Immaterial World: Photographs from the Great Beyond

  • Event: Exhibit of Spirit Photography
  • Location: Stephen Cohen Gallery - 7358 Beverly Blvd in Los Angeles

The passage of time has a strange way of altering artifacts. I’m talking about not physical decay but psychological perception. Objects of art, once deemed realistic, gradually become stylized and artificial as the patina of age waxes over the years. An interesting example of this is currently on view at the Stephen Cohen Gallery in Los Angeles, an exhibition of “spirit” photographs entitled “Immaterial World.”

As fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini know, there was a craze for mediums, spiritualists, and séances in the Victorian Era that extended into the early 20th Century (Doyle extolled them; Houdini debunked them). Most of the photographs on display in the gallery date from this era – allegedly authentic attempts to capture ghosts on camera. To the modern eye, trained by watching decades of trick photography and high-tech special effects, the images are notably unconvincing, but they do provide an interesting insight into a time when many took seriously the concept that the dead could return and commune with the living.

At first glance, these centuries-old ghost photographs seem disappointing, not the least because of their diminutive size. Most are 4.125 by 2.5 inches; the black-and-white rectangles almost look as if they could have been clipped from a newspaper, and there is little of the uncanny obviously apparent in their frequently stiff poses and sometimes crude trickery.And yet, they have a cumulative impact, as perusing them draws you back into another world – not so much the Great Beyond as the Great Back Then, a time when techology and belief combined to create a peculiar form of art masquerading as factual evidence.

Several photographs by John Beattie purport to show unformed “apparitions” that appear as nothing more than blobs of light (presumably meant to be ectoplasm). To the modern eye, the effect looks like little more than a mistake – the sort of thing that happens when you accidentally expose film to light.

More bizarre, if not more convincing, are photographs of a ghostly manifestation of a departed relative emanating from a medium’s nose. The alleged ectoplasm resembles solid material, and the impression one receives is of a freakshow stunt, with performer forcing a cloth out of her nose.

In other cases, the supernatural element is so subtle as to go almost unnoticed without close inspection. For example, “The White Cross” by Frederick Hudson looks like nothing more than a portrait of medium Georgiana Houghton, until you note the tiny cross floating above her head – an image that we would now interpret as an obvious artistic statement made by the photographer about his subject.

Hudson’s other work is more interesting, hewing closer to our standard concept of supernatural manifestations. A set of three photographs, listed as #10 on the gallery catalogue (including “Mrs. Guppy, Medium; Dr. Cargill & Spirit of his Sister), present shrouded figures that seem to deliberately evoke the image of a ghost as seen at Halloween: a person with a sheet draped over his head. Other images (such as “Miss Rose Hudson, Medium; Mr. Adshead & Brother”) go even further, to depict spectral figures floating in the air.

One readily apparent element of Hudson’s work is the stiff quality of the poses (the result of the long exposure time of 19th Century photography, which required subjects to hold their positions to avoid blurring the image). In several cases, the living humans strike typical Victorian poses – seated at a chair, hand resting on a table, gazing indifferently into the middle distance – while totally oblivious to the transparent figures occupying the frame with them.

The work of W. Parkes, like that of Beattie, features some “apparitions” that look like non-descