The reporter described the experience of a psychic sitting with Mrs Deane: “We were asked to sit on a wicker settee before a dark screen or background. Then, handing us each a hymn book, a hymn was selected and sung. At the close of this Mrs Deane commenced to sing vigorously We Shall Meet on the Beautiful Shore, and intimated that we should ‘join in’. We did so, but I must confess that the reverence usually associated with the singing of sacred verse was difficult to maintain. The broad daylight; Mrs Deane’s somewhat shrill voice; the absence of any accompaniment to the singing; the business like appearance of the studio; all of these things were entirely opposed to the creation of a ‘spiritual atmosphere’ such as one would regard as being most essential when dealing with the ‘living dead’. Mrs Deane then collected our slides in her hands, placing one at the top and one at the bottom. She instructed us to place our hands in a similar manner over hers, and in this position we recited the Lords Prayer. The next minute she was bustling about the studio arranging the camera and ourselves, and as soon as we were focussed six different exposures were made, each on a separate plate and each plate in a separate slide.”[8]

The Occult Committee of the Magic Circle, an exclusive group of stage magicians and conjurers, also attempted to expose fraudulent mediums as a way of generating publicity for their own abilities in illusionism. They tested Mrs Deane on February 1922 and found that a box of plates they sent in for pre-magnetisation had been tampered with. Shortly afterward Eric Dingwall himself made an appointment to visit Mrs Deane, accompanied by a Mrs Osmaston. He elaborately sealed the package of plates he sent in for pre-magnetisation, dying the ends of the cotton with invisible ink, lightly gluing sable hairs across the folds of paper and pricking aligned pinholes through the layers of paper. On their arrival for the appointment, however, they found that the packet had not been opened. They opened the packet themselves and loaded the plate-holders themselves, before giving them to Mrs Deane. But, Dingwall observed, Mrs Deane had ample opportunity to switch the plate-holders as she then proceeded across the room and thrust her hands, with the plate-holders, into her capacious handbag in order to retrieve her prayer book for the first hymn.

The Spiritualists’ other big gun, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, also supported Mrs Deane against her exposure by the Magic Circle:

The person attacked is a somewhat pathetic and forlorn figure among all these clever tricksters. She is a little elderly charwoman, a humble white mouse of a person, with her sad face, her frayed gloves, and her little handbag which excites the worst suspicions in the minds of her critics.[9]

He sat for Mrs Deane himself and got a female face smiling from an ectoplasmic cloud above his left shoulder. The plate she used wasn’t his, so the image could have been easily faked. However Doyle chose to believe it was genuine because he had already been incontrovertibly convinced by the well publicised evidence of a sitting that Mrs Deane had had earlier that year — the so called Cushman Case. Dr Allerton Cushman was the director of the National Laboratories in Washington. He had suffered the loss of his daughter Agnes, but got back in touch with her through automatic writing. Her spirit agreed to co-operate in trying to get an image of herself back across from the Other Side. He came to London and immediately went to the British College of Psychic Science without an appointment or introduction. When he arrived he found Mrs Deane in the act of leaving. But he persuaded her to give a sitting, and then and there he obtained a photograph of his dead daughter which was, he declared, unlike any existing one, but more vital and characteristic than any taken in life. To Doyle this was, “the very finest result which I know of in psychic photography”.[10]

Another Spiritualist believer, Mr F. W. Fitzsimons, also couldn’t understand how such a simple, earnest soul, who had brought comfort and joy to thousands of sorrowing hearts, could be periodically attacked by sceptics and accused of cheating her clients with elaborate sleight-of-hand tricks. He visited Mrs Deane at her home and discovered the old lady busily washing a number of pedigree puppies. He found Mrs Deane to be a cheery, pleasant faced old soul, simple and uneducated in the ways and evils of the world of men, and with the hallmark of absolute honesty imprinted on her face. He could have talked dogs with her all afternoon, but finally she bustled off to wash her hands, slip off her overalls, and get out her rickety old tripod and camera. On another visit Fitzsimons found that his appointment time clashed with that of a sad, care-worn-looking man in the garb of a clergyman (appointment clashes weren’t uncommon with Mrs Deane). The clergyman was clutching a psychic photograph of his recently deceased wife that had been taken by the spirit photographer William Hope.

“My wife and I had been married twenty years, and we were childless”, he explained, “she was all I lived for. Recently she died, and my religion has given me no comfort or solace. I was in despair, and grew resentful against God. A friend told me about faces of deceased people appearing on photographs.  I had four exposures made. Two were blanks, one had the psychic face of someone I did not recognise, and the other held that of my wife, and here it is.”

“Can such a thing be true?”, he asked Fitzsimons, tears gathering in his eyes, “To me it seems impossible, yet I succeeded in getting the picture of my wife.”

“If such a thing be true, why does not the suffering, anguished world know about them?”, he cried.

“Because”, Fitzsimons answered, “people as a whole are steeped in materialism, self-conceit, ignorance, intolerance and bigotry”.[11]

Experiments in Psychics

Dingwall had no more success in convincing another psychic researcher, F. W. Warrick, that she was a fraud. Warrick was the wealthy chairman of a large London firm of wholesale druggists who became progressively obsessed by Mrs Deane, and her predominantly female household. Over eighteen months from 1923 to 1924 Warrick visited Mrs Deane’s house twice a week for personal sittings during which she exposed over 400 plates, mostly of Warrick himself.

Warrick imposed increasingly rigorous conditions on his experiments, cunningly sealing the packets of plates he gave to Mrs Deane for pre-magnetisation, and insisting on using his own camera and, most importantly, plate-holders. Although, as he admitted to Dingwall, the imposition of these stringent conditions resulted in the departure of the veiled extras, he determined to go on as long as Mrs Deane was willing, and his opinion of her remained the same. He switched his attention from the extras to the multitude of ‘freakmarks’ — chemical smudges and smears, and bursts of light — which appeared on her plates. These further investigations were also fruitless, but they did eventually lead him to undertake another 600 inconclusive thought transference experiments on Mrs Deane over the next three years. These tested her ability to write letters on sealed slates and to make marks on pieces of cartridge paper placed against her body. For the purposes of these experiments Warrick had Mrs Deane and her family move into a house he owned. One room was reserved for séances and a darkroom was built into it, as well as a small sealed cabinet for the thought transference experiments. Whilst Mrs Deane sat in the cabinet with her hands imprisoned in stocks, Warrick crouched outside and attempted to transmit his thought images to her.

Warrick scrupulously recorded all of his experiments. He eventually compiled and published them, along with his extended but inconclusive reasoning as to what they might mean, in a monumental 400-page book, Experiments in Psychics. Warrick reasoned that the disappearance of Mrs Deane’s extras as more stringent conditions were applied might be because his own desire for scientific proof was putting off Mrs Deane’s Invisible Operators; or perhaps his excessive precautions might be producing a subconscious inhibitory resentment in Mrs Deane herself. This view was confirmed for him at the weekly private séances he attended with the Deane household. At these Mrs Deane fell into a trance and spoke in the direct voice of her various spirit guides. At one of the séances Warrick asked a spirit guide Hulah —a young girl — about the absence of the extras, she replied that Warrick, “worried the medium”. At a later séance another of Mrs Deane’s spirit guides, the American Indian Brown Wolf, also confirmed that Warrick himself was the cause of the non-success of his own experiments.

Nonetheless Warrick’s obsessive fascination with Mrs Deane’s extras remained. She gave him access to her negative collection and he had 1000 of them printed up and bound, in grids of twelve per page, into four large albums, embossed with her name, which he presented to her. He asked the Society for Psychical Research to be responsible for their eventual preservation because, “the prints may be of great value — and may be sought after the world over for the purposes of study. They are unique in the world.”[12]

He scrutinised and worried over each portrait and extra. In November 1923 Mrs Deane took a portrait of Warrick on a plate that hadn’t been subject to his precautions against faking. An extra of a young woman duly appeared. Warrick thought he saw a peculiarity in the forehead of the extra and had it enlarged. Wandering over the enlargement with a strong lens he was astonished to see, in the pupil of the right eye of the extra, the image of his late father. Although indistinct it had a certain expression of the mouth which was strongly reminiscent of him. He had the eye further enlarged and the image was recognised by many people who knew his father. He had a commercial artist make a drawing of the image, and that too was recognised. He then had the eye enlarged a third time by a photo-microscopist who also testified that the image was the head of a man.

Unseen Men at the Cenotaph

Mrs Deane’s moment of greatest notoriety came in 1924 through her involvement with Estelle Stead, another eminence of the Spiritualist movement who ran a Spiritualist church and library called the Stead Bureau. Estelle Stead was the daughter of the W. T. Stead who had been photographed in the 1890s with the ‘thought mould’ extra of his spirit guide Julia. Stead was clairvoyant, but this faculty didn’t prevent him from booking a passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Shortly after he drowned, however, his spirit reappeared at a London séance and continued his Spiritualist activities as busily as ever. He transmitted the posthumous experience of the passengers on the Titanic through automatic writing to his daughter, who published them as The Blue Island.

In 1922 Estelle Stead received another ‘wireless message’ from her father that they should arrange for Mrs Deane to take a photograph in Whitehall during the Two Minutes Silence that year. A group of spiritualists were placed in the crowd to produce a ‘barrage of prayer’ and so concentrate the psychic energy, and Mrs Deane took two exposures from a high wall over the crowd, one just before the Silence, and one for the entire two minutes of the Silence. When the plates were developed the first showed a mass of light over the praying Spiritualists, and in the second what was described by the discarnate W. T. Stead as a “river of faces” and an “aerial procession of men” appeared to float dimly above the crowd.

Spirit messages received from the Other Side gave further details about how the images were produced:

Material is used from the active body of the medium to build up the picture. The material is either impressed by the communicator directly himself, or moulds are made beforehand. The armistice photographs were probably prepared beforehand in groups and either impressed upon the plates before, during, or after the Two Minutes Silence. [13]

The discarnate W. T. Stead added that there was always a difficulty in the way of the communicators who were working to press the impressions into the plates. This was because on the spirit side there was such competition for results that the crowded atmosphere made it very difficult to use the medium.

Conan Doyle took this image with him on his second tour of America, which featured an entire lantern-slide lecture on Spirit Photography. In April 1923 he lectured to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. When the image was flashed upon the screen there was a moment of silence and then gasps rose and spread over the room, and the voices and sobs of women could be heard. The spirit of a deceased mother of a fallen soldier, who was keen to tell other bereaved mothers what had become of their sons, suddenly possessed a woman in the audience who screamed out through the darkness, “Don’t you see them? Don’t you see their faces?”, and then fell into a trance.[14]  The following day the New York Times described the picture on the screen:

Over the heads of the crowd in the picture floated countless heads of men with strained grim expressions. Some were faint, some were blurs, some were marked out distinctly on the plate so that they might have been recognised by those who knew them. There was nothing else, just these heads, without even necks or shoulders, and all that could be seen distinctly were the fixed, stern, look of men who might have been killed in battle.[15]

Two more photographs were taken during the following year’s Silence. Although the heads of the Fallen were impressed upside down on Miss Violet Deane’s plate, the pictures were circulated through the Spiritualist community. Many people recognised their loved ones amongst the extras, and those on the Other Side often drew attention to their presence in the group. H. Dennis Bradley, for instance, was in contact with the spirit of his brother-in-law who told him, through a direct voice medium, that he was, “on the right-hand side of the picture, not very low down”. On the following day Bradley obtained a copy of the photograph and, to his astonishment, among the fifty spirit heads visible in the picture he found one in the position described which, under the microscope, revealed a surprising likeness to his deceased brother-in-law.[16] A Californian woman, Mrs Connell, received a copy of the picture out of the blue from a friend. Intuitively feeling that it might be meant for her particularly, she got out her ouija board to communicate with her fallen son David. She asked him if he was in the picture. “Yes”, he said, “to the right of Kitchener”. She found Lord Kitchener’s face and there, to the right of it, was her son.[17]

During 1924 there was much excitement on both sides of the Veil in the lead up to Armistice Day. Estelle Stead was continually getting messages about preparations on the Other Side, where there seemed to be a great deal of training and grouping and other excitements. She was even told to give up smoking and meat to enhance her psychic sensitivity. At Mrs Deane’s own private séances there was also much discussion amongst her various spirit guides about the upcoming event. Hulah said that the spirits were trying to arrange for a border of nurses’ heads to frame the boys. And on 21 October the guides requested that there be no more sittings until after Armistice Day to store up power.

Mrs Deane and her daughter took two more photographs of the Cenotaph at Whitehall during the Two Minutes Silence. By this time Mrs Deane no longer required the plates beforehand for pre-magnetisation, and Mrs Stead supplied her and her daughter with special, factory sealed plates on the day. The Daily Sketch  beat its rival the Daily Graphic to get the rights to the pictures from Estelle Stead and reproduce them in their pictorial section. Initially the paper took an ambivalent approach to the images. The caption simply asked of the unseen faces: “Whose are they?”.[18]

The paper thought it had answered its own question with its front page story two days later: HOW THE DAILY SKETCH EXPOSED ‘SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY’, ‘GHOSTS’ VERY MUCH ALIVE, FACES OF POPULAR SPORTING IDENTITIES IDENTIFIED IN ARMISTICE DAY PHOTOGRAPH. It reproduced the portraits of thirteen footballers and boxers, matching with the faces in the Armistice Day photograph. It was no longer ambivalent:

The exposure of truth in regard to alleged spirit photography, which deeply interests and affects multitudes of people, would not have been possible if the Daily Sketch had not, at the risk of some obloquy to itself, submitted the pictures to the rigorous searchlight of publicity, and thereby set at rest the minds of thousands who at various times have been tempted to believe in ‘spirit’ photography. [19]

But, Estelle Stead protested, if anybody wanted to deliberately perpetuate a trick, the last thing they would do would be to use such easily recognised images. Besides, a person as simple as Mrs Deane would have no idea how to prepare such a picture. The paper found Mrs Deane herself to be unflappable. This little grey-haired middle-aged woman was the least disturbed person of the lot. Unlike the others she said little but answered all questions put to her with a practised ease that bespoke an unusually capable woman. She simply refused to accept that the sportsmen’s faces were the same as those in her print.

Three days later one of the paper’s staff photographers duplicated Mrs Deane’s effects under the same test conditions. He explained how he had secreted a positive transparency of copied faces into the front of his plate-holder through which his ordinary plate was exposed (thus offering one explanation for the extraordinarily long exposure times of Mrs Deane.) The paper also published some readers’ views on the incident. “Does it not appear dastardly cruel and harsh”, one reader wrote, “that individuals, especially women, should resort to these spirit photographs, thereby ridiculing these heroes of war, and perhaps causing sorrow and distress in many homes?” Another reader agreed, “when it comes to monkeying about with something as sacred as the Two Minutes Silence you are going just a step too far and are guilty of something more than merely bad taste.”[20]

That day the paper also challenged Mrs Deane to produce spirit photographs using its equipment and facilities. Not surprisingly, she refused. “She is a charlatan and a fraud”, the paper claimed, “who has already too long imposed on the sorrows and hopes of those who lost sons and husbands and brothers in the war.”[21] Mrs Deane replied:

You challenge me to do a psychic photograph under your conditions. Do you not understand that I cannot do one under any conditions? They do not come from me. They come from some power which works through me over which I have no control. My results are often very different from what I expect. Such a power may work to console the afflicted folk. But I doubt if money would tempt it to come at the bidding of a newspaper man.[22]

As in the case of the 1923 photographs many people claimed to recognise their loved ones in the photographs. Conan Doyle saw his nephew, and Mr Pratt from Burnley saw his son Harry who had been killed in action in 1918. “This knocks the Daily Sketch argument on the head”, he wrote, “for if only one is claimed, the case for genuine spirit photography is made out.”

At her discarnate father’s suggestion Estelle sent copies of the two photographs to the medium Mrs Travers-Smith asking her to submit them to her spirit guide, Johannes, to get further comments from the Other Side. He said, through the medium:

This is an arrangement prepared beforehand from our side. The person who took this (Mrs Deane) must have been very easy to use. I see this mass of material has poured from her. It is as if smoke or steam were blown out of an engine. This material has made the atmosphere sufficiently clear to take the impress of the prepared mould which you see here. It is not as it would be if the actual faces had pressed in on the medium’s mind. A number of faces were wanted for this photograph, so a mould was prepared. The arrangement is unnatural and does not represent a crowd pressing through to the camera because it has all been carefully prepared beforehand.[23]

“I Do No More Understand How Or Why Than You Do”

In the early 1930s Mrs Deane’s very first sponsor in Spiritualism, Fred Barlow (the former secretary of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures) created a kafuffle by publicly repudiating his earlier passionate belief in, and promotion of, William Hope and Mrs Deane as genuine spirit photographers. Writing simultaneously in the sober pages of the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings and in the popular Spiritualist magazine Light, he now accused them both of fraud.[24]

Mrs Deane’s remaining staunch friend and patron, F. W. Warrick, asked her what she thought of Barlow’s sudden apostasy. Mrs Deane reminded him of the photograph whose self evident beauty had most impressed Barlow in 1920, and like the Cushman case seemed impossible to fake.

It was a sorry day for me when I discovered this photographic power. My life has lost all its ease and serenity. Before that I was respected and happy in my work, though poor; and to-day I am poor and look back on twelve years of worry and trouble and am a cock-shy for any newspaper penny-a-liner. I cannot understand Mr Barlow now saying that every Extra face that appeared on plates used by me has been put there by me fraudulently. In those days I was unsuspicious and not resentful of inquiry nor fearful of accusations. I had no knowledge then of the length the sceptic will go in his treatment of an unfortunate medium, as I am called. I put no obstacle in Mr Barlow’s way and was willing to accommodate myself to his every wish. … Once again, Mr Warrick, I assure you I have never consciously deceived sitters; I admit that many of the results obtained through me (in a way I have not the least inkling of) have every appearance of having been produced by trickery but I do no more understand how or why than you do.[25]

The authenticity of affect

I am interested in the spirit photograph because, on the one hand, in the emotional effect it had on its audience and in the visceral connection with their absent loved ones which it gave them, it seems to confirm all that is most powerful about photography. However, on the other hand, in its structure and its execution and in its use of amateurish ‘special effects’, it seems to erode the very ontological foundations on which that photographic power is built. For me, therefore, the spirit photograph enables an, admittedly eccentric, critique of the normative epistemology of the twentieth-century photograph.

On one obvious level these elaborate explanations which the spiritualists came up with to explain the effects were their attempts to maintain belief in the face of what were more easily explainable as signs of fraud (flat looking extras, hard cut-out edges, the presence of half-tone dot screens, different lighting, etc). But in doing so they invented and sustained an extraordinarily compelling, moving, and poetic photographic system.

The complex theory of spirit photography sees the spirit photograph as a completely different thing to the ordinary photograph. The locus for the spiritualist system of photography is not the camera, the lens and the shutter. That technical assemblage, of a shutter vertically slicing a rectilinearly projected image, has been central to photographic theory, with a direct lineage going back to the Renaissance. Instead, the locus for spiritualist photography was the sensitive photographic plate alone.

The process of making a spirit photograph is not that of ‘snapping’ an image of an anterior scene and thereby making a direct stencil from the Real; rather it is a process of activating the photographic emulsion as a soft, wet, labile membrane between two worlds—the living and the dead, experience and memory. The spirit photograph’s emulsion is sensitised chemically by the application of developers, and magically by the meeting of hands and the melding of mutual memories. The resultant image is not the mute and inert residue of an optical process, decisively excised from time and space, but a hyper-sensitised screen which two images had reached out from opposite sides to touch, both leaving behind their imprint.

Scientifically inclined spiritualists, and the anti-spiritualist media alike, were obsessed with establishing whether the spirit photograph was either an authentic, or a fake, document of an anterior psychic phenomenon. But for the mediums themselves, and their sitters, this missed the point. Authenticity was not found in the photograph as document, but in the photograph as transactional object. The spirit photograph was a voodoo or votive object passed between spirit, medium and sitter in the private ritual of the portrait sitting. The authenticity of the psychic photograph was not based on how closely it laminated itself to an anterior event, but how strongly it effected affect in its users.

Sceptics at the time pointed out again and again that the process of photography was thoroughly familiar, and the phenomena of double exposure, montage, light leaking, and chemical fogging were well known to any knowledgable person. (Indeed popular theatre and cinema had long been reproducing spiritualist and seance illusions, and thereby exposing them as explicit mechanical and optical effects.[26]) Maddeningly for the sceptics, the spiritualists quite agreed with them. But, as they wearily replied time and time again, just because spirit photographs could be faked, didn’t mean they were faked. Those on the Other Side had access to the same techniques as any Earth Plane photographer to manifest their presence.

The spiritualists were not concerned that the effects of the psychic photograph were shared by stage magicians or Hollywood films, or could be easily duplicated by fraudsters. In their ecumenical universe everybody—magicians, film makers, fraudsters, and the ‘Mysterious Operators of the Invisible’—had access to the same effects, but they could not, ultimately, produce quite the same affects in an audience. Only the Mysterious Operators could personally deliver to each and every viewer his or her own personal uncanny experience.

The spiritualists certainly wanted their beliefs to be positively validated. They wanted them to be scientifically authentic, and that authenticity required evidence. And, when they were absolutely compelled to recognise the face on a photographic plate as that of a departed loved one, that was their positive evidence. But, by its nature, this positive evidence, the conviction of recognition, could only manifest itself within the cocoon of their own previously formed belief and desire. The two reinforced each other, and no amount of scepticism was able to prise the couplet of recognition and belief apart.

The body and technology

The central Spiritualist tenet was that the human personality survived beyond bodily death. This belief downgraded the specificity, and the spatial and temporal obduracy, of the life lived within our bodies. Instead, Spiritualists valorised linkages: webs of connections, filial binds, and ties of mutual memory between people living and dead. Spiritualists, like all good early twentieth century modernists, were entranced by new technology, but they did not see technology as alien to the body. For them technology and the body interpenetrated each other, or interfaced with each other.

New technology played a vital role in the spiritualist crusade. Like all technologists, spiritualists saw themselves as pioneers of a new historical epoch. The modern march of technology, with the spectrum being pushed in both directions towards both radio waves and x-rays, proved that there was a ‘beyond’ to human knowledge of unknowable extent which could be, and was being, advanced upon by scientific investigation.

The spiritualist idea that human consciousness could be disembodied in death, but then supernaturally transmitted and re-embodied within the cast or template of an image, is not such an astonishing one in a technological context where living human bodies were already being delaminated, doubled and dispersed, peeled apart and projected, by the wireless, the telegraph, the wire picture, the x-ray and the telephone. Spirits were early adopters of this new technology, using all of it to get in touch with the Earth Plane.

Metaphors and analogies

The uncanniness of new technology, where material opacity melts and the unique became multiplied, operated as both a poetic metaphor and a positivist analogy for spiritualist practices. Hence, for instance, messages received from her deceased father by automatic writing were referred to by Estelle Stead as wireless messages.

Another common assemblage[27] of poetic metaphor/positivist analogy was the lantern slide screen, as in this message telegraphed from the discarnate W.T. Stead in 1917 which asked people receiving thought messages from the Other Side to keep their minds blank, so the images projected were not obliterated:

[T]he living self in the unseen must flash itself on the living self in the seen. [T]he screen of the conscious mind must be bare of images, so that the active mind in the unseen can throw its images onto a clear surface… While the conscious mind incarnate is active it is busily picturing what it desires… The screen of the mind is full of these thought images, and the images received from us are blotted and indistinct, confused and dimmed.[28]

The assemblage of the screen was technically related to the unexposed photographic plate and to the cinema screen, but it also drew upon every individual Spiritualist’s intimate, but communal, relationship with the lantern-slide lecture. In 1920 Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Adelaide to begin his lantern-slide lecture circuit through Australia and a strange phenomenon occurred which he could only explain as a ghost inhabiting the machine itself.

I had shown a slide the effect of which depended upon a single spirit face appearing amid a crowd of others. This slide was damp, and as photos under these circumstances always clear from the edges when placed in the lantern, the whole centre was so thickly fogged that I was compelled to admit that I could not myself see the spirit face. Suddenly, as I turned away, rather abashed by my failure, I heard cries of “There it is”, and looking up again I saw this single face shining out from the general darkness with so bright and vivid an effect that I never doubted for a moment that the operator was throwing  a spotlight upon it. … [N]ext morning Mr Thomas, the operator, who is not a Spiritualist, came in in great excitement to say that a palpable miracle had been wrought, and that in his great experience of thirty years he had never known a photo dry from the centre, nor, as I understood him, become illuminated in such a fashion.[29]

Spirit communicators kept pace with the thickening density of audio and visual technologies. As the twentieth century progressed transmitted messages began to be received less as one-to-one psychic telegraphs, projections or impressions, and more as general psychic broadcasts. Spiritual forces increasingly revealed themselves to those inhabiting this side of the Veil in the temporarily legible patterning of chaotic matrices: from those who picked up transmissions from the dead in the static of radio receivers; to those who heard voices in the sound of tape hiss; to those who saw faces on their TV screens after the stations had shut down for the night.[30]

The theory of the spiritualist portrait

It is an important point that the theory of the spiritualist portrait does not conform to the more obvious model of the photographer’s studio, with spirits manifesting themselves to be photographed in front of the camera. Rather the dominant model is the printer’s press, or sculptor’s foundry, where prepared moulds are filled with ectoplasm, or impressed into soft photoplasmic emulsion.

Photographic emulsion—creamy, gelatinous, sensitive to light, bathed in chemicals and cradled by hands—became poetically and technically related to the most mysterious, potent substance in the spiritualist’s world: ectoplasm. Ectoplasm was definitely rooted in the materiality of the body, it was feminine, moist and labile and often smelt of the bodily fluids it was imagistically related to (because, in fact, it was usually chiffon secreted in the medium’s vagina, or ingested by her before the séance). Researchers noted that the medium’s body got lighter as the ectoplasm was extruded, and often the medium screamed if it was suddenly touched or exposed to light. Ectoplasm could form itself into shapes (in the nineteenth century it could even embody, or body forth, complete material spirits who would walk around the room), but it could also act as an emulsion—receiving imprints or filling moulds. So this substance was not only a physical stage in a process of transubstantiation, but also a technological interface, a bio/techno diaphragm. As Lady Conan Doyle explained:

A photographic medium is one who gives out enough special ectoplasm … for the Spirit folk to use in impressing their faces on the plate with the human sitter.[31]

History

For many decades spirit photography had absolutely no place in any reputable history of photography.[32]  That it is why it is difficult to think back eighty years to the 1920s when these images were scandalous, certainly, but also, in a sense, possible. That is, the affects of their effects had substantial currency. They briefly played big time in the mass media. By the 1930s, however, they had become impossible. They still had their adherents, but by then Conan Doyle’s regular posthumous appearance on the photographic plates of William Hope and Mrs Deane must have increasingly seemed to newspaper readers to be stories about human gullibility and eccentricity, rather than the possibility of seeing the dead. By then picture magazines were well established as the mass medium of the day. And their address to their readers was driven by a valorising of the photographer’s index finger, jerking in empathic response to fleeting scenes as they sped through time. The picture magazines fetishised the camera’s guillotining shutter blade slicing up this linear time—which moved in one direction only, from the past to the future—into historically fixed instants.

By the 1930s all photographs, even personal snapshots, had tended to become attached to the logic of press reportage, the logic of the decisive moment.[33] All photographs became irrevocably about pastness, about the instantaneous historicisation and memorialisation of time. But spirit photographs cheerfully included multiple times, and multiple time vectors. As personal snapshots kept in albums or cradled in hands they did not represent the exquisite attenuation of the ‘that has been’ of a moment from the past disappearing further down the time tunnel as it was gazed at in the present, nor the frozen image’s inevitable prediction of our own mortality, rather they were material witness to the possibility of endless recursions, returns and simultaneities.

These images are performative. They work best when their sitters had seen them well-up from the depths of the emulsion in the medium’s developing tray, or seen them suddenly flashed on the screen in a lantern slide lecture. Their power lies not in their reportage of a pro-filmic real elsewhere in time and space, but in their audience’s affective response to them in the audience’s own time and place. They solicit a tacit suspension of disbelief from their audience, while at the same time they brazenly inveigle a tacit belief in special effects. These special effects are traded from other genres such as film or stage-craft using the currency of the audience’s thirst for belief. They shamelessly exploit the wounded psychology of their audience to confirm their truth, not by their mute indexical reference to the Real, but through the audience’s own indexical enactment of their traumatic affect. Their truth is not an anterior truth, but a manifest truth that is indexed by the audience as they cry out at the shock of the recognition of their departed loved ones.

The recent resurgence of interest in spirit photography indicates that the photograph can still be regarded as something other than a snapshot image, it can still be recognised as an auratic object. Current interest in spirit photographs reveals the continued power and enigma of the photograph, despite predictions in the 1990s of its demise at the hands of universal digitisation. For me the spirit photograph of the 1920s especially resonates with the ways the photograph as artefact is still used today in both public and private rituals of memory, mourning and loss. Memory, mourning and loss, of course, also underpin the canonic theory of the photograph as it was developed during the twentieth century.


[1][Krauss, 1994 #2]

[2][Hall, 1962 #1]

[3][, 1919 #5]

[4][, 1920 #10]

[5][Brandon, 1983 #8]

[6]. F. W. Warrick, Experiments in Psychics: Practical Studies in Direct Writing, Supernormal Photography, and other phenomena mainly with Mrs Ada Emma Deane, London, Rider and Co, Paternoster House, 1939.

[7]. Fred Barlow, ‘Pychic Photographs, Interesting Experiments with a New Sensitive’, The Two Worlds, 19 November 1920.

[8]. B. W. Charles Pilley, John Bull, 17 December 1921.

[9]  Doyle spirit phot book

[10]. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case for Spirit Photography, London, Hutchinson and Co, 1922.

[11]. F. W. Fitzsimons, Opening the Psychic Door: Thirty Years Experiences, London, Hutchinson & Co, 1933.

[12]. F. W. Warrick, Letter to Eric Dingwall, 1924, Deane Medium File. These albums are now in the Society for Psychical Research Archive at the Cambridge University Library. They formed the basis of the exhibition Faces of the Living Dead, the appendix to this thesis.

[13]. Estelle Stead, Faces of the Living Dead, Manchester, Two Worlds Publishing Company, 1925.

[14]. Kelvin Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: The Spiritualist career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Aquarian Press, 1989.

[15]. ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Carnegie Hall’, Harbinger of Light, July, 1923.

[16]. Nandor Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press Limited, 1933.

[17]. Mrs Connell, Letter to Society for Psychical Research, 1925, Deane Medium File.

[18]. ‘UNSEEN MEN AT CENOTAPH’, Daily Sketch, London, 13 November 1924.

[19]. ‘HOW THE DAILY SKETCH EXPOSED “SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY”, Daily Sketch, London, 15 November 1924.

[20]. ”SPIRITS’ WHILE YOU WAIT’, Daily Sketch, London, 18 November 1924.

[21]. ‘£1000 TEST FOR MEDIUM BIG SUM FOR CHARITY IF CENOTAPH CLAIMANT CAN TAKE ‘SPIRIT PICTURES UNDER FAIR CONDITIONS, WILL MRS DEANE ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE’, The Daily Sketch, London, 19 November 1924.

[22]. ”SPIRIT’ PHOTOGRAPHER RUNS AWAY’, Daily Sketch, London, 21 November 1924.

[23]. Estelle Stead, Faces of the Living Dead.

[24]. Fred Barlow, ‘Psychic Photography Debated: Major W.R. Rose and Mr Fred Barlow State Their Case Against William Hope’s Work’, Light, 19 May 1933. Fred Barlow, ‘Report on an Investigation in Spirit Photography’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, XLI, March 1933.

[25]. F. W. Warrick, Experiments in Psychics.

[26] [Gunning, 1995 #3]  p61. See also the Georges Melies film  A spiritualist Photographer, 1903.

[27]  To Gilles Deleuze an assemblage is, “simultaneously and inseparably a machinic assemblage and an assemblage of enunciation”. Jonathan Crary discusses modernity in terms of two related assemblages: the camera obscura and the stereoscope. See [Crary, 1990 #412], p31, and [Crary, 1999 #355]

[28]Stead, Estelle, “And Some of Them are Photographed”, Harbinger of Light, February 1918.

[29] [Doyle, 1921 #299], p76-77.

[30]  These reports were amongst the stories which motivated the British artist Susan Hiller in her long term engagement with the power of the paranormal in contemporary experience. See, [Hiller, 2000 #410]

[31] [Doyle, 1931 #411]

[32]  Exceptions are Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s tongue in cheek “Photographing Ghosts”, in  Photography, London, Vol. X11, p53. Cited in [Krauss, 1994 #309], p135.

[33]  I am here bringing forward the famous phrase which wasn’t coined until later by Henri Cartier-Bresson in his book The Decisive Moment, Simon and Schuster, 1952.

‘Spectres from the Archive’, MESH 18, Experimenta Media Arts, Melbourne, 2005

Spectres from the Archive

The dead have been making themselves visible to the living for millennia. In Purgatory, Dante asked Virgil how it was that he was able to see the souls of the dead with whom he was speaking, while their bodies had been left behind in the grave. Virgil beckoned a spirit who replied that, just as the colours of reflected rays filled rain-filled air, so the un-resurrected soul virtually impressed its form upon the air.[1] Similarly, the ghost of Hamlet’s father was as invulnerable to blows from a weapon as the air. It was a mere image which faded at cock-crow. But, for the last several centuries, these diaphanous, insubstantial condensations of light and air have been acquiring a technological, rather than a natural, phenomenology.

In the years following the French Revolution Etienne-Gaspard Robertson terrified crowds with the first phantasmagoria show, which he staged in a convent that had been abandoned by its nuns during The Terror. He made his magic-lantern projections, of paintings of gory figures such as The Bleeding Nun, appear to be phantasmic entities by blacking out their glass backgrounds and projecting them onto stretched gauzes, waxed screens, and billows of smoke. By placing the magic-lantern on wheels, which was dollied backwards by an operator, he gave these luminous, translucent apparitions the power to suddenly loom out over the audience. At an 1825 London phantasmagoria show the impact of this effect on the audience was electric. According to an eyewitness the hysterical screams of a few ladies in the first seats of the pit induced a cry of ‘lights’ from their immediate friends, but the operator made the phantom, The Red Woman of Berlin, appear to dash forward again. The confusion that followed was alarming even to the stoutest: “the indiscriminate rush to the doors was prevented only by the deplorable state of most of the ladies; the stage was scaled by an adventurous few, the Red Woman’s sanctuary violated, the unlucky operator’s cavern of death profaned, and some of his machinery overturned, before light restored order and something like an harmonious understanding with the cause of alarm”.[2]

In the eighteenth century the host of supernatural beings — such as ghosts, devils and angles — who had long inhabited the outside world alongside humans, were finally internalised under the illumination of Reason as mere inner-projections of consciousness — fantasies of the mind or pathologies of the brain. During this period, in Terry Castle’s phrase,  “Ghosts and spectres retain their ambiguous grip on the human imagination; they simply migrate into the space of the mind”.[3] But, as she goes on to explain, technologies such as the phantasmagoria allowed these images of consciousness to project themselves outside the mind once more, into the space of shared human experience. They were destined to return from the brain to re-spectralize visual culture.

The eighteenth century also changed the way in which death was experienced. No longer an ever-present communal experience, the effect of someone’s death became focussed onto a few individuals — their family — just as the various processes of death and mourning became privatised and quarantined within the institutions of the home, the hospital, and the necropolis.[4] One response to this was the rise in the nineteenth century of an extraordinary cult of the dead  — Spiritualism — which gripped the popular imagination well into the twentieth century. Spiritualism was the belief that the dead lived, and that they could communicate. Spiritualism was a quintessentially modernist phenomenon, and Spiritualists, as well as the spirits themselves, used all emerging technologies to demonstrate the truth of survival.[5]

The early years of Spiritualist communication were conducted under the metaphoric reign of the telegraph. In 1848 the world’s first modern Spiritualist medium, a young girl called Kate Fox, achieved world-wide fame by developing a simplified morse-code of raps to communicate with the spirits who haunted her small house in upstate New York. Twenty years later portraits of spirits began to appear on the carte-de-visite plates of the world’s first medium photographer, William Mumler. Spirit photographs were a personal phantasmagoria. Just as Robertson’s phantoms were lantern-slides projected onto screens, spirit photographs were actually prepared images double-exposed onto the negative. But the spirit photographer’s clients sat for their portrait filled with the belief that they might once more see the countenance of a loved one; they concentrated on the loved one’s memory during the period of the exposure; and they often joined the photographer in the alchemical cave of the darkroom to see their own face appear on the negative, to be shortly joined by another face welling up from the emulsion — a spirit who they usually recognised as a loved one returning to them from the oblivion of death. For these clients the spirit photograph was not just a spectacle, it was an almost physical experience of the truth of spirit return.

Public interest in spirit photography reached its highest pitch in the period just after World War One, when the unprecedented death toll of the war, combined with the effect of an influenza pandemic, caused a public craze for Spiritualism.[6] On Armistice Day in 1922 the London spirit photographer Mrs Ada Deane stood above the crowd at Whitehall and opened her lens for the entire duration of the Two Minutes Silence. When the plate was developed it showed a ‘river of faces’, an ‘aerial procession of men’, who appeared to float dimly above the crowd.[7]

When the ardent Spiritualist convert, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, lectured to a packed house at Carnegie Hall the following year, he flashed this image up on the lantern-slide screen. There was a moment of silence and then gasps rose and spread over the audience, and the voices and sobs of women could be heard. A woman in the audience screamed out through the darkness, “Don’t you see them? Don’t you see their faces?” before falling into a trance.[8] The following day the New York Times described the image on the screen: “Over the heads of the crowd in the picture floated countless heads of men with strained grim expressions. Some were faint, some were blurs, some were marked out distinctly on the plate so that they might have been recognised by those who knew them. There was nothing else, just these heads, without even necks or shoulders, and all that could be seen distinctly were the fixed, stern, look of men who might have been killed in battle.”[9]

The Spiritualist understanding of photography was underwritten by a keen, and highly imaginative, conception of two substances: ether and ectoplasm. Since Morse’s first telegraphing of the words “what hath God wrought” in 1844, and Kate Fox’s first telegraphing to the spirits four years later, the air had steadily thickened as it was filled by more and more of the electromagnetic spectrum: from the electrical ionisation of residual gas in a cathode-ray tube (discovered by Sir William Crookes, who also photographed the full body materialization of a spirit Katie King by electric light); to x-rays (developed in part by Sir Oliver Lodge, who communicated with his dead son, Raymond, for many years after he fell in World War One);  to radio-waves; to television transmission. From the late nineteenth century until the period when Einstein’s theories made it redundant, most physicists agreed that some intangible interstitial substance, which they called ether, must be necessary as the medium to carry and support X-rays, radio waves, and perhaps even telepathic waves, from the point of transmission to point of reception. Since sounds, messages and images could be sent through thin air and solid objects, why not portraits from the other side?[10]

If ether allowed Spiritualist beliefs to be made manifest through electrical science, ectoplasm allowed them to be made manifest through the body. For about thirty years after the turn of the century various, mainly female, mediums extruded this mysterious, mucoid, placental substance from their bodily orifices, whilst groaning as though they were giving birth. Sometimes this all-purpose, proto-plasmic, inter-dimensional stuff seemed able to grow itself into the embryonic forms of spiritual beings, at other times it acted as a membranous emulsion which took their two dimensional photographic imprint. For instance on 1 May 1932 a psychic investigator from Winnipeg, Dr T. G. Hamilton, photographed a teleplasmic image of the spirit of Doyle (who had ‘crossed over’ the year before) impressed into the ectoplasm that came from mouth and nostrils of a medium.[11]

Just as spirit photographs were in reality various forms of double exposure, such teleplasms were in reality small photographs and muslin swallowed by the medium and then regurgitated in the darkness to be briefly caught by the investigator’s flash during the intense psychodrama of the séance. Nonetheless, for the Spiritualists they confirmed an associative chain that poetically and technically extended all the way from ectoplasm to photographic emulsion — creamy, hyper-sensitive to light, and bathed in chemicals.[12]

The Spiritualists placed photography at the centre of their cult of the dead. And modernity’s cultural theorists placed death at the centre of their response to photography. Photography was compared to embalming, resurrection, and spectralization. The horrible, uncanny image of the corpse, with its mute intimation of our own mortality, haunted every photograph. For instance to Siegfried Kracauer, writing in the 1920s, a photograph was good at preserving the image of the external cast-off remnants of people, such as their clothes, but could not capture their real being. The photograph: “dissolves into the sum of its details, like a corpse, yet stands tall as if full of life.”[13] The blind production and consumption of thousands upon thousands of these photographs was the emergent mass-media’s attempt to substitute itself for the acceptance of death implicit in personal, organic memory: “What the photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory image. In the illustrated magazines the world has become a photographable present, and the photographed present has been entirely eternalised.”[14]

To a subsequent critic, Andre Bazin, our embrace of the photograph was also a pathetic attempt to beat death. The sepia phantoms in old family albums were, “no longer traditional family portraits, but rather the disturbing presence of lives halted at a set moment in their duration … by the power of an impassive mechanical process: for photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.”[15]

In Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida, his almost necrophilic meditation on photography written while in the grim grip of grief for his mother, the photograph’s indexicality, the fact that it was a direct imprint from the real, made it a phenomenological tautology, where both sign and referent, “are glued together, limb by limb, like the condemned man and the corpse in certain tortures.”[16] In posing for a portrait photograph, he says, “I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death … : I am truly becoming a spectre.”[17] Later he reduces this essence of the portrait photograph down even further. It is not only an exact process of optical transcription, it is also an exquisitely attenuated chemical transfer, an effluvial emanation of another body—“an ectoplasm of ‘what-has-been’: neither image nor reality, a new being really.”[18]

Although wildly extrapolating upon the intimate connection between photography and death, the Spiritualist use of photography ran counter to the dominant perception of the photograph as irrevocably about pastness, about the instantaneous historicisation and memorialisation of time. Spirit photographs cheerfully included multiple times, and multiple time vectors. Spirit photographs were collected and used by Spiritualists very much like the millions of other personal snapshots that were being kept in albums and cradled in hands. But for them they did not represent the exquisite attenuation of the “that has been” of a moment from the past disappearing further down the time tunnel as it was gazed at in the present, nor the frozen image’s inevitable prediction of our own mortality. Rather, they were material witnesses to the possibility of endless emergences, returns and simultaneities.

The images were performative. They worked best when their sitters had seen them well-up from the depths of the emulsion in the medium’s developing tray, or seen them suddenly flashed on the screen in a lantern-slide lecture. Their power lay not in their reportage of a pro-filmic real elsewhere in time and space, but in their audience’s affective response to them in the audience’s own time and place. They solicited a tacit suspension of disbelief from their audience, at the same time as they brazenly inveigled a tacit belief in special effects. Spirit photographs used the currency of the audience’s thirst for belief to trade-up on the special effects they borrowed from cinema and stage magic —which had also descended from the phantasmagoria. They shamelessly exploited the wounded psychology of their audience to confirm their truth, not by their mute indexical reference to the real, but through the audience’s own indexical enactment of their traumatic affect. Their truth was not an anterior truth, but a manifest truth that was indexed by the audience as they cried out at the shock of recognition for their departed loved ones.

In mainstream thought about photography the two signal characteristics which defined photography and photography alone, physical indexicality and temporal ambiguity, were in their turn produced by two technical operations: the lens projecting an image of an anterior scene into the camera, and the blade of the shutter slicing that cone of light into instants. But the Spiritualist theory of photography discounted that technical assemblage, along with the ‘decisive moments’ it produced. It shifted the locus of photography back to the stretched sensitive membrane of the photographic emulsion, and dilated the frozen instant of the snapshot over the full duration of the séance.

Many contemporary artists are rediscovering the richly imaginative world the Spiritualists created for themselves. Others are strategically deploying the same technical effects once surreptitiously used by spirit photographers. These contemporary invocations are no longer directly underpinned by Spiritualist faith, but they do reinhabit and reinvent the metaphysical, performative and iconographic legacy of the Spiritualists. For these artists, as much as for the Spiritualists themselves, images, bodies, beliefs and memories swirl around and collide in intoxicating obsession. And technologies of image storage, retrieval, transmission and reproduction are simultaneously the imaginative tropes, and the technical means, for communicating with the beyond. For the Spiritualists the beyond was a parallel ‘other side’ to our mundane existence, for some contemporary artists it is quite simply the past.[19]

For instance the New York based artist Zoe Beloff folds famous episodes from the history of Spiritualism back into her use of new interactive technologies. Examples are the interactive CD-Rom, Beyond, 1997; the stereoscopic film based on the extraordinary ‘auto-mythology’ of the nineteenth-century medium Madame D’Esperance, Shadowland or Light From the Other Side, 2000; and the installation of stereoscopic projections based on the first séances of Spiritualism’s most famous ectoplasmic medium, Ideoplastic Materializations of Eva C., 2004. Some of Beloff’s works resurrect dead-end technologies and apparatuses, such as a 1950s stereoscopic home-movie camera to, for instance, directly link contemporary notions of virtuality to nineteenth century stage illusions, such as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, where a live performer behind a sheet of glass interacted with a virtual phantasm reflected in it. She deploys the occult to re-introduce desire, wonder, fear and belief into what most media histories would have us think was just the bland march of ever-increasing technological sophistication. Like many of us, and like all of the people to first see a photograph or hear a sound recording, Beloff is still fascinated by the fact that the dead live on, re-embodied in technology. She remains interested in conjuring them up and interfacing between past and present like a Spiritualist medium.[20]

For his installation The Influence Machine, 2000, the New York video artist Tony Oursler projected giant ghost-heads of the pioneer ‘mediums’ of the ether, such as Robertson, John Logie Baird and Kate Fox, onto trees and billows of smoke in the heart of the world’s two biggest media districts, London’s Soho Square and New York’s Madison Square Park. These disembodied heads uttered disjointed phrases of dislocation and fragmentation, while elsewhere a fist banged out raps, and ghostly texts ticker-taped up tree trunks. In his Timestream, an extended timeline of the development of ‘mimetic technologies’, Oursler drew an occult trajectory through the more conventional history of media ‘development’, and identified that the dead no longer reside on an inaccessible ‘other side’, but survive in media repositories. To him: “Television archives store millions of images of the dead, which wait to be broadcast … to the living … at this point, the dead come back to life to have an influence … on the living Television is, then, truly the spirit world of our age. It preserves images of the dead which then continue to haunt us.”[21]

The most famous spectre of the nineteenth century was the spectre of communism which, in the very first phrase of the Communist Manifesto, Marx declared to be haunting Europe. But this, unlike almost every other spectre, was not a grim revenant returning from the past, but a bright harbinger of the future when capitalism would inevitably collapse under its internal contradictions ushering in the golden age of communism. But now communism is dead and buried, and when its spectre is raised it is not to haunt us, but to be a parable affirming the supposed ‘naturalness’ of capitalism.[22]

This circular irony formed the background to Stan Douglas’s installation Suspiria from Documenta 11 of 2003. The spectral temper of the imagery was achieved by overlapping a video signal with the over-saturated Technicolor palette of the 1977 cult horror film Suspiria. The piece deconstructed Grimm’s 250 fairy tales into a data-base of narrative elements, often centring on characters vainly seeking short cuts to wealth and happiness by extracting payments and debts. These fragments were videoed using actors wearing clothes and make-up in the primary colours. The chromatic channel of the video signal was separated and randomly superimposed, like an early-model colour TV with ghosting reception, over a switching series of live surveillance video-feeds from a stony subterranean labyrinth. These fleeting evanescent apparitions endlessly chased each other round and round the blank corridors.[23]

As well as the phantasmagoric apparatuses of projection and superimposition, with their long histories in mainstream entertainment as well as the occult, artists such as Douglas or Oursler have begun to deploy another newly occulted apparatus — the data-base.  For instance, Life after Wartime, presented at the Sydney Opera House in 2003, was an interactive, ‘performance’ of an archive of crime scene photographs which had been assembled by Sydney’s police-force in the decades following the Second World War. Kate Richards and Ross Gibson sat at laptops and midi keyboards and brought up strings of images which, combined with evocative haikus, were projected onto two large screens. Beneath the screens The Necks, a jazz trio well known for their ominous movie music, improvised a live soundtrack of brooding ambience. Although not directly picturing spectres, the texts and images did generate open-ended non-specific narratives around a set of semi-fictionalised characters and locations in the ‘port city’ of Sydney. These characters became invisible presences occupying the creepy emptiness of the crime scenes. The element of automation in the way the story engine generated the loose narratives preserved the integrity, the artefactuality, of the original archive. Ross Gibson wrote:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. This is why I was attracted to the material in the first instance — because it appeared peculiar, had secrets to divulge and promised to take me somewhere past my own limitations. Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to ‘séance up’ the spirit of the evidence … [24]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist ‘medium’ for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro tidbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images. This sense of the autonomy of other times preserved in the archive also informs the work of the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran. In 1997 she made a ‘metaphorical x-ray’ of a nineteenth-century historic house. She carefully removed items of the colonial family’s clothing from its drawers and cupboards and, in a darkened room, laid them gently onto photographic paper before exposing it to light. In the photograms the luminous baby dresses and night-gowns floated ethereally against numinous blackness. To Ferran the photogram process made them look, “three-dimensional, life-like, as if it has breathed air into them in the shape of a body. … With no context to secure these images, it’s left up to an audience to deal with visual effects that seem to have arisen of their own accord, that are visually striking but in an odd, hermetic way.”[25]

In contrast to this diaphanous ineffability, Rafael Goldchain’s Familial Ground, 2001, was an autobiographical installation in which the artist physically entered the archive of the family album, seeking to know and apprehend the dead. He re-enacted family photographs of his ancestors, building on his initial genetic resemblance to them by using theatrical make-up, costuming, and digital alteration, weaving the replicated codes of portraiture through their shared DNA.  He saw these performances, along with the uncannily doubled portraits they produced, as acts of mourning, remembrance, inheritance and legacy for his Eastern European Jewish heritage, which had been sundered by the Holocaust. The portraits supplemented public acts of Holocaust mourning with a private genealogical communion with the spectres of his ancestors who still inhabited his family’s albums. The dead became a foundation for his identity, which he could pass on to his son. They took on his visage as they emerged into visibility, reminding him of the unavoidable and necessary work of inheritance.[26]

The Native American artist Carl Beam also builds his contemporary identity on the basis of a special connection he feels to old photographs. He uses liquid photo-emulsion, photocopy transfer and collage to layer together historic photographs — such as romanticised portraits of Sitting Bull — and personal photographs —such as family snaps — into ghostly palimpsests. The collages directly call on spectres from the past to authorise his personal, bricolaged spiritual symbology. They allow him to time travel and re-build a foundation for his identity out of fragments from the past.

In 1980 Australia’s most eminent art historian Bernard Smith gave a series of lectures under the title The Spectre of Truganini. In the nineteenth century Truganini had become a much-photographed colonial celebrity as the ‘last’ of the ‘full-blood’ Tasmanian Aborigines. Smith’s argument was that, despite white Australia’s attempt to blot out and forget the history of its own brutal displacement of Australia’s indigenous population, the repressed would continue to return and haunt contemporary Australia until proper amends were made.[27]

As indigenous activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits, such as those of Truganini, began to be conceived of as not only the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide, but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young indigenous artists to ‘occult up’ their ancestors. Their re-use attempted to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two way corridor through time, or a sense of New Age channelling.

The anthropological photographs used by urban indigenous photographers are not monuments, like the statues or photographs of white pioneers might aspire to be, because they do not commemorate a historical closure on the past. In a way they are anti-monuments, images of unquiet ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves. In a Barthesian meditation on nineteenth-century anthropological photographs the indigenous photographer Brenda L. Croft, who uses Photoshop to float imprecatory words of loss within images of her ancestors, retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in the portraits. “Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child and … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work. … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.”[28]

However, rather than laying their ancestors to rest, some indigenous artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various campaigns of resistance. For instance one of the first Australian indigenous photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her exhibition Patterns of Connection, 1992, travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. For her large deeply-coloured photo-compositions anthropological photographs were copied and liberated from the archives of the State Library of Victoria to be superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. This process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: “From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.”[29]

Writers at the time commented on the way her photographs seemed to remobilise their subjects. The original portraits ‘contained’ their subjects as objects, which could be held in the hand, collected, stored and viewed at will. Their placement of the figure well back from the picture plane within a fabricated environment created a visual gulf between viewer and object. But King-Smith reversed that order. Her large colour-saturated images ‘impressed’ the viewer: “The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs”.[30]

Leah King-Smith comes closest to holding spiritualist beliefs of her own. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that, “people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.”[31] Her work animistically gave the museum photographs she re-used a spiritualist function. Many of her fellow indigenous artists criticised her for being too generalist, for not knowing the stories of the people whose photographs she used, and not asking the permission of the traditional owners of the land she makes them haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described this as a “strategic essentialism”. “There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds. … But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable. …  Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.”[32]

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality, other indigenous artists have also attempted to use the power of the old photograph make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past. In a series of works from the late 1990s Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity, and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous, 1996, I Split Your Gaze, 1997 and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You], 1998.

Andrew uses the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects to simply re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately re-inscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. However other strategic re-occupations of the archive show more respect for the dead, and seek only to still the frenetic shuttle of appropriative gazes between us and them. For instance in Fiona Foley’s re-enactments of the colonial photographs of her Badtjala ancestors, Native Blood, 1994, the gaze is stopped dead in its tracks by Foley’s own obdurate, physical body. To the post-colonial theorist Olu Oguibe: “In Foley’s photographs the Other makes herself available, exposes herself, invites our gaze if only to re-enact the original gaze, the original violence perpetrated on her. She does not disrupt this gaze nor does she return it. She recognises that it is impossible to return the invasive gaze … Instead Foley forces the gaze to blink, exposes it to itself.”[33]

But the ghosts of murdered and displaced Aborigines aren’t the only spectres to haunt Australia. White Australia also has a strong thread of spectral imagery running through its public memory for the ANZAC digger soldiers, who fell and were buried in their thousands in foreign graves during all of the twentieth century’s major wars. Following World War One an official cult of the memory developed around the absent bodies of the dead, involving painting, photography, elaborate annual dawn rituals, and a statue erected in each and every town.

Like indigenous ghosts, Anzac ghosts also solicit the fickle memory of a too self-absorbed, too quickly forgetful later generation. Since 1999 the photographer Darren Siwes, of indigenous and Dutch heritage, has performed a series of spectral photographs in Australia and the UK. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings, he refers to an indigenous haunting, certainly; but because he is ghosted standing to attention whilst wearing a generic suit, he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalised, accusatory masculinity — exactly the same feeling that a memorial ANZAC statue gives.

Siwes’ photographs are mannered, stiff and visually dull, but they have proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators in Australia and internationally. One reason for his widespread success may be that the spectre he creates is entirely generic — a truculent black man in a suit — and therefore open to any number of guilt-driven associations from the viewer. Similarly, many of the other indigenous artists who have used photographs to haunt the present have produced works which are visually stilted or overwrought.  But they too have been widely successful, not because of their inherent visual qualities, but because of the powerful ethical and political question which the very idea of a spectre is still able to supplicate, or exhort, from viewers who themselves are caught-up in a fraught relationship between the present and the past, current government policy and historical dispossession. That question is: what claims do victims from past generations have on us to redeem them?[34]

As photographic archives grow in size, accessibility and malleability they will increasingly become our psychic underworld, from which spectres of the past are conjured. Like Dante’s purgatory they will order virtual images of the dead in layers and levels, waiting to interrogate the living, or to be interrogated by them. Through photography the dead can be invoked to perform as revenants. They will be used to warn, cajole, inveigle, polemicise and seduce. But as always it is we, the living, who will do the work of interpretation, or perform the act of response. Like the viewers of Robertson’s phantasmagoria we think we know that these spectres are mere illusions, the products of mechanical tricks and optical effects. But just as surely we also know that the images we are seeing were once people who actually lived, and that the technologies through which they are appearing to us now will also uncannily project our own substance through time and space in the future, when we ourselves are dead. This knowledge gives photographic spectres more than just rhetorical effect. They can pierce through historical quotation with a sudden temporal and physical presence. Yet at the same time they remain nothing more than the provisional technical animation of flat, docile images. In the end, they are as invulnerable to our attempts to hold onto them as the air.

Martyn Jolly

“Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Carnegie Hall”, Harbinger of Light, (1923)

P. Ariés, The Hour of Our Death (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1981)

U. Baer, “Revision, Animation, Rescue”, Spectral Evidence : The Photography of Trauma, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press 2002)

R. Barthes, Camera Lucida (London: Jonathan Cape 1982)

A. Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, What is Cinema, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press 1967)

W. Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, Illuminations, (Glasgow: Fontana/Glasgow 1973)

E. Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press 1997)

T. Castle, “Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie”, The Female Thermometer: Eightenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995)

T. Castle, “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho“, The Female Thermometer: Eightenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1995)

B. L. Croft, “Laying ghosts to rest”, Portraits of Oceania, (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales 1997)

J. Derrida, Specters of Marx : the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New international (New York: Routledge 1994)

S. Douglas, “Suspiria”, Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition Catalogue, 2002)

A. Ferran, “Longer Than Life”, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art, 1, 1, (2000)

A. Ferris, “Diembodied Spirits: Spirit Photgraphy and Rachel Whiteread’s Ghost“, Art Journal, 62, 3, (2003)

A. Ferris, “The Disembodied Spirit”, The Disembodied Spirit, (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College 2003)

K. Gelder and J. M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation Melbourne University Press 1998)

R. Gibson, “Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling”, Photofile, 58, (1999)

T. Gunning, “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theatre, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny”, Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1995)

T. Gunning, “Haunting Images: Ghosts, Photography and the Modern Body”, The Disembodied Spirit, (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College 2003)

T. G. Hamilton, Intention and Survival (Toronto: MacMillan 1942)

F. Jameson, “Marx’s Purloined Letter”, New Left Review, 209, January/February, (1995)

M. Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography (London: British Library in press)

K. Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: the spiritualist career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Aquarian Press 1989)

L. Kaplan, “Where the Paranoid Meets the Paranormal: Speculations on Spirit Photography”, Art Journal, 62, 3, (2003)

L. King-Smith, “Statement”, Patterns of Connection, (Melbourne: Victorian Centre for Photography 1992)

S. Kracauer, “Photography”, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1995)

R. Luckhurst, The invention of telepathy, 1870-1901 (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press 2002)

A. Marsh, “Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive”, History of Photography, 23, 2, (1999)

O. Oguibe, “Medium and Memory in the Art of Fiona Foley”, Third Text, Winter, (1995-96)

J. Phipps, “Elegy, Meditation and Retribution”, Patterns Of Connection, (Melbourne: Victorian Centre for Photography 1992)

P. Read, Haunted Earth (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press 2003)

L. R. Rinder, Whitney Biennial 2002, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art 2002)

K. Schoonover, “Ectoplasm, Evanescence, and Photography”, Art Journal, 62, 3, (2003)

J. Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2000)

B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission 1980)

M. Warner, “‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side”, Tony Oursler the Influence Machine, (London: Artangel 2001)

M. Warner, ‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed?’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side, Tony Oursler web site 2001)

M. Warner, “Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm”, Cabinet, 12 (2003)

M. Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet (Sydney: Doubleday 1999)

C. Williamson, “Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection”, Colonial Post Colonial, (Melbourne: Museum of Modern Art at Heide 1996)

J. Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995)


[1] Purgatory, 25, 11. 94-101, cited in, Marina Warner, ‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed?’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side,  np. For a discussion of Dante’s heaven hell and purgatory in relation to cyberspace see, Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, 44-75.

[2] Marina Warner, “‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side”, 75. For more on the phantasmagoria see Terry Castle, “Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie”,

[3] Terry Castle, “The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho“, 135.

[4] P Ariés, The Hour of Our Death,  cited in Castle.

[5] For Spiritualism and photography see, Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography,  and Tom Gunning, “Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theatre, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny”, andTom Gunning, “Haunting Images: Ghosts, Photography and the Modern Body”, ;Louis Kaplan, “Where the Paranoid Meets the Paranormal: Speculations on Spirit Photography”,

[6] For post war memory and Spiritualism see Jay Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history,

[7] Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography,

[8] Kelvin Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: the spiritualist career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 193.

[9] “Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Carnegie Hall”, np.

[10] For more on the electromagnetic occult see: Roger Luckhurst, The invention of telepathy, 1870-1901,  and Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television,  Artists who have been inspired by the electroacoustic occult include Susan Hiller, Scanner, Mike Kelley, Joyce Hinterding, David Haines, Chris Kubick and Anne Walsh.

[11] T. Glen Hamilton, Intention and Survival, plates 25 & 27.

[12] For more on ectoplasm see, Karl Schoonover, “Ectoplasm, Evanescence, and Photography”, and Marina Warner, “Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm”,

[13] Siegfried Kracauer, “Photography”, 55.

[14] Kracauer, 59. For a discussion of Walter Benjamin’s thought on death in relation to photography see Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, 7-13.

[15] André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, 242.

[16] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 5-6.

[17] Barthes, 14.

[18] Barthes, 87.

[19] For a recent explorations of this connection see, Alison Ferris, “The Disembodied Spirit”, and Alison Ferris, “Diembodied Spirits: Spirit Photgraphy and Rachel Whiteread’s Ghost“,

[20] See http://www.zoebeloff.com, and Lawqrence R. Rinder, Whitney Biennial 2002,

[21] Marina Warner, “‘Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side”, 72.

[22] For Marx’s spectralization see Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx : the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New international,  and Fredertic Jameson, “Marx’s Purloined Letter”,

[23] Stan Douglas, “Suspiria”, 557.

[24] Ross Gibson, “Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling”, 30.

[25] Anne Ferran, “Longer Than Life”, 166,167-170.

[27] Bernard Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, . For subsequent work on Australia’s indigenous haunting see Ken Gelder and Jane M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation,  and Peter Read, Haunted Earth, .

[28] Brenda L. Croft, “Laying ghosts to rest”, 9, 14.

[29] Jennifer Phipps, “Elegy, Meditation and Retribution”, np.

[30] Clare Williamson, “Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection”, 46.

[31] Leah King-Smith, “Statement”, np.

[32] Anne Marsh, “Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive”, 117.

[33] Olu Oguibe, “Medium and Memory in the Art of Fiona Foley”,  58-59.

[34] “There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.” Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History”, 256. For an extensive response to this epigram in the context a photographic archive from the Holocaust see Ulrich Baer, “Revision, Animation, Rescue”,

Faces of the Living Dead

The Belief in Spirit Photography

‘Faces of the Living Dead’, lecture, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, November, 2002.

In Britain in the 1920s a group of Spiritualists formed the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures. They were convinced that spirit photographers were able to capture images of the dead returning from the other side to be photographed with their loved ones. Their belief was disputed by the Society for Psychical Research, a society (that exists to this day) that dedicated itself to the objective scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena. The SPR successfully exposed as frauds several spirit photographers supported by the SSSP.

To members of the SPR, once exposed as fakes spirit photographs could be only one thing, incontrovertible evidence not of spirit return, but of human stupidity. However recently the student of photographic culture, rather than psychic phenomena, has become interested in spirit photographs. Historians, curators and artists have realized that although ‘fakes’ on one level, they nonetheless remain powerful photographic evidence on another level. They now speak to us more strongly of faith, desire, loss and love than gullibility. They raise new questions: not are they fake or are they real, but how and why did they come to be made, and what did they mean, emotionally, to the people who once treasured them? Looking into these portraits now their fakery seems crude and self-evident, but if we keep on looking another very real quality emerges from the faces of the people who were photographed — their ardent desire to see and touch a lost loved-one once more.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century the advances of modernity seemed to offer to the people in these photographs the incredible possibility that the eternal desire to communicate with the departed might finally be realizable. The belief in this possibility was called Spiritualism. Modern Spiritualism traced its origin back to one day in 1848, when two young sisters apparently began to here mysterious rapping noises in their house in upstate New York. They supposedly worked out a simplified Morse code by which they could rap back questions to the spirit who haunted the house, and receive answers. The two girls, Kate and Margaret Fox, went on to become Spiritualism’s most famous mediums, holding séances throughout the US and the UK for the rest of the century. Many other mediums, professional and amateur, also began to hold private and public séances. At these séances the mediums would communicate with the dead through raps, or they would fall into a trance and, supposedly under the control of an intermediary spirit guide, speak in the voices of spirits who had messages for the living. As the ranks of believers in these phenomena swelled, they formed themselves into associations and churches and Spiritualism became a widespread social movement. [i]

But it is not only the elaborate paraphernalia of Spiritualism that makes spirit photographs continue to be so compelling for us now, it is something about the essential nature of photography itself. Photography stops an image of a living person dead in its tracks, and peels that frozen image away from them. In this sense all portrait photographs are spirit photographs because they all allow us to see, and almost touch, people as they lived in the past. The people in these images, once so desperate for an image of their deceased loved ones, are now themselves all dead also, but ironically revenant in their portraits. Perhaps we too can almost reconnect with them, in a way not dissimilar to their own attempts to reconnect with those on the other side of the veil.

One of Spiritualism’s most energetic and public converts was the notorious reformist journalist and publisher William T. Stead. In 1893 Stead re-published a report on spirit photography in his popular magazine, the Review of Reviews. The report was by the editor of the respected professional publication the British Journal of Photography, J. Traill Taylor. Taylor was also a Spiritualist who had been investigating spirit photography since the 1860s. Although he was convinced that the phenomenon was genuine, he had to admit to his more sceptical photographic colleagues that the spirit figures, which were called ‘extras’, behaved badly before the camera. Some were in focus, others not. Some were lit from the right, while the living sitter was lit from the left. Some monopolized the entire plate, obliterating the sitter, while others looked as though they had been cut out of another photograph by a can-opener and held up behind the sitter. In addition, when photographed with a stereoscopic camera the spirits appeared in two dimensions, not three, and were out of alignment on the stereo plates. This led Taylor to the conclusion that the images were produced without the aid of the camera, at some other stage in the process than the initial act of portraiture. ‘But still the question obtrudes, how came these figures there? I again assert that the plates were not tampered with, by either myself or anyone present. Are they crystallizations of thought? Have lens and light really nothing to do with their formation?’[ii]

For the Spiritualists one fact again and again dispelled all the doubts and ambiguities that surrounded spirit photographs — that fact was the incontrovertible thud of recognition they felt in their chests when the belief that they were seeing a familiar face once more hit home. During this period big companies such as Kodak were marketing their cameras by heavily promoting the mnemonic value of amateur family snapshots, and more and more people were able to afford regularly updated professional portraits for their family albums. Amateur and professional photographs were gaining new authority as the prime bearers of family memory. The photographic portrait became an even more intense arena for experiencing, nurturing and sharing feelings of affection and connection. In this context, when the spirits revealed, through the voices of the mediums, that they had specific emotional and filial motivations for appearing within the family portrait, the act of recognition was sealed even more strongly onto the amorphous face of the extra.

At a séance the medium was controlled by the spirit of a woman who had returned to her husband as an extra on spirit photograph of him. She tried to explain the process by which spirits such as herself established an ethereal connection back to our side of the veil through the force of spirit memory itself.

When we think of what we were like upon the earth, the ether condenses around us and encloses us like an envelope. […] our thoughts of what we were like, and what we would be better known by, produce not only the clothing, but the fashioning of the forms and features. It is here that the spirit-chemists step in […] using their own magnetic power over the etherealised matter [they] mould it so, and give to it the appearance such as we were in earth life.[iii]

One Saturday afternoon in 1905 a carpenter from the English town of Crewe was experimenting with photography with a friend. To his surprise on one of the plates he found a transparent form, through which a brick wall remained visible. The friend recognised it as his sister, who had been dead for many years. Shortly afterwards the carpenter, William Hope, formed a séance circle with the medium Mrs Buxton, the wife of the organist from the Crewe Spiritual Hall. The circle concentrated on spirit photography, with Hope photographing in a ramshackle glasshouse behind his house. Hope and the Crewe Circle came into their own immediately after the First World War, when the world was swept with a new craze for Spiritualism following the immense combined death-toll of the war and the influenza epidemic. Their work was eagerly examined, promoted and endorsed by the SSSP

If clients made the pilgrimage to Crewe, Hope charged four shillings sixpence for a dozen prints, based on his wages as a carpenter. As his fame grew he regularly travelled to London to hold sittings at the imposing premises of the British College of Psychic Science. The BCPS had been set up in opposition to the SPR in 1920. It was owned by Mr and Mrs McKenzie, two zealous promoters of Spiritualism who had lost their son to the war. They charged two guineas for a sitting with Hope. For some reason spirit extras eschewed the multi-exposure roll-film cameras that were becoming standard in the post-war period, and would only appear on glass-plates in old-fashioned plate-holders, where each negative had to be individually handled by the photographer. On departure sitters signed an agreement indemnifying the BCPS against any legal action. And they were not allowed to take the negatives from the premises.

The famous creator of that arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, had been a jingoistic propagandist during World War One. Following the deaths of his brother and his eldest son, Kingsley, as a result of wounds received in the war he became an evangelical Spiritualist. He used his wealth and fame to proselytise the cause in bluff pugnacious lectures delivered from platforms across the world. In 1920 and 1921 he spoke to 50,000 people in Australia alone. He was feted by Spiritualists, and criticized by churchmen, while he lobbied the press and courted politicians. He was even occasionally attended by the odd unexplainable psychic phenomena of his own. In Brisbane, for example, he showed his good will by investing £2000 in Queensland Government Bonds. The government photographer turned up to take his portrait handing over the cheque on the steps of parliament house, but Sir Arthur was obscured by what appeared to be a cloud of ectoplasmic light on the plate. Doyle’s equable comment was:

I am prepared to accept the appearance of this aura as being an assurance of the presence of those great forces for whom I act as humble interpreter. At the same time, the sceptic is very welcome to explain it as a flawed film and a coincidence [iv]

Conan Doyle’s lectures provided implicit comfort to the bereaved. The Melbourne Age reported: ‘Unquestionably the so-called ‘dead’ lived. That was his message to the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War, and with the help of God he and Lady Doyle would ‘get it across’ to Australia’.[v] In the context of collective post-war grief the spirit photographs that Doyle projected worked in quite a different way, in their open-endedness, to the monumental and mute funeral portrait. In 1919 the Australian Spiritualist newspaper Harbinger of Light took delight in quoting the Rev. T. E. Ruth, the minister of the Collins Street Baptist church, Melbourne:

I have been impressed by the fact that [spiritualist literature] has been concerned with the practical comfort of mourning multitudes, while ordinary church papers have been almost as deficient in spiritual consolation and guidance as that dreadful ‘In Memoriam’ doggerel about there being nothing left to answer but the photo on the wall.[vi]

Doyle was one of the vice-presidents of the SSSP, and a key promoter of Hope. He went to Hope to obtain a photograph of his fallen son, and published the resultant image in newspapers and magazines around the world. The Sunday Pictorial reproduced the photograph flanked by a photographic reproduction of Doyle’s handwritten testimony:

The plate was brought by me in Manchester. On reaching Mr Hope’s studio room in Crewe, I opened the packet in the darkroom and put the plate in the carrier. I had already carefully examined the camera and lens. I was photographed, the two mediums holding their hands on top of the camera. I then took the carrier into the darkroom, took out the plate, developed, fixed and washed it, and then, before leaving the darkroom, saw the extra head upon the plate. No hands but mine ever touched the plate. On examining with a powerful lens the face of the ‘extra’ I have found such a marking as is produced in newspaper process work. It is very possible that the whole picture, which has a general, but not very exact, resemblance to my son, was conveyed onto the plate from some existing picture. However that may be, it was most certainly supernormal, and not due to any manipulation or fraud.[vii]

Spiritualism was always followed for selfish reasons. It was not concerned with the transcendently numinous, so much as the immediate desires of each individual soul for solace. When, in 1888, forty years after they began modern Spiritualism, the Fox sisters publicly confessed to their childhood fraud in front of a packed house at the New York Academy of Music, Spiritualists throughout the house cried out at having to face again the loss of loved ones they thought restored to them for ever.[viii]

Although the product of extreme credulity, spirit photography was nonetheless a collective act of imagination which in many ways was no more than an amplification of the way normal photographs were coming to be used every day in people’s habitual processes of remembering and mourning. In many ways spirit photographs served the same function as precious family photographs. But they were not snapshots of passing events, rather, they were the central magic objects in elaborate rituals and performances. They didn’t find their truth in the documentation of a prior reality, they created their truth within the wounded psychology of their audience. Their truth was manifested and sealed by the undeniable thud of recognition viscerally felt by the customers for whom they were made.

The power of the spirit photograph was not built around the conventional mechanism of the snapshot — the camera, the lens and the shutter. Instead it was compressed into the sensitive photographic plate alone. Photographic emulsion was imaginatively linked to ectoplasm and activated as a soft, wet, labile membrane between two worlds — the living and the dead, experience and memory. The spirit photograph’s emulsion was sensitised chemically by the application of developers, and psychically by the meeting of hands and the melding of mutual memories. No spirit photographer exemplified this better than Mrs Ada Emma Deane, who joined William Hope on the British Spiritualist scene in 1920.

Late in 1920 Deane visited the Birmingham home of Fred Barlow, secretary of the SSSP, to submit herself to a series of tests and experiments. He had supplied Deane with a packet of photographic glass-plates two weeks before the tests for her to pre-magnetize them to psychic impressions by keeping them close to her body. On development, the portraits Deane took held the faces of psychic extras swathed in chiffon-like and cottonwool-like surrounds. ‘It appears’, Barlow reported, ‘as though the plates in some peculiar way became impregnated with the sensitive’s aural or psychic emanations’.

If Barlow was seeking any further proof that Deane was genuine he found it a year later in August 1921. In the interim his father had died, and in the last solemn moment of his father’s earthly life Barlow’s repeated but unspoken cry was: ‘Father, if it is possible, come back and prove to us that you still live.’ Barlow’s young female cousin was visiting the family, and at a home séance Barlow’s father manifested himself and told her, ‘Don’t return home yet — stay on a little longer!’ The following day Deane and her family arrived to spend their August holidays with the Barlows. After a short religious service, Deane photographed Barlow’s cousin, who had taken the spirit’s suggestion and decided to stay on. On one of the plates they secured as an extra a likeness of Barlow’s father which was immediately recognised by all of the family as very similar to how he had appeared during the last moments of his earthly life. Barlow concluded: ‘Our would-be critics are silenced! How can they be otherwise in face of perfect proof, such as this, which week by week is steadily accumulating?’[ix] A year or so later Barlow and three sceptical friends motored to Crewe for a sitting with Deane’s fellow spirit photographer William Hope. They disturbed the family at tea, but Hope agreed to make some exposures by magnesium light. The four received as an extra an image of Barlow’s father that was identical with an extra previously received on Deane’s plate.

But, rather than evidence of collusion, Barlow speculated that this duplication was because the subconscious portion of his mind was being employed to project, or print, the picture onto the plate. But how was the psychic investigator to know whether the images he was examining originated entirely in the mind of the sitters, or whether their unconscious minds had become instruments used by the invisible operators for the production of phenomena originating on the other side?

Is it blind or automatic intelligence that sends these photographs in response to the prayers of the widow and the cry of the mother for proof that the dead still live. Are they just brain freaks? Chemical results produced by ourselves to deceive ourselves? Man’s commonsense and woman’s intuition revolt against such a likelihood. In many instance we see clear evidence that other minds are at work, distinct from and often superior in intelligence to those of medium and sitters. These intelligences claim to be the so called dead. They substantiate their claims by giving practical proof that they are those who they purport to be. In no uncertain voice they claim to be discarnate souls. Surely they ought to know![x]

The Occult Committee of the Magic Circle also tested Deane and found the sealed packet of plates they sent to her for pre-magnetisation had been tampered with.  (See Figure 89) But without hesitation Doyle, who had sat for Deane himself and got a female face smiling from an ectoplasmic cloud, (See Figure 90) sprang to her defence:

The person attacked is a somewhat pathetic and forlorn figure among all these clever tricksters. She is a little elderly charwoman, a humble white mouse of a person, with her sad face, her frayed gloves, and her little handbag which excites the worst suspicions in the minds of her critics.[xi]

F. W. Warrick, the wealthy chairman of a of wholesale druggist firm, became progressively obsessed by Deane and her predominantly female household. Over eighteen months from 1923 to 1924 Warrick visited Deane’s house twice a week for personal sittings during which she exposed over 400 plates, mostly of Warrick himself. Deane’s seemingly ingenuous personality immediately convinced him that her psychic powers were real, a view he never wavered from even after 1400 inconclusive experiments with her. He assured Dingwall:

She makes no profession of honesty, but she is just honest. […] Mrs Deane is very friendly towards me. I now know her family well and have entree to their kitchen and scullery. I am perfectly convinced that Mrs D. practices no fraud. I admire her character and the sturdy independence of her spirit. She is not ‘out for money’.[xii]

Nonetheless Warrick imposed increasingly rigorous conditions on his experiments, cunningly sealing the packets of plates he gave to Deane for pre-magnetisation, and insisting on using his own camera and, most importantly, plate-holders. Although, as he admitted to Dingwall, the imposition of these stringent conditions resulted in the departure of the veiled extras, he determined to go on as long as Deane was willing, and his opinion of her remained the same. He switched his attention from the extras to the multitude of ‘freakmarks’ — chemical smudges and smears, and bursts of light — which appeared on her plates. These further investigations were also fruitless, but they did eventually lead him to undertake another 600 inconclusive thought transference experiments on Deane over the next three years. These tested her ability to write letters on sealed slates and to make marks on pieces of cartridge paper placed against her body. For the purposes of these experiments Warrick had Deane and her family move into a house he owned. One room was reserved for séances and a darkroom was built into it, as well as a small sealed cabinet for the thought transference experiments. Whilst Deane sat in the cabinet with her hands imprisoned in stocks, Warrick crouched outside and attempted to transmit his thought images to her.

Warrick scrupulously recorded all of his experiments. In the tradition of previous obsessive psychic researchers he compiled and published them, along with his extended but inconclusive reasoning as to what they might mean, in a monumental 400 page book. She gave him access to her negative collection and he had 1000 of them printed up and bound, in grids of twelve per page, into four large albums, embossed with her name, which he presented to her. He asked the Society for Psychical Research to be responsible for their eventual preservation because, ‘the prints may be of great value — and may be sought after the world over for the purposes of study. They are unique in the world.’[xiii]

Deane’s greatest fame came in the mid 1920s through her involvement with Estelle Stead, another eminence of the Spiritualist movement who ran a Spiritualist church and library called the Stead Bureau. Estelle Stead was the daughter of the W. T. Stead who had been photographed in the 1890s with the ‘thought mould’ extra of his spirit guide Julia. Stead was clairvoyant, but this faculty didn’t prevent him from booking a passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Shortly after he drowned, however, his spirit reappeared at a London séance and continued his Spiritualist activities as busily as ever. In 1923 Estelle Stead received another ‘wireless message’ from her father that they should arrange for Deane to take a photograph in Whitehall during the Two Minutes Silence that year. A group of spiritualists were placed in the crowd to produce a ‘barrage of prayer’ and so concentrate the psychic energy, and Deane took two exposures from a high wall over the crowd, one just before the Silence, and one for the entire two minutes of the Silence. When the plates were developed the first showed a mass of light over the praying Spiritualists, and in the second what was described by the discarnate W. T. Stead as a ‘river of faces’ and an ‘aerial procession of men’ appeared to float dimly above the crowd. The images were commercially printed together and distributed amongst Spiritualists.

Conan Doyle took this image with him on his second tour of America, which featured an entire lantern-slide lecture on spirit photography. In April 1923 he lectured to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. When the image was flashed upon the screen there was a moment of silence and then gasps rose and spread over the room, and the voices and sobs of women could be heard. A woman in the audience screamed out through the darkness, ‘Don’t you see them? Don’t you see their faces?’, and then fell into a trance.[xiv] The following day the New York Times described the picture on the screen:

Over the heads of the crowd in the picture floated countless heads of men with strained grim expressions. Some were faint, some were blurs, some were marked out distinctly on the plate so that they might have been recognised by those who knew them. There was nothing else, just these heads, without even necks or shoulders, and all that could be seen distinctly were the fixed, stern, look of men who might have been killed in battle.[xv]

Two more photographs were taken during the following year’s Silence. Although the heads of the fallen were impressed upside down on Violet Deane’s plate, the pictures were circulated through the Spiritualist community. Many people recognised their loved ones amongst the extras, and those on the other side often drew attention to their presence in the group. H. Dennis Bradley, for instance, was in contact with the spirit of his brother-in-law who told him, through a medium, that he was, ‘on the right-hand side of the picture, not very low down’. On the following day Bradley obtained a copy of the photograph and, to his astonishment, among the fifty spirit heads visible in the picture he found one in the position described which, under the microscope, revealed a surprising likeness to his deceased brother-in-law.[xvi] A Californian woman, Mrs Connell, received a copy of the picture from a friend. Intuitively feeling that it might be meant for her particularly, she got out her ouija board to communicate with her fallen son David. She asked him if he was in the picture. ‘Yes’, he said, ‘to the right of Kitchener’. She found Lord Kitchener’s face and there, to the right of it, was a face she recognised as her son’s.[xvii]

At her discarnate father’s suggestion Estelle sent copies of the two photographs to the medium Mrs Travers-Smith asking her to submit them to her spirit guide, Johannes, to get further comments from the other side. He said, through the medium:

This is an arrangement prepared beforehand from our side. The person who took this (Mrs Deane) must have been very easy to use. I see this mass of material has poured from her. It is as if smoke or steam were blown out of an engine. This material has made the atmosphere sufficiently clear to take the impress of the prepared mould which you see here. It is not as it would be if the actual faces had pressed in on the medium’s mind. A number of faces were wanted for this photograph, so a mould was prepared. The arrangement is unnatural and does not represent a crowd pressing through to the camera because it has all been carefully prepared beforehand.[xviii]

Seventy years after the heyday of Spiritualism, the belief in spirit photography is now only maintained by a few of the most wilfully credulous. While the general belief in the presence of ghostly experiences has not substantially diminished since the 1920s,[xix] the faith in photography as a foolproof way for positively recording them is now only found scattered at the outer limits of paranormal enthusiasm, or in the furthest reaches of the World Wide Web. The Spiritualist religion, once a mass-scale social movement, has given way to a plethora of New Age spiritualities. Plenty of earnest psychic investigators still exist, but they have shrunk in eminence and shifted their attention to other supposedly paranormal phenomena, such as ESP. And the great celebrity mediums of the past, who conducted their séances before batteries of scientists, have been succeeded by either franchised telephone psychics or tabloid TV entertainers.

But during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Spiritualism implanted its powerful visions and mysterious characters deeply into popular consciousness. Even non-believers couldn’t help but be fascinated. And this legacy of ideas and images is still very much with us. Spiritualism’s phantasmagoric images haunted our entertainment media right from the start. Spiritualist thaumaturges shared many of their surreptitious techniques — phosphorescence, ventriloquism, and sleight-of-hand — with the impresarios of eighteenth-century magic-lantern shows or a nineteenth-century stage-magic acts. Within a few years of the invention of cinema trick films such as G. A. Smith’s Photographing a Ghost, 1898, or Georges Melies’ The Spiritualist Photographer, 1903, were openly displaying in the film theatre the same special effects of double exposure and superimposition as the spirit photographers were cunningly deploying in the séance. The films were explicitly tricks, and generally poked fun at Spiritualism, but they too relied on evoking, within the conventions of entertainment, a parallel sense of wonder at the uncanny visual world the new technology of the cinema was opening up.[xx]

Later, in the 1920s, Hollywood responded to the post-war craze for Spiritualism by making many films featuring Spiritualistic phenomena, which were represented as being either fake or real depending on the plot of the film. For example Darkened Rooms, 1929, starred a fake spirit photographer who is tricked by his kind-hearted girlfriend, posing as a spirit, into renouncing his dubious profession; while Earthbound, 1920, featured the apparition of a murdered man, earthbound by his allegiance to the worn out credo of no God and no afterlife, being finally able to release himself by appearing to his wife and making amends for his sins. Films such as this, even though they used special effects to recreate spiritualistic phenomena, received the warm approbation of Spiritualists. One Spiritualist, Dr Guy Bogart, even visited the set of another film with a pro-Spiritualistic theme, The Bishop of the Ozarks, which featured a séance and mental telepathy, and was convinced he saw a real spirit manifest itself on the set to complement the film’s special effects.[xxi]

The Spiritualists were modernists, they understood the phenomena they witnessed, and believed in, to be part of the same unfolding story of progress as science and technology. Even if they failed in their expectation that they would be the heralds of a new dawn of expanded awareness, the imaginative world they created for themselves still provides compelling ideas and powerful images for the present. In the last decade or so, the relatively dormant ideas and images of Spiritualism have undergone a resurgence in contemporary culture. The plots of many contemporary horror films are twisting again on the spectral convergence of the ghost and the photographic image that spirit photography has always shared with cinema.[xxii] The enigmatic figure of the spirit photographer is making occasional appearances in novels.[xxiii] Various contemporary video and installation artists are using new technologies to create spectral effects borrowed from the history of Spiritualism. In their art works these phantasmagoric images of disembodied entities are cast adrift into a technologically occulted ‘beyond’. Like the Spiritualists before them the artists imagine this as an electromagnetic world sundered from our own, yet still connected to it by the various media technologies, new and old.[xxiv] Historians of cinema, photography and visual culture have begun to pay attention to spirit photography and to treat it as an important part of the experience of modernity.[xxv] And finally the idea of ‘haunting’ — where unquiet ‘ghosts’ from the historical past return to the present to challenge us to redeem them — is being increasingly invoked in contemporary philosophy and cultural studies. It even has its own name: hauntology. [xxvi]

There is no doubt that the Spiritualists were extremely credulous. But credulity is a relative term, most often used by those with social or intellectual authority to dismiss those who have none. The Spiritualists’ legacy can still be felt today because they used their credulity actively and creatively. Most people buffeted by the incredible wars, deaths, losses and changes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries kept their insistent thoughts and desires safely internalised as psychological fantasy, private reverie, or familiar ritual. But the Spiritualists externalised them — they collectively dramatized them in their séances, or projected them into new and uncanny technologies such as telegraphy, the wireless, or photography.

The Spiritualists’ sense of themselves as pioneers of a new age meant that they were able to take large ideas and use them for their own ends. They took the idea of the afterlife, present in the Judeo-Christian tradition for thousands of years, and domesticated it, bringing it down to the scale of the parlour. They took the idea of the photograph, which had been touted for decades as a personal mnemonic machine able to capture and fix shadows, and enlarged it to fill the universe. In the end, spirit photography turned out to not be a scientific truth, or a religious miracle. But, for its historical time, it remains an extraordinary act of collective imagination. Together, gullible clients, cunning mediums, opportunistic mentors and hubristic investigators created a rich imaginative economy where ideas, images and interpretations circulated, cross infected and interpenetrated each other.

Photography remained the central tool in the psychic investigator’s arsenal for so long because it promised mechanical objectivity. In 1891 the scientist and Spiritualist Alfred Russel Wallace challenged the SPR to properly investigate spirit photographs because they were ‘evidence that goes to the very root of the whole inquiry and affords the most complete and crucial test in the problem of the subjectivity or objectivity of apparitions.’[xxvii] But what ensnared those who looked to photographic evidence as a forensic test was that photographs had the same problem of subjectivity and objectivity as apparitions. The faces they documented changed, depending on who was looking at them. Eleanor Sidgwick, the SPR’s most clear headed thinker, pointed out: ‘It must be remembered that if one frequently sees a portrait of an absent person, one’s recollection is of the portrait, not really of the original, so that once a person has clearly made up his mind as to the likeness, his recollection of the original would adapt itself.’[xxviii]

When a client chose to believe that the dead lived and were struggling to transmit news of their continued existence back from the other side; and when, in the mysterious alchemical cave of the darkroom, that client saw before their very eyes a face emerge to join their own face on a photographic plate; and when they decided, perhaps even after some initial trepidation, to let themselves be flooded with the absolute conviction that they recognised that face as a lost loved one; then a certain photographic truth was revealed. Not a forensic truth, but an affective truth. That incontrovertible truth remains as relevant today as it ever was. Photographs are never just simple images of reality, they are also ideas and interpretations. The portrait photograph is not just made by the bald technical operation of snapping someone in front of the camera, it is also constituted by the context of the ‘performance’ of the portrait, and by the way the resultant image is incorporated into people’s lives after it is made.

Despite all the subsequent technological changes of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, despite the complete digitization and computerization of the photographic process, in looking back to spirit photography’s overheated milieu and intense images, we can still our own attitudes to, and uses of, the portrait photograph written large — very large. For us, as for those that made the decision to visit spirit photographers, by looking into a photograph we believe that we can see and feel the presence of someone sundered from us by death, or by time itself.

‘Different Viewpoints!’ Harbinger of Light, October (1919),

‘Mysterious ‘Spirit’ Photograph’, Sunday Pictorial, 13 July 1919,

‘Conan Doyle in Australia’, Light, December 18 (1920),

‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Carnegie Hall’, Harbinger of Light, July (1923),

U. Baer, Spectral evidence : photography and trauma, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002)

F. Barlow, ‘Psychic Photography. Perfect Proof’, Light, 20 August

F. Barlow, ‘Does Psychic Photography Prove Survival’, Light, 28 October (1922),

R. Brandon, The Spiritualists : The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, (London: Weidenfeld And Nicolson, 1983)

J. Coates, Photographing the Invisible: Practical studies in Spirit Photography, Spirit Portraiture, and other Rare but Allied Phenomena, (London: L.N. Fowler & Co, 1911)

Society for Psychical Research, Cambridge University Library, M. Connell, Letter to SPR, 4 March, 1925, Deane Medium File

J. Derrida, Specters of Marx : the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New international, (New York: Routledge, 1994)

A. C. Doyle, The wanderings of a spiritualist, (London,: Hodder and Stoughton, 1921)

A. C. Doyle, The Case for Spirit Photography, (London: Hutchinson and Co, 1922)

A. Ferris, ‘The Disembodied Spirit’, in The Disembodied Spirit, ed. by A. Ferris (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 2003)

N. Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, (London: Arthurs Press Limited, 1933)

A. F. Gordon, Ghostly matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997)

T. Gunning, ‘Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theatre, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny’, in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. by P. Petro (Bollomington: Indiana University Press, 1995)

T. Gunning, ‘Haunting Images: Ghosts, Photography and the Modern Body’, in The Disembodied Spirit, ed. by A. Ferris (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 2003)

F. Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, New Left Review, 209, January/February

M. Jolly, ‘Spectres from the Archive’, in Le Mois de la Photo a Montreal, ed. by M. Langford (Montreal: McGill-Queens University, 2005)

G. Jones, Sixty Lights, (London: Random House, 2004)

K. Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: the spiritualist career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Aquarian Press, 1989)

H. Norman, The Haunting of L., (London: Picador, 2003)

J. Oppenheim, The other world : spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850-1914, (Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1985)

A. Owen, The Darkened room : women, power and spiritualism in late nineteenth century England, (London: Virago, 1989)

P. C. Phillips, ‘Close Encounters — Thematic Investigation: Photography and the Paranormal’, Art Journal, 62, (Fall 2003), 3

J. Sconce, Haunted media : electronic presence from telegraphy to television, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000)

E. Sidgwick, ‘On Spirit Photographs: A Reply to Mr A. R. Wallace’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1891-1892 (1891-1892),

E. Stead, Faces of the Living Dead, (Manchester: Two Worlds Publishing Company, 1925)

J. T. Taylor, ”Spirit Photography’ with remarks on fluorescence’, British Journal of Photography, 17 March (1893),

P. Thurschwell, ‘Refusing to Give Up the Ghost: Some Thoughts on the Afterlife from Spirit Photography to Phantom Films’, in The Disembodied Spirit, ed. by A. Ferris (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 2003)

Deane Medium File, SPR Archives, Cambridge University Library, F. W. Warrick, Letter to Eric Dingwall, 25 May 1923, 1923, Deane Medium File

Society for Psychical Research, Cambridge University Library, F. W. Warrick, Letter to Eric Dingwall, 28 January 1924, 1924, Deane Medium File

J. Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

R. Wiseman, M. Smith and J. Wisman, ‘Eyewitness testimony and the paranormal’, Skeptical Inquirer, (November /December 1995),

R. Wiseman, C. Watt, P. Stevens, E. Greening and C. O’Keefe, ‘An investigation into alleged ‘hauntings”, British Journal of Psychology, 94, (2003),


[i]  See, R. Brandon, The Spiritualists : The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, (London: Weidenfeld And Nicolson, 1983); J. Oppenheim, The other world : spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850-1914, (Cambridge Cambridgeshire ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1985); A. Owen, The Darkened room : women, power and spiritualism in late nineteenth century England, (London: Virago, 1989) and the indispensable N. Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, (London: Arthurs Press Limited, 1933).

[ii] J. T. Taylor, ”Spirit Photography’ with remarks on fluorescence’, British Journal of Photography, 17 March (1893), p. 34.

[iii] J. Coates, Photographing the Invisible: Practical studies in Spirit Photography, Spirit Portraiture, and other Rare but Allied Phenomena, (London: L.N. Fowler & Co, 1911)p. 199.

[iv] A. C. Doyle, The wanderings of a spiritualist, (London,: Hodder and Stoughton, 1921), p. 252.

[v] ‘Conan Doyle in Australia’, Light, December 18 (1920),

[vi] ‘Different Viewpoints!’ Harbinger of Light, October (1919),

[vii] ‘Mysterious ‘Spirit’ Photograph’, Sunday Pictorial, 13 July 1919,

[viii] Brandon, , pp228-229.

[ix] F. Barlow, ‘Psychic Photography. Perfect Proof’, Light, 20 August, p. 453.

[x] F. Barlow, ‘Does Psychic Photography Prove Survival’, Light, 28 October (1922),

[xi] A. C. Doyle, The Case for Spirit Photography, (London: Hutchinson and Co, 1922), p.53.

[xii] Deane Medium File, SPR Archives, Cambridge University Library, F. W. Warrick, Letter to Eric Dingwall, 25 May 1923, 1923, Deane Medium File.

[xiii] Society for Psychical Research, Cambridge University Library, F. W. Warrick, Letter to Eric Dingwall, 28 January 1924, 1924, Deane Medium File.

[xiv] K. Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: the spiritualist career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Aquarian Press, 1989), p. 193.

[xv] ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Carnegie Hall’, Harbinger of Light, July (1923).

[xvi] Fodor, p. 79.

[xvii] Society for Psychical Research, Cambridge University Library, M. Connell, Letter to SPR, 4 March, 1925, Deane Medium File.

[xviii] E. Stead, Faces of the Living Dead, (Manchester: Two Worlds Publishing Company, 1925)p. 59.

[xix] See R. Wiseman, M. Smith and J. Wiseman, ‘Eyewitness testimony and the paranormal’, Skeptical Inquirer, (November /December 1995), ; R. Wiseman, C. Watt, P. Stevens, E. Greening and C. O’Keefe, ‘An investigation into alleged ‘hauntings”, British Journal of Psychology, 94, (2003),

[xx] For more on magic, spirit photography and cinema see T. Gunning, ‘Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theatre, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny’, in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. by P. Petro (Bollomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

[xxi] Letter to Dr Prince from Dr Guy Bogart American Society for Psychical Research, File #21,  05028/05028B. See the Americam Film Institute Silent Film Catalog, www.afi.com/members/catalog/silentHome.aspx?s=1. For contemporary ghost films see P. Thurschwell, ‘Refusing to Give Up the Ghost: Some Thoughts on the Afterlife from Spirit Photography to Phantom Films’, in The Disembodied Spirit, ed. by A. Ferris (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 2003).

[xxii] For instance The Others, 2001 and The Ring, 2002. See also M. Jolly, ‘Spectres from the Archive’, in Le Mois de la Photo a Montreal, ed. by M. Langford (Montreal: McGill-Queens University, 2005).

[xxiii] H. Norman, The Haunting of L., (London: Picador, 2003); G. Jones, Sixty Lights, (London: Random House, 2004)

[xxiv] For instance the work of Susan Hiller, Tony Oursler, Zoe Beloff and many others. See also A. Ferris, ‘The Disembodied Spirit’, in The Disembodied Spirit, ed. by A. Ferris (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 2003).

[xxv] J. Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); T. Gunning, ‘Haunting Images: Ghosts, Photography and the Modern Body’, in The Disembodied Spirit, ed. by A. Ferris (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 2003); P. C. Phillips, ‘Close Encounters — Thematic Investigation: Photography and the Paranormal’, Art Journal, 62, (Fall 2003), 3; J. Sconce, Haunted media : electronic presence from telegraphy to television, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000).

[xxvi] J. Derrida, Specters of Marx : the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New international, (New York: Routledge, 1994); A. F. Gordon, Ghostly matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); F. Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, New Left Review, 209, January/February; U. Baer, Spectral evidence : photography and trauma, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002).

[xxvii] Quoted in E. Sidgwick, ‘On Spirit Photographs: A Reply to Mr A. R. Wallace’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 1891-1892 (1891-1892), p. 268.

[xxviii] p. 282.

 

Spectres from the Archive

‘Spectres from the Archive’, chapter in Image and Imagination: Le Mois de la Photo, edited by Martha Langford, McGill-Queens University Press, Montreal, pp 173 -184. ISBN 0-7735-2969-1

The dead have been making themselves visible to the living for millennia. In Purgatory, Dante asked Virgil how it was that he was able to see the souls of the dead with whom he was speaking, while their bodies had been left behind in the grave. Virgil beckoned a spirit, who replied that, just as the colours of reflected rays filled rain-filled air, so the unresurrected soul virtually impressed its form upon the air.[1] Similarly, the ghost of Hamlet’s father was as invulnerable to blows from a weapon as the air. It was a mere image, which faded at cock-crow. But, for the last several centuries, these diaphanous, insubstantial condensations of light and air have been acquiring a technological, rather than a natural, phenomenology. And now contemporary artists are deploying those spectres as a means to directly address the present from the past.

In the years following the French Revolution, Étienne-Gaspard Robertson terrified crowds with the first phantasmagoria show, which he staged in a convent that had been abandoned by its nuns during the Terror. He made his magic-lantern projections of paintings of gory figures such as The Bleeding Nun appear to be phantasmic entities by blacking out their glass backgrounds and projecting them onto stretched gauzes, waxed screens, and billows of smoke. By placing the magic lantern on wheels, which was dollied backwards by an operator, he gave these luminous, translucent apparitions the power, suddenly, to loom out over the audience. At an 1825 London phantasmagoria show, the impact on the audience of this effect was electric. According to an eyewitness, the hysterical screams of a few ladies in the first seats of the pit induced a cry of “lights” from their immediate friends. When the operator made the phantom, The Red Woman of Berlin, appear to dash forward again, the “confusion was instantly at a height which was alarming to the stoutest; the indiscriminate rush to the doors was prevented only by the deplorable state of most of the ladies; the stage was scaled by an adventurous few, the Red Woman’s sanctuary violated, the unlucky operator’s cavern of death profaned, and some of his machinery overturned, before light restored order and something like an harmonious understanding with the cause of alarm.”[2]

In the eighteenth century the host of supernatural beings, such as ghosts, devils, and angels, that had long inhabited the outside world alongside humans were finally internalized under the illumination of Reason as mere inner-projections of consciousness – fantasies of the mind or pathologies of the brain. During this period, in Terry Castle’s phrase, “ghosts and spectres retain their ambiguous grip on the human imagination; they simply migrate into the space of the mind.”[3] But, as she goes on to explain, technologies such as the phantasmagoria allowed these images of consciousness to project themselves outside the mind once more, into the space of shared human experience. They were destined to return from the brain to respectralize visual culture.

The eighteenth century also changed the way in which death was experienced. No longer an ever-present communal experience, the effect of someone’s death became focused onto a few individuals – the family – just as the various processes of death and mourning became privatized and quarantined within the institutions of the home, the hospital, and the necropolis.[4] One response to this change was the rise in the nineteenth century of an extraordinary cult of the dead – Spiritualism – which gripped the popular imagination well into the twentieth century. Spiritualism was the belief that the dead lived and that they could communicate. It  was a quintessentially modernist phenomenon, and Spiritualists, as well as the spirits themselves, used all emerging technologies to demonstrate the truth of survival.[5]

The early years of Spiritualist communication were conducted under the metaphoric reign of the telegraph. In 1848 the world’s first modern Spiritualist medium, a young girl called Kate Fox, achieved worldwide fame by developing a simplified Morse code of raps to communicate with the spirits who haunted her small house in upstate New York. Twenty years later, portraits of spirits began to appear on the carte-de-visite plates of the world’s first medium photographer, William Mumler. Spirit photographs were a personal phantasmagoria. Just as Robertson’s phantoms were lantern slides projected onto screens, spirit photographs were actually prepared images double-exposed onto the negative. But the spirit photographer’s clients sat for their portrait filled with the belief that they might once more see the countenance of a loved one; they concentrated on the loved one’s memory during the period of the exposure; and they often joined the photographer in the alchemical cave of the darkroom to witness their own face appear on the negative, to be shortly joined by another face welling up from the emulsion – a spirit whom they usually recognized as a loved one returning to them from the oblivion of death. For these clients, the spirit photograph was not just a spectacle; it was an almost physical experience of the truth of spirit return.

Public interest in spirit photography reached its highest pitch in the period just after the First World War, when the unprecedented death toll of the war, combined with the effect of an influenza pandemic, caused a public craze for Spiritualism.[6] On Armistice Day in 1922 the London spirit photographer Mrs Ada Deane stood above the crowd at Whitehall and opened her lens for the entire duration of the Two Minutes Silence. When the plate was developed it showed a “river of faces,” an “aerial procession of men,” who appeared to float dimly above the crowd.[7]

When the ardent Spiritualist convert Sir Arthur Conan Doyle lectured to a packed house at Carnegie Hall the following year, he flashed this image up on the lantern-slide screen. There was a moment of silence, then gasps rose and spread over the audience, and the voices and sobs of women could be heard. A woman in the audience screamed out through the darkness, “Don’t you see them? Don’t you see their faces?” before falling into a trance.[8] The next day the New York Times described the image on the screen: “Over the heads of the crowd in the picture floated countless heads of men with strained grim expressions. Some were faint, some were blurs, some were marked out distinctly on the plate so that they might have been recognised by those who knew them. There was nothing else, just these heads, without even necks or shoulders, and all that could be seen distinctly were the fixed, stern, look of men who might have been killed in battle.”[9]

The Spiritualist understanding of photography was underwritten by a keen and highly imaginative conception of two substances: ether and ectoplasm. Since Morse’s first telegraphing of the words “What hath God wrought?” in 1844, and Kate Fox’s first telegraphing to the spirits four years later, the air had steadily thickened as it was filled by more and more of the electromagnetic spectrum: from the electrical ionization of residual gas in a cathode-ray tube (discovered by Sir William Crookes, who also photographed the full body materialization of a spirit Katie King by electric light), to x-rays (developed in part by Sir Oliver Lodge, who communicated with his dead son, Raymond, for many years after he fell in the First World War),  to radio waves, to television transmission. From the late nineteenth century until the period when Einstein’s theories made it redundant, most physicists agreed that some intangible interstitial substance, which they called ether, must be necessary as the medium to carry and support X-rays, radio waves, and perhaps even telepathic waves, from the point of transmission to point of reception. Since sounds, messages, and images could be sent through thin air and solid objects, why not portraits from the other side?[10]

If ether allowed Spiritualist beliefs to be made manifest through electrical science, ectoplasm allowed them to be made manifest through the body. For about thirty years after the turn of the century, various mediums, most of them women, extruded this mysterious, mucoid, placental substance from their bodily orifices while groaning, as though they were giving birth. Ectoplasm continued the long association between Spiritualist receptivity and the feminine – mediums were supposedly passive and unintellectual, but sensitive and attuned at a more elemental level.

Sometimes this all-purpose, proto-plasmic, interdimensional stuff seemed to be able to grow itself into the embryonic forms of spiritual beings, while at other times it acted as a membranous emulsion that took their two-dimensional photographic imprint. For instance, on 1 May 1932 a psychic investigator from Winnipeg, Dr T.G. Hamilton, photographed a teleplasmic image of the spirit of Doyle (who had “crossed over” the year before) impressed into the ectoplasm that came from the mouth and nostrils of a medium.[11]

Just as spirit photographs were, in fact, various forms of double exposure, teleplasms were small photographs and muslin swallowed by the medium and then regurgitated in the darkness – to be caught, briefly, by the investigator’s flash during the intense psychodrama of the séance. Nonetheless, for the Spiritualists, they confirmed an associative chain that poetically and technically extended all the way from ectoplasm to photographic emulsion – creamy, hyper sensitive to light, and bathed in chemicals.[12]

While the Spiritualists were placing photography at the centre of their cult of the dead, modernity’s cultural theorists were placing death at the centre of their response to photography. They compared photography to embalming, resurrection, and spectralization. For them, the horrible, uncanny image of the corpse, with its mute intimation of our own mortality, haunted every photograph. To Siegfried Kracauer, writing in the 1920s, a photograph was good at preserving the image of the external castoff remnants of people, such as their clothes, but could not capture their real being. The photograph “dissolves into the sum of its details, like a corpse, yet stands tall as if full of life.”[13] The blind production and consumption of thousands upon thousands of these photographs was the emergent mass media’s attempt to substitute itself for the acceptance of death, which was implicit in personal, organic memory: “What the photographs by their sheer accumulation attempt to banish is the recollection of death, which is part and parcel of every memory image. In the illustrated magazines the world has become a photographable present, and the photographed present has been entirely eternalised.”[14]

To a subsequent critic, André Bazin, our embrace of the photograph was also a pathetic attempt to beat death. The sepia phantoms in old family albums were “no longer traditional family portraits, but rather the disturbing presence of lives halted at a set moment in their duration … by the power of an impassive mechanical process: for photography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.”[15]

In Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, his almost necrophilic meditation on photography, written while in the grim grip of grief for his mother, the photograph’s indexicality, the fact that it was a direct imprint from the real, made it a phenomenological tautology, where both sign and referent “are glued together, limb by limb, like the condemned man and the corpse in certain tortures.”[16] In posing for a portrait photograph, he says, “I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death … I am truly becoming a spectre.”[17] Later he reduces the essence of the portrait photograph down even further. It is not only an exact process of optical transcription but an exquisitely attenuated chemical transfer, an effluvial emanation of another body – “an ectoplasm of ‘what-had-been’: neither image nor reality, a new being, really.”[18]

Although also wildly extrapolating upon the intimate connection between photography and death, the Spiritualist use of photography ran counter to this conception of the photograph as irrevocably about pastness, about the instantaneous historicization and memorialization of time. Spirit photographs cheerfully included multiple times and multiple time vectors. Spirit photographs were collected and used by Spiritualists very much as the millions of other personal snapshots were kept in albums and cradled in hands. But for them these photographs did not represent the exquisite attenuation of the ‘that has been’ of a moment from the past, disappearing further down the time tunnel as it was gazed at in the present, or the frozen image’s inevitable prediction of our own mortality. Rather, they were material witnesses to the possibility of endless emergences, returns, and simultaneities.

The images were performative. They worked best when their sitters saw them well up from the depths of the emulsion in the medium’s developing tray, or suddenly flash on the screen in a lantern-slide lecture. Their power lay not in their reportage of a pro-filmic real elsewhere in time and space, but in their audience’s affective response to them in the present time and place. They solicited a tacit suspension of disbelief from their audience, at the same time as they brazenly inveigled a tacit belief in special effects. Spirit photographs used the currency of the audience’s thirst for belief to trade up on the special effects they borrowed from cinema and stage magic – which had also descended from the phantasmagoria. They shamelessly exploited the wounded psychology of their audience to confirm their truth, not by their mute indexical reference to the real, but through the audience’s own indexical enactment of their traumatic affect. Their truth was not an anterior truth, but a manifest truth that was indexed by members of the audience as they cried out at the shock of recognition for their departed loved ones.

In mainstream thought about photography, the two signal characteristics that  defined photography and photography alone, physical indexicality and temporal ambiguity, were, in their turn, produced by two technical operations: the lens projecting an image of an anterior scene into the camera, and the blade of the shutter slicing that cone of light into instants. But the Spiritualist theory of photography discounted that technical assemblage, along with the “decisive moments” it produced. It shifted the locus of photography back to the stretched sensitive membrane of the photographic emulsion, and it dilated the frozen instant of the snapshot over the full duration of the séance.

Many contemporary artists are rediscovering the richly imaginative world the Spiritualists created for themselves. Others are strategically deploying the same technical effects once surreptitiously used by spirit photographers. These contemporary invocations are no longer directly underpinned by Spiritualist faith, but they reinhabit and reinvent the metaphysical, performative, and iconographic legacy of the Spiritualists. For these artists, as much as for the Spiritualists themselves, images, bodies, beliefs, and memories swirl around and collide in intoxicating obsession. And technologies of image storage, retrieval, transmission, and reproduction are simultaneously the imaginative tropes, and the technical means, for communicating with the beyond. For the Spiritualists, the beyond was a parallel “other side” to our mundane existence. For some contemporary artists, it is quite simply the past.[19]

The New York-based artist Zoë Beloff, for example, folds famous episodes from the history of Spiritualism back into her use of new interactive technologies. Examples are the interactive CD-Rom, Beyond (1997); the stereoscopic film based on the extraordinary “auto-mythology” of the nineteenth-century medium Madame D’Esperance, Shadowland or Light from the Other Side (2000); and the installation of stereoscopic projections based on the first séances of Spiritualism’s most famous ectoplasmic medium, Ideoplastic Materializations of Eva C. (2004). Some of Beloff’s works resurrect dead-end technologies and apparatuses, such as a 1950s stereoscopic home-movie camera, to link contemporary notions of virtuality directly to nineteenth-century stage illusions, such as “Pepper’s Ghost,” where a live performer behind a sheet of glass interacted with a virtual phantasm reflected in it. She deploys the occult to reintroduce desire, wonder, fear, and belief into what most media histories would have us think was just the bland march of ever-increasing technological sophistication. Like many of us, and like all the people to first see a photograph or hear a sound recording, Beloff is still fascinated by the fact that the dead live on, re-embodied in technology. She remains interested in conjuring them up and interfacing between past and present like a Spiritualist medium.[20]

For his installation The Influence Machine (2000), the New York video artist Tony Oursler projected giant ghost heads of the pioneer “mediums” of the ether, such as Robertson, John Logie Baird, and Kate Fox, onto trees and billows of smoke in the heart of the world’s two biggest media districts, London’s Soho Square and New York’s Madison Square Park. These disembodied heads uttered disjointed phrases of dislocation and fragmentation, while, elsewhere, a fist banged out raps, and ghostly texts ticker-taped up tree trunks. In his Timestream, an extended timeline of the development of “mimetic technologies,” Oursler drew an occult trajectory through the more conventional history of media “development,” and he identified that the dead no longer reside on an inaccessible “other side” but survive in media repositories. To him, “television archives store millions of images of the dead, which wait to be broadcast … to the living … at this point, the dead come back to life to have an influence … on the living. Television is, then, truly the spirit world of our age. It preserves images of the dead which then continue to haunt us.”[21]

The most famous spectre of the nineteenth century was the spectre of Communism, which, in the very first phrase of the Communist Manifesto, Marx declared to be haunting Europe. But this, unlike almost every other spectre, was not a grim revenant returning from the past but a bright harbinger of the future, when capitalism would inevitably collapse under its internal contradictions, ushering in the golden age of Communism. But now Communism is dead and buried, and when its spectre is raised it is not to haunt us, but to be a parable affirming the supposed “naturalness” of capitalism.[22]

This circular irony formed the background to Stan Douglas’s installation Suspiria from Documenta 11 of 2003. The spectral temper of the imagery was achieved by overlapping a video signal with the oversaturated Technicolor palette of the 1977 cult horror film Suspiria. The piece deconstructed Grimm’s 250 fairy tales into a database of narrative elements, often centring on characters vainly seeking shortcuts to wealth and happiness by extracting payments and debts. These fragments were videoed using actors wearing clothes and make-up in the primary colours. The chromatic channel of the video signal was separated and randomly superimposed, like an early model colour TV with ghosting reception, over a switching series of live surveillance video-feeds from a stony subterranean labyrinth. These fleeting evanescent apparitions endlessly chased each other round and round the blank corridors.[23]

In addition to the phantasmagoric apparatuses of projection and superimposition, with their long histories in mainstream entertainment as well as the occult, artists such as Douglas or Oursler have begun to deploy another newly occulted apparatus – the database. For instance, Life after Wartime, presented at the Sydney Opera House in 2003, was an interactive  performance of an archive of crime-scene photographs that had been assembled by Sydney’s police force in the decades following the Second World War. Kate Richards and Ross Gibson sat at laptops and midi keyboards and brought up strings of images which, combined with evocative haikus, were projected onto two large screens. Beneath the screens, The Necks, a jazz trio well known for its ominous movie music, improvised a live soundtrack of brooding ambience. Although not directly picturing spectres, the texts and images generated open-ended non-specific narratives around a set of semi-fictionalized characters and locations in the “port city” of Sydney. These characters became invisible presences occupying the creepy emptiness of the crime scenes. The element of automation, in the way the story engine generated the loose narratives, preserved the integrity, the artifactuality, of the original archive. Ross Gibson wrote:

Whenever I work with historical fragments, I try to develop an aesthetic response appropriate to the form and mood of the source material. This is one way to know what the evidence is trying to tell the future. I must not impose some pre-determined genre on these fragments. I need to remember that the evidence was created by people and systems of reality independent of myself. The archive holds knowledge in excess of my own predispositions. This is why I was attracted to the material in the first instance – because it appeared peculiar, had secrets to divulge and promised to take me somewhere past my own limitations. Stepping off from this intuition, I have to trust that the archive has occulted in it a logic, a coherent pattern which can be ghosted up from its disparate details so that I can gain a new, systematic understanding of the culture that has left behind such spooky detritus. In this respect I am looking to be a medium for the archive. I want to “séance up” the spirit of the evidence. [24]

In seeking to be a voodoo spiritualist “medium” for the archive, the work was not trying to quote from it, or mine it for retro tidbits ripe for appropriation, so much as to make contact with it as an autonomous netherworld of images. This sense of the autonomy of other times preserved in the archive also informs the work of the Sydney photographer Anne Ferran. In 1997 she made a “metaphorical x-ray” of a nineteenth-century historic house. She carefully removed items of the colonial family’s clothing from its drawers and cupboards and, in a darkened room, laid them gently onto photographic paper before exposing it to light. In the photograms the luminous baby dresses and night-gowns floated ethereally against numinous blackness. To Ferran, the photogram process made them look “three-dimensional, life-like, as if it has breathed air into them in the shape of a body … With no context to secure these images, it’s left up to an audience to deal with visual effects that seem to have arisen of their own accord, that are visually striking but in an odd, hermetic way.”[25]

In contrast to this diaphanous ineffability, Rafael Goldchain’s Familial Ground (2001) was an autobiographical installation in which the artist physically entered the archive of the family album, seeking to know and apprehend the dead. He re-enacted family photographs of his ancestors, building on his initial genetic resemblance to them by using theatrical make-up, costuming, and digital alteration, weaving the replicated codes of portraiture through their shared DNA. He saw these performances, along with the uncannily doubled portraits they produced, as acts of mourning, remembrance, inheritance, and legacy for his Eastern European Jewish heritage, which had been sundered by the Holocaust. The portraits supplemented public acts of Holocaust mourning with a private genealogical communion with the spectres of his ancestors who still inhabited his family’s albums. The dead became a foundation for his identity, which he could pass on to his son. They took on his visage as they emerged into visibility, reminding him of the unavoidable and necessary work of inheritance.[26]

The Canadian First Nations artist Carl Beam also builds his contemporary identity on the basis of a special connection he feels to old photographs. He uses liquid photo-emulsion, photocopy transfer, and collage to layer together historic photographs, such as romanticized portraits of Sitting Bull, and personal photographs, such as family snaps, into ghostly palimpsests. The collages directly call on spectres from the past to authorize his personal, bricolaged, spiritual symbology. They allow him to time travel and to rebuild a foundation for his identity out of fragments from the past.

In 1980, Australia’s most eminent art historian, Bernard Smith, gave a series of lectures under the title “The Spectre of Truganini.” In the nineteenth century, Truganini had become a much-photographed colonial celebrity as the “last” of the “full-blood” Tasmanian Aborigines. Smith’s argument was that, despite white Australia’s attempt to blot out and forget the history of its own brutal displacement of Australia’s indigenous population, the repressed would continue to return and haunt contemporary Australia until proper amends were made.[27]

As indigenous activism grew in intensity and sophistication during the 1980s and 1990s, anthropological portraits, such as those of Truganini, began to be conceived of not only as the theoretical paradigm for colonial attempts at genocide but also as acts of violence in themselves, technically akin to, and instrumentally part of, that very process of attempted genocide. They began to be used by young indigenous artists to “occult up” their ancestors. Their reuse attempted to capture a feeling of active dialogue with the past, a two-way corridor through time, or a sense of New Age channelling.

The anthropological photographs used by urban indigenous photographers are not monuments, as the statues or photographs of white pioneers might aspire to be, because they do not commemorate a historical closure on the past. In a way they are anti-monuments, images of unquiet ghosts who refuse to rest in their graves. In a Barthesian-inspired meditation on nineteenth-century anthropological photographs, the indigenous photographer Brenda L. Croft, who uses Photoshop to float imprecatory words of loss within images of her ancestors, retroactively invested the agency of political resistance in the portraits. “Images like these have haunted me since I was a small child … [and] were instrumental in guiding me to use the tools of photography in my work … The haunted faces of our ancestors challenge and remind us to commemorate them and acknowledge their existence, to help lay them, finally, to rest.”[28]

However, rather than laying their ancestors to rest, some indigenous artists have photographically raised them from the dead to enrol them in various campaigns of resistance. One of the first Australian indigenous photographers to receive international attention was Leah King-Smith. Her 1992 exhibition “Patterns of Connection” travelled throughout Australia as well as internationally. For her large, deeply coloured photo compositions, anthropological photographs were copied and liberated from the archives of the State Library of Victoria and superimposed as spectral presences on top of hand-coloured landscapes. This process allowed Aboriginal people to flow back into their land, into a virtual space reclaimed for them by the photographer. In the words of the exhibition’s catalogue: “From the flaring of velvety colours and forms, translucent ghosts appear within a numinous world.”[29]

Writers at the time commented on the way her photographs seemed to remobilize their subjects. The original portraits “contained” their subjects as objects, which could be held in the hand, collected, stored, and viewed at will. Their placement of the figure well back from the picture plane within the fabricated environment of a photographer’s studio created a visual gulf between viewer and object. But King-Smith reversed that order. Her large, colour-saturated images “impressed” the viewer: “The figures are brought right to the picture plane, seemingly extending beyond the frame and checking our gaze with theirs.”[30]

King-Smith comes closest to holding spiritualist beliefs of her own. She concluded her artist’s statement by asking that “people activate their inner sight to view Aboriginal people.”[31] Her work animistically gave the museum photographs she reused a spiritualist function. Some of her fellow indigenous artists thought the work too generalist. It lacked specific knowledge of the stories of the people whose photographs were reused, and it didn’t have explicit permission from the traditional owners of the land they were made to haunt. But the critic Anne Marsh described that as a “strategic essentialism.” “There is little doubt, in my mind, that Leah King-Smith is a kind of New Age evangelist and many serious critics will dismiss her work on these grounds,” she wrote. “… But I am interested in why the images are so popular and how they tap into a kind of cultural imaginary [in order] to conjure the ineffable … Leah King-Smith’s figures resonate with a constructed aura: [they are] given an enhanced ethereal quality through the use of mirrors and projections. The ‘mirror with a memory’ comes alive as these ancestral ghosts … seem to drift through the landscape as a seamless version of nineteenth century spirit photography.”[32]

While not buying into such direct visual spirituality, other indigenous artists have also attempted to use the power of the old photograph to make the contemporary viewer the subject of a defiant, politically updated gaze returned from the past. In a series of works from the late 1990s, Brook Andrew invested his nineteenth-century subjects, copied from various state archives, with a libidinous body image inscribed within the terms of contemporary queer masculinity and emblazoned them with defiant Barbara Krugeresque slogans such as Sexy and Dangerous (1996), I Split Your Gaze (1997), and Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr [I See You] (1998).

 

Andrew exploits the auratic power of the original Aboriginal subjects simply to re-project the historically objectifying gaze straight back to the present, to be immediately reinscribed in a contemporary politico-sexual discourse. However, other strategic reoccupations of the archive show more respect for the dead and seek only to still the frenetic shuttle of appropriative gazes between us and them. In Fiona Foley’s re-enactments of the colonial photographs of her Badtjala ancestors, Native Blood (1994), the gaze is stopped dead in its tracks by Foley’s own obdurate, physical body. To the post-colonial theorist Olu Oguibe: “In Foley’s photographs the Other makes herself available, exposes herself, invites our gaze if only to re-enact the original gaze, the original violence perpetrated on her. She does not disrupt this gaze nor does she return it. She recognises that it is impossible to return the invasive gaze … Instead Foley forces the gaze to blink, exposes it to itself.”[33]

But the ghosts of murdered and displaced Aborigines aren’t the only spectres to haunt Australia. White Australia also has a strong thread of spectral imagery running through its public memory for the ANZAC digger soldiers who fell and were buried in their thousands in foreign graves during all of the twentieth century’s major wars. Following the First World War, an official cult of the memory developed around the absent bodies of the dead, involving painting, photography, elaborate annual dawn rituals, and a statue erected in every town.

Like indigenous ghosts, Anzac ghosts also solicit the fickle memory of a too self-absorbed, too quickly forgetful later generation. Since 1999 the photographer Darren Siwes, of indigenous and Dutch heritage, has performed a series of spectral photographs in Australia and the United Kingdom. By ghosting himself standing implacably in front of various buildings, he refers to an indigenous haunting, certainly; but because he is ghosted standing to attention while wearing a generic suit, he also evokes the feeling of being surveilled by a generalized, accusatory masculinity – exactly the same feeling that a memorial ANZAC statue gives.

Siwes’s photographs are mannered, stiff, and visually dull, but they have proved to be extraordinarily popular with curators in Australia and internationally. One reason for his widespread success may be that the spectre he creates is entirely generic – a truculent black man in a suit – and therefore open to any number of guilt-driven associations from the viewer. Similarly, many of the other indigenous artists who have used photographs to haunt the present have produced works that are visually stilted or overwrought. But they, too, have been widely successful, not because of their inherent visual qualities but because of the powerful ethical and political question that the idea of a spectre is able to supplicate, or exhort, from viewers who themselves are caught up in a fraught relationship between the present and the past, current government policy and historical dispossession. That question is straightforward: What claims do victims from past generations have on present generations to redeem them?[34]

As photographic archives grow in size, accessibility, and malleability, they will increasingly become our psychic underworld from which spectres of the past are conjured. Like Dante’s purgatory, they will order virtual images of the dead in layers and levels, waiting to interrogate the living or be interrogated by them. Through photography, the dead can be invoked to perform as revenants. They will be increasingly used to warn, cajole, inveigle, polemicize, and seduce. But, as always, it is we, the living, who will do the work of interpretation or perform the act of response. Like the viewers of Robertson’s phantasmagoria, we think we know that these spectres are mere illusions, the products of mechanical tricks and optical effects. But we also know that the images we are seeing were once people who actually lived, and that the technologies through which they are appearing to us now will uncannily project our own substance through time and space in the future, when we ourselves are dead. This knowledge gives photographic spectres more than just rhetorical effect. They can pierce through historical quotation with a sudden temporal and physical presence. Yet, at the same time, they remain nothing more than the provisional technical animation of flat, docile images. In the end, they are as invulnerable to our attempts to hold onto them as the air.

Martyn Jolly


[1] Purgatory, 25, 11, 94-101, cited in Warner, “’Ourself Behind Ourself — concealed”…’. For a discussion of Dante’s Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory in relation to cyberspace, see M. Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, (Sydney: Doubleday, 1999), 44-75.

[2] M. Warner, ”Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side’, in Tony Oursler the Influence Machine, ed. by (London: Artangel, 2001), 75. For more on the phantasmagoria, see T. Castle, ‘Phantasmagoria and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie’, in The Female Thermometer: Eightenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, ed. by (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

[3] T. Castle, ‘The Spectralization of the Other in The Mysteries of Udolpho‘, in The Female Thermometer: Eightenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny, ed. by (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 135.

[4] P. Ariés, The Hour of Our Death, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981), cited ibid.

[5] For Spiritualism and photography, see M. Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography, (London: British Library, in press), and T. Gunning, ‘Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theatre, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncanny’, in Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, ed. by P. Petro (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995) and T. Gunning, ‘Haunting Images: Ghosts, Photography and the Modern Body’, in The Disembodied Spirit, ed. by A. Ferris (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 2003)

[6] For postwar memory and Spiritualism, see J. Winter, Sites of memory, sites of mourning: The Great War in European cultural history, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[7] Jolly.

[8] K. Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: the spiritualist career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Aquarian Press, 1989), 193.

[9] ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Carnegie Hall’, Harbinger of Light, July (1923), ,np..

[10] For more on the electromagnetic occult, see R. Luckhurst, The invention of telepathy, 1870-1901, (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), and J. Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000). Artists who have been inspired by the electro-acoustic occult include Susan Hiller, Scanner (Robin Rimbaud), Mike Kelley, Joyce Hinterding, David Haines, Chris Kubick, and Anne Walsh.

[11] T. G. Hamilton, Intention and Survival, (Toronto: MacMillan, 1942), plates 25 and 27.

[12] For more on ectoplasm, see K. Schoonover, ‘Ectoplasm, Evanescence, and Photography’, Art Journal, 62, (Fall), 3and M. Warner, ‘Ethereal Body: The Quest for Ectoplasm’, Cabinet, Fall 2003 – Winter 2004 (2003).

[13] S. Kracauer, ‘Photography’, in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, ed. by T. Levin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 55.

[14] Ibid., 59. For a discussion of Walter Benjamin’s thought on death in relation to photography, see E. Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 7-13.

[15] A. Bazin, ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, in What is Cinema, ed. by (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1967), 242.

[16] R. Barthes, Camera Lucida, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1982), 5-6.

[17]  Ibid, 14.

[18] Ibid, 87.

[19] For a recent exhibition exploring this connection, see A. Ferris, ‘The Disembodied Spirit’, in The Disembodied Spirit, ed. by A. Ferris (Brunswick, Maine: Bowdoin College, 2003).

[20] See http://www.zoebeloff.com, and Whitney Biennial 2002, ed. by L. R. Rinder, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2002).

[21] Warner, ”Ourself Behind Ourself — Concealed’: Ethereal whispers from the dark side’, in ed. by , 72.

[22] For Marx’s spectralization, see J. Derrida, Specters of Marx : the state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the New international, (New York: Routledge, 1994), and F. Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, New Left Review, 209, January/February.

[23] S. Douglas, ‘Suspiria’, in Documenta 11_Platform 5: Exhibition Catalogue, ed. by 2002), 557.

[24] R. Gibson, ‘Negative Truth: A new approach to photographic storytelling’, Photofile, (1999), 30.

[25] A. Ferran, ‘Longer Than Life’, Australian and new Zealand Journal of Art, 1, 1, 166, 167-70.

[27] B. Smith, The Spectre of Truganini: 1980 Boyer Lectures, (Sydney: Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1980). For subsequent work on Australia’s indigenous haunting, see K. Gelder and J. M.Jacobs, Uncanny Australia: Sacredness and Identity in a Postcolonial Nation, Melbourne University Press, 1998), and P. Read, Haunted Earth, (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2003).

[28] B. L. Croft, ‘Laying ghosts to rest’, in Portraits of Oceania, ed. by J. Annear (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1997), 9, 14.

[29] J. Phipps, ‘Elegy, Meditation and Retribution’, in Patterns Of Connection, ed. by (Melbourne: Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992), np.

[30] C. Williamson, ‘Leah King-Smith: Patterns of Connection’, in Colonial Post Colonial, ed. by (Melbourne: Museum of Modern Art at Heide, 1996), 46.

[31] L. King-Smith, ‘Statement’, in Patterns of Connection, ed. by (Melbourne: Victorian Centre for Photography, 1992), np.

[32] A. Marsh, ‘Leah King-Smith and the Nineteenth Century Archive’, History of Photography, 23, 2, 117.

[33] O. Oguibe, ‘Medium and Memory in the Art of Fiona Foley’, Third Text, Winter, 58-9.

[34] “The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that precedes us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply.” W. Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations, ed. by H. Arendt (Glasgow: Fontana/Glasgow, 1973), 256. For another extensive response to this epigram in the context a photographic archive from the Holocaust, see U. Baer, ‘Revision, Animation, Rescue’, in Spectral Evidence : The Photography of Trauma, ed. by (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002).

‘Ectoplasm’, paper delivered at the Body Modification 11 conference, Department of Critical and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University, 21 — 23 April, 2005

Ectoplasm

Abstract

In the first third of the twentieth century various Spiritualist mediums, who went by names such as  ‘Eva C.’, and ‘Margery’,  gained considerable public notoriety by producing ectoplasm from their nostrils, mouths and vaginas. In Europe, the UK and the US, avid psychic researchers — who included eminent physicists, doctors and engineers — observed, touched and flash-photographed this placenta-like ectoplasm during a series of scientific test-séances, some of which were sponsored by the Scientific American. The séances were extraordinary theatres of desire, seduction, obsession and belief, which were played out over between the psychic researcher, the medium, the medium’s personal mentor, and the medium’s ‘spirit guide’, who directed proceedings through the medium’s ventriloquised voice.  The ectoplasm itself was either chewed paper-pulp, cotton flocking, and tightly rolled photographs ingested before the séances; or lengths of chiffon and animal lung-tissue compressed and inserted into the vagina before the séances. In the overheated darkness of the séance the mysterious eruption of ectoplasm from the sprawled body of medium, as she groaned and heaved while entranced in her cabinet, totally reconfigured conventional gender politics. Her body became immensely powerful in its supposed docility and receptivity. Some psychic researchers reported that they saw the ectoplasm form itself into rudimentary ‘pseudopods’, the embryonic limbs of spiritual beings protruding from the ‘Other Side’. Others saw it receive photographic impressions, which were ‘ideoplasmically’ projected into it from the ‘Beyond’. In developing their elaborate theories for what they had seen, the psychic researchers drew on contemporaneous advances in science. They radically rethought the body, away from being a self-contained discreet entity embodying a single personality, towards being a kind of techno/bio diaphragm, part of an extended ‘mucoidplasmic’ continuum which linked the body directly to modern physics, technology and communication. Lately the intensely imaginative world the Spiritualists created for themselves, and the body of imagery they left behind, have come under renewed interest from artists, writers and theoreticians. It is still compelling. The photographs the researchers took where published in vast psuedo-scientific tomes and journals of psychic research. They can also be found in the collections of psychic institutes such as the Society for Psychical Research, London, and the American Society for Psychical Research, New York.  The paper draws extensively on these resources.

Ectoplasm

Introduction

Spiritualism was the belief that the human personality survived death. It was a broad, highly organised social and religious movement for almost a century, from the 1850s to the 1940s. It involved large numbers of converts who, believing that the dead were actively seeking to communicate with the living, formed themselves into séance ‘circles’. The circles often formed around charismatic mediums who, in the emotionally charged darkness of the séance room, manifested various signs from the other side: rappings, levitations, materializations, disembodied voices and glowing lights.

The Spiritualists imagined their mediums to be just that — a human medium for spirit communication — people pre-endowed with special powers to be able to passively receive and transmit messages from one side of the divide of death to the other. Mediums were often women, often working class, often middle aged, and often corpulent. To their devotees they appeared to be guileless — the innocent subjects of forces much larger than themselves. To sceptics , however, they were disingenuous thaumaturges skilfully deploying an arsenal of special effects derived from longer traditions of magic and illusion. In either case, their power was based on their physical presence, their supposed ‘feminine intuition’, and their corporeal affinity with the natural processes of life and death.

In the early twentieth century some mediums began to add another special effect to their psychic repertoire — ectoplasm. Ectoplasm quickly became the central image in the Spiritualist imagination, and became the obsessive passion of a number of self-styled psychic investigators for the next twenty years.

Eva C and Albert Schrenck-Notzing

The first ectoplasmic medium operated under the name Eva C. She was closely managed by a woman called Juliette Bisson. In the period just before the First World War, the two submitted themselves to hundreds of experimental séances conducted by Baron Schrenck-Notzing, a medical doctor who had become interested in hypnotism and psychic phenomena. Together the three slowly developed a new form of Spiritualist materialization: the slow, painful extrusion of wet organic matter from the body of the medium, which gradually formed itself into an entity. Ectoplasm, it was deduced, must be produced from within the body of the medium herself by the direct physicalization of psychic forces. These materializations were also called psychoplasms, or teleplasms, and were seen to be akin to telekinesis and telepathy in that they were unknown forces extruding themselves into our world.

Schrenck-Notzing’s preliminary medical examination had found Eva C physiologically normal, but psychologically weak and hysterical. In order to conduct his experiments under what were called ‘test conditions’, he examined her orally and vaginally, before some early séances, put her into tights and sewed her at the waist, back, neck and sleeves into an apron dress. At some séances she was fed bilberries to colour anything she regurgitated. After other séances she was given emetics to establish whether or not she had swallowed anything. But as they progressed these precautions were relaxed, the issue of fraud having been settled to Schrenck-Notzing’s satisfaction.

Eva C was hypnotized before the séances and fell into a trance, apparently controlled by a spirit calling herself Berthe. She whimpered, groaned and gasped behind the cabinet curtains as she produced the ectoplasm. Materializations were supposedly sensitive to light and touch, but it was found that Eva C could manage to withstand the painful shock of a brief flare of magnesium flash if the séance room was lit with dim red light, and she was allowed to ripen the materializations behind closed curtains and, under the control of a spirit, open the curtains herself when she was ready. Schrenck-Notzing documented the phenomena with 225 photographs taken by a battery of five ordinary and stereoscopic cameras. Enthusiasts could purchase copies of the photographs for eight Deutsch-marks each.

As the séances proceeded, the complexity of the materializations gradually developed, starting from amorphous clumps of flocculent or diaphanous material. At an early séance on 21 August 1911 Eva C gave Schrenck-Notzing his long desired for result when she delivered a strip of moist, cool and viscous material into his hand from her mouth, which although it was fibrous, was to him comparable to abdominal connective tissue.[1] By November, faces and heads were being photographed. Mask-like, flat looking, crumpled, veiled with cloth, and often with real hair attached, they were taken to be entities only partially completed by the teleplasmic forces.[2]

In January 1913 Eva operated naked for her close mentor, Madame Bisson, alone. Bisson photographed a web of a substance akin to intestinal connective tissue stretched between her nipples and navel. She also photographed partially formed hands and fingers, and reported seeing a full-sized human head come out of Eva’s vagina, which looked at her before disappearing again.

Towards the end of his 300-page account of the Eva C séances Schrenck-Notzing reflected on the inevitable accusations of fraud they would receive. He was the first to concede to his critics that the manifestations certainly bore all the signs of being cloth, pictures, or drawings, tightly folded and smuggled into the cabinet to be produced for the camera behind the curtain, under the cover of Eva C’s labouring moans and groans. And, from time to time, he himself had even found pins and threads in the cabinet after the séance. But to him this evidence that he was the victim of a magician’s sleight-of-hand remained purely circumstantial, while the possibility that he had discovered a previously unknown scientific phenomenon continued to beckon ever more strongly to him. So he fell back for assurance onto the ‘scientific’ manner in which he had conducted his experiments. He had searched every one of Eva’s orifices except her anus, he had purchased a square yard of the finest muslin and found he could only compress it down to the size of a small apple, he had ensured that the medium’s hands were held by himself or Bisson during the séance, and he had meticulously recorded the lightning-like speed with which the materializations seemed to appear and disappear, without the medium’s body appearing to move. So, he allowed himself to conclude, however suspiciously like regurgitated photographs Eva C’s flat, inert-looking ectoplasmic entities might seem to the untrained eye, to the trained eye of serious investigators such as himself, her phenomena revealed themselves to be following a new natural law:

If the play of a natural law, unknown to us, consisted in presenting to us optical images which are sometimes plastic, sometimes coarse, and sometimes equipped with the finest detail; having all the appearance of life on one occasion, and none of these on another occasion, we should have to accommodate ourselves to the fact, however strange it might appear […].[3]

Indeed, he argued there were many reasons why the unknown force would manifest in this peculiar, two-dimensional way — it might be using a picture language already known to us in order to make itself intelligible, or in order to economize on the use of the medium’s teleplasmic matter.

Eva C. and Gustave Geley

In early 1918 another researcher, Dr Gustave Geley who, like Schrenck-Notzing, was also a medical practitioner turned psychic researcher, began to examine Eva C at bi-weekly séances in his laboratory at the Paris Institute Metapsychique International (International Institute of Metaphysics) which had been set up to scientifically examine psychic phenomena. Eva C, always accompanied by her close protector Bisson, manifested moving fingers and hands in the midst of ectoplasmic masses. In the ruby gloom of the séance cabinet, Geley saw apparent ectoplasmic masses extend from her mouth, nose, eyes and fingertips, and, suspended from umbilical cords, form themselves before his eyes into beautiful doll-like heads. Geley was often so moved and surprised that he forgot to press the button for the flash that operated his stereoscopic cameras.[4]

Schrenck-Notzing had contented himself with detailing his observations, whereas Geley attempted to synthesize a theory of ‘metaphysical embryology’.[5] The ectoplasm emerged from the midst of the medium’s birth pangs as a polymorphous protoplasm which, although not yet organised, was nonetheless independently mobile and sensitive to the touch. Over time this protoplasm organised itself into either complete body organs — fingers, faces or heads of various sizes — or representations looking like drawings or photographs.

I have, for instance, seen the substance issue from the hands of the medium and link them together; then, the medium separating her hands, the substance has lengthened, forming thick cords, has spread, and formed […] epiploic [caul-like] fringes. Lastly, in the midst of these fringes, there has appeared by progressive representation, perfectly organised fingers, a hand, or a face.[6]

At this stage of biological research, well before the discovery of DNA, it was only through some unexplainable ‘life force’ that, for instance, an inchoate egg yolk was understood to organise itself into the different constituent parts of a chicken. Perhaps, psychic investigator’s reasoned, a psychic force could analogously form ectoplasm into spirit beings. But sometimes, even to Geley, Eva C’s ectoplasmic entities appeared to be clearly simulacra, as if cut from paper. But these, he reasoned, must be products of a weakened psychic force: ‘Like normal physiology, the so-called supernormal has its complete and aborted forms, its monstrosities, and its dermoid cysts. The parallelism is complete.’[7]

Like Schrenck-Notzing, Geley was convinced that he had eliminated all possibility of trickery. He put on record his gratitude to the young medium for supplying him with the phenomena he was seeking: ‘[t]he intelligent and self-sacrificing resignation with which she submitted to all control and the truly painful tests of her mediumship, deserve the real and sincere gratitude of all men of science worthy of the name.’[8]

.Eva C in London

In 1920 Eva C and Juliette Bisson were invited to London where they held forty séances for a committee from the Society for Psychical Research. The SPR hired the photographic firm of Elliot and Fry to document the séances with electric flash. Eva was stripped naked and given an oral, but not a vaginal, examination by the lady members of the committee, and sewn into a pair of tights to prevent previously hidden ectoplasm being surreptitiously produced. During the séances Eva cried out to Bisson, in French, ‘Call, Juliette, Call’, and Bisson asked the investigating committee to encourage the phenomena by replying, in a chorus of French, ‘Come! Come!’.

While Bisson held her hands and encouraged her to give herself up to the forces possessing her, Eva would breathe stertorously, eventually managed to produce small white objects, flat photo-like faces with trailing tendrils of black fibrous hair, and proto-hands, one of which seemed to gesture to the Society’s research officer, Eric Dingwall.[9]

.The Goligher Circle

From 1916 to 1920, another self-appointed psychic investigator, W. J. Crawford, conducted an extended series of experiments with the young Belfast medium Kate Goligher. Goligher was an eighteen-year-old blouse-cutter. Her family, led by her father, a collar cutter, were known throughout British Spiritualism as the Goligher Circle. The men who had investigated Eva C — Schrenck-Notzing and Geley — were medical doctors, and for their investigations Eva C seemingly produced various quasi-organic phenomena around which they developed elaborate physiological metaphors. Crawford, however, was not a medical doctor, but a mechanical engineer lecturing at the Belfast polytechnic. Correspondingly, the ectoplasmic phenomena Goligher created for him to observe appeared to him to follow mechanical, rather than physiological, principals.

In 1916 Crawford began to investigate the Circle’s ability to levitate tables and produce spirit rappings. The medium’s feet were tied together, and then to the back legs of her chair, and all the hands of the sitters were supposedly held in a circle. The séances were conducted in darkness. However, if the invisible operator who controlled the medium was given warning, a dim ruby-lamp could be lit, a piece of card painted with phosphorescent paint unveiled, or a flashlight photograph taken.

One such photograph showed what appeared to be a vertical column of light in the middle of the image. To our eyes the effect could be interpreted as the result of a light leak or a dribble of chemical fixer on the photographic plate, but Crawford saw it as a ‘psychic structure’ with curved legs as a base and cantilevered arms. Remembering how the medium had convulsed and shuddered for ten minutes after the photograph was taken he reasoned that it must be an ectoplasmic structure briefly made visible for his camera in order to give him an indication of the invisible psychic mechanics which had been employed to lever the table up. For the next four years Crawford explored the mechanical properties of these invisible psychic structures, asking his readers to remember that, ‘I had to feel my way bit by bit with nothing to guide me. There was not a single signpost on the road.’[10]

The invisible operators demonstrated their presence by lifting a table using psychic rods that apparently emanated from the body of the medium. Working in the near darkness of Goligher’s séance room, Crawford deduced that the rods varied in diameter from about half an inch to three or four inches, and the free end of each rod seemed able to assume various shapes and different degrees of hardness. The ends could also expand to act like suckers to adhere to the underside of table. As the table tossed in the air in front of the entranced medium, Crawford thought he could hear the suckers slipping over the wood in the dark. In a 1917 séance one of these rods was laid in Crawford’s upturned palm, and he felt its flattened end. The rods had a feel of their own which was nearly impossible for Crawford to describe in words: soft, dense, plasmic, half solid, half liquid. If the rods were in a less tensile gaseous state Crawford reported that he could even feel his hand passing through them, feeling a cold breeze of a disagreeable, spore-like matter.[11]

Crawford put trays of wet clay under the table for the rods to leave an impression of themselves. He found the texture of Goligher’s stocking fabric in the clay. But this, he reasoned, wasn’t the result of the medium’s foot being loose from its bonds. Rather, as the glutinous fibrous ectoplasm had oozed out of her body, it must have been pulled through the weave of her stocking before being wrapped around the inner core-force of the rods by the invisible operators, so it had retained the texture of her stocking. Sometimes he had heard peculiar fussling noises from the neighborhood of her bound feet and ankles just prior to the phenomena. These noises occurred in spasms and were, he reasoned, probably not due to her feet getting out of their bonds, but due to psychic stuff fluxing through the material of the stocking. Likewise, when he found clay on her shoe, that also was consistent with the rod being retracted from the tray of clay, up her leg, and back into her body.[12] In some séances Crawford thought he could just make out the ectoplasm wriggle back up her leg like a snake.[13]

Crawford needed to track the rods to their source in the medium’s body. Under his wife’s supervision Goligher put on white calico knickers into which he had sprinkled powdered carmine. In other tests he put carmine in her shoes. The theory was that the plasma would pull a trail of carmine behind it. After extensive experiments he proved to his own satisfaction that the plasma came out of Goligher’s trunk, from a location he described politely as between her legs, traveled down her legs to her shoes, and stiffened out to form rods, then returned by the same route.

Crawford also felt Goligher’s body undergo great stress as she produced the phenomena. A doctor who attended one séance measured her pulse rising from 72 to 126. As with the other psychic investigators and their ectoplasmic mediums, for Crawford, Goligher’s psychic convulsions inevitably became metaphorically linked with the feminine mysteries of birth. At another séance Crawford put his hand on her thigh and felt the flesh seemingly become soft and cave in, then fill out again as the psychic stuff apparently returned to her. He felt her breasts become very hard and full during the occurrence of another psychic action.[14]

.Margery

In December 1922 the popular science magazine Scientific American offered $2500 to the first person who could produce a psychic photograph, or other psychic phenomena, to the satisfaction of a committee that included conventional scientists.[15] The committee examined a Boston medium known as ‘Margery’. She was controlled by the impish spirit of her deceased brother, Walter, and conducted her séances in close collaboration with her husband, the wealthy Boston surgeon L. R. G. Crandon. The Scientific American committee purpose-built an extraordinary range of mechanical equipment to test the extraordinary range of phenomena she produced: telekinetically moving furniture across the carpet, apporting pigeons and roses into the séance, generating psychic lights that floated around the room, speaking in the direct voice of various spirits from different parts of the darkened room.[16]

As the interest of the popular press increased, more investigators were drawn to Margery. As the various investigators, which now included Eric Dingwall who was sent over from London by the SPR, gathered around Margery and her husband, acrimoniously jostling with each other to produce definitive evidence either exposing her as a fraud or confirming her as genuine, Margery responded by delivering new and more elaborate manifestations, finally moving into the photography of ectoplasmic extrusions.

Dingwall was eager to see more ectoplasm. In early 1925 Margery and her husband agreed to grant him a series of private séances, at which she wore only an open dressing gown and stockings. At an early séance in the series an excited Dingwall felt his hand touched by a tongue-like substance. By the light of a piece of cardboard painted with luminous paint he saw a mitten-like hand slide across the table with a stealthy gliding motion. Later, hearing a rustling sound coming from her lap, he ran his hand up Margery’s stocking until he felt a cold mass like uncooked liver on her thigh. This was flicked onto a luminous plaque on the table and, in silhouette, was seen to grow out finger-like tuberosities while still connected umbilically to Margery’s abdomen.

Later Dingwall received permission from Margery’s spirit control Walter to photograph this ectoplasmic extrusion by magnesium flash in the dark, before it was reabsorbed back into the medium’s body, but only at the precise moment Walter gave him permission. Dingwall showed the flashlight photographs of the ectoplasmic hand to William McDougall, chair of the Scientific American committee and professor of psychology at Harvard. Under his magnifying glass it looked to him more like an animal’s trachea and lung cut crudely into the shape of a wrist, palm and fingers, than ‘genuine’ ectoplasm. Dingwall next showed the photographs to a gynaecologist who confirmed that the substance, whatever it was, could be packed into a vagina and expelled. Shortly after this, Margery suffered a uterine haemorrhage and the weeks of séances came to an end.[17]

.The theory of ectoplasm

The leading psychic investigators associated with the Society for Psychical Research and the Institute Metapsychique International (International Institute of Metaphysics), were not only at the outer limits of ‘scientific’ psychical research, they were also personally at the forefront of many of the extraordinary developments in conventional physics, chemistry, biology, medicine and psychology that were happening in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The new high-end concepts that were being contemporaneously developed and proven in those disciplines included: the expansion of the electromagnetic spectrum towards previously unknown x-rays and radio waves, research into the processes of growth and replication in plants and animals at a cellular level, and the discovery of an unconscious mind which stored mental images which manifested themselves in conscious behaviour.

As well, this was a period when images were being technologically delaminated, replicated and disseminated through popular technologies such as half-tone off-set printing, wireless news-picture transmission, and film and lantern slide projection. Psychic investigators incorporated aspects of all of these into the theories they were developing to understand the strange new phenomena the mediums presented to them.

Ectoplasm was conceived of as being primarily placental, but it was a new kind of placenta, one not supporting the birth of new beings by genetic reproduction, but one directly producing spirit simulacra by organo/mechanical replication. These simulacra could be three-dimensional entities animated from within by a psychic force; or they could be inert casts or moulds impressed into the soft mucoid matter by spirit controls on the other side; or they could be two-dimensional photographic images psychically printed onto cauls of the stuff by the spirit controls.

.Automatic writing

This reconceptualization of the female body as an image-duplicating machine, rather than a reproductive organism, was developed by the investigators directly out of a history of spirit communication that had already been well established in the previous century. The Spiritualists were modernists. They saw their beliefs and their pseudo-scientific investigations as being integral to the march of scientific progress. It was only a matter of time, they believed, before scientific evidence objectively established the truths of their beliefs.

The Spiritualists were technologists. They believed in their séances as a kind of new technology for extended communication. In the nineteenth century the reigning metaphor for spirit communication had also been the signal technology of that century’s communications — the telegraph. The telegraph, which was invented a few years before the first mediums began to practice in the 1840s, proved that messages could be sent in a disembodied non-physical form over vast distances. Analogously, one of the favourite means of Spiritualist communication with the other side was automatic writing. This entailed the reconceptualization of the body as a kind of telegraph, a passive machine taken over by another operator. The daughter of the medium William Howitt vividly described the effect of seeing an invisible spirit operator take over her father’s body prior to spirit transmission:

My father had not sat many minutes passive, holding a pencil in his hand upon a sheet of paper, ere something resembling an electric shock ran through his arm and hand; whereupon the pencil began to move in circles. The influence becoming stronger and ever stronger, moved not alone the hand, but the whole arm in a rotatory motion, until the arm was at length raised, and rapidly—as if it had been the spoke of a wheel propelled by machinery—whirled irresistibly in a wide sweep, and with great speed, for some ten minutes through the air. The effect of this rapid rotation was felt by him in the muscles of the arm for some time afterwards. Then the arm being again at rest the pencil, in the passive fingers, began gently, but clearly and decidedly, to move.[18]

.Hamilton, Mercedes and Dawn

In the late 1920s and early 1930s a Canadian psychic researcher called T. G. Hamilton was investigating several mediums who combined automatic writing with ectoplasmic replication. One of the leading lights of Spiritualism, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, had ‘crossed over’ to the other side in 1931. He immediately began to return as a spirit at many different séances around the world. Using automatic writing one of the Canadian mediums, called Mercedes, recorded this message from him for Hamilton’s circle:

I am watching your progress. Your methods are different from mine, but perhaps they are better. I will put my picture through if your [spirit] control will consent. Splendid work! Splendid! Good mediums! My life’s work! Carry on! Keep the banner waving. Good night. A.C.D.[19]

Eventually, true to his word, the medium’s spirit control managed to transmit an image of Doyle ‘in his younger days’, into some ectoplasm which was produced from the nose and mouth of another medium, Dawn. Later they transmitted another image of Doyle along with some allegorical fragments. In these experiments the medium became like a Gestetner machine.

.Conclusion

As should by now be clear, the ardent psychic investigators who obsessively experimented with celebrity mediums had very active imaginations. The overheated, charged atmospheres of the séances became experimental spaces that combined the modern scientific laboratory, with a religious chapel, with a ritualistic performance space.

Whilst masquerading as passive conduits for larger psychic forces, the mediums and their associates were, in fact, the ones responsible for producing these scenarios for interpretation. They responded to the desires of their investigators and created a performative feedback loop that led the ardent investigator on. In this heightened space of bodily enactment the investigators reconceived the female body in a very radical way. By conceptually mapping already proven new scientific principles, as well as new technologies of remote communication, over the strange evidence the mediums produced for their observation, they imagined they were witnessing a modern experience of bodily reproduction.

For them the medium’s body was able to temporarily give up its day-to-day status as an autonomous entity, and become self-attenuated into nothing but a mucoid membrane, a labile medium between two worlds. When they touched, felt, smelt and photographed ectoplasm they thought they had witnessed positive evidence of this.

‘Our Quest in the Psychic Field’, Scientific American, May (1923), p300

J. M. Bird, ‘Our Psychic Investigation: Its Scope, Conditions and Procedure, as Far as They Can Be Laid Down’, January (1923), 6

R. Brandon, The Spiritualists : The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, (London: Weidenfeld And Nicolson, 1983)

W. J. Crawford, The Psychic Structures of the Goligher Circle, (London: John M. Watkins, 1921)

E. E. F. d’Albe, The Goligher Circle: May to August 1921, (London: John M. Watkins, 1922)

E. Dingwall, ‘Report on a series of sittings with Eva C.’ Proceedings of the Society for Psychic Research, 32, (1922), 44

E. Dingwall, ‘Report on a Series  of Sittings  with the Medium Margery’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychic Research, 36, (1926-28), 48

N. Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, (London: Arthurs Press Limited, 1933)

G. Geley, From the Unconscious to the Conscious, (London: William Collins Sons, 1920)

G. Geley, Clairvoyance and Materialisation: a Record of Experiments, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1927)

F. Gettings, Ghosts in Photographs: The Extraordinary Story of Spirit Photography, (New York: Harmony Books, 1978)

T. G. Hamilton, Intention and Survival, (Toronto: MacMillan, 1942)

W. McDougall, ‘ The “Margery Mediumship”‘, Scientific American, May (1925),

B. A. Schrenck-Notzing, Phenomena of Materialisation: A Contribution to the investigation of mediumistic teleplastics, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1920)

 


[1] B. A. Schrenck-Notzing, Phenomena of Materialisation: A Contribution to the investigation of mediumistic teleplastics, (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1920), p.111.

[2] p. 131.

[3] p. 269.

[4] G. Geley, Clairvoyance and Materialisation: a Record of Experiments, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1927)

[5] G. Geley, From the Unconscious to the Conscious, (London: William Collins Sons, 1920), p60.

[6] p. 57.

[7] p. 62.

[8] p. 61.

[9] E. Dingwall, ‘Report on a series of sittings with Eva C.’ Proceedings of the Society for Psychic Research, 32, (1922), 44

[10] p. 20.

[11] pp. 21-33, 62.

[12] pp. 59-60, 65, 81.

[13] E. E. F. d’Albe, The Goligher Circle: May to August 1921, (London: John M. Watkins, 1922), p. 68.

[14] W. J. Crawford, The Psychic Structures of the Goligher Circle, (London: John M. Watkins, 1921) p.145-147.

[15] J. M. Bird, ‘Our Psychic Investigation: Its Scope, Conditions and Procedure, as Far as They Can Be Laid Down’, January (1923), 6. ‘Our Quest in the Psychic Field’, Scientific American, May (1923), p300.

[16] R. Brandon, The Spiritualists : The Passion for the Occult in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, (London: Weidenfeld And Nicolson, 1983)pp164-189.

[17] E. Dingwall, ‘Report on a Series  of Sittings  with the Medium Margery’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychic Research, 36, (1926-28), 48; W. McDougall, ‘ The “Margery Mediumship”‘, Scientific American, May (1925), pp. 339-341. The Canadian psychic investigator T. G. Hamilton also photographed Margery and another ectoplasmic medium Mary M., see T. G. Hamilton, Intention and Survival, (Toronto: MacMillan, 1942).

[18] N. Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, (London: Arthurs Press Limited, 1933), p19.

[19] Hamilton, np.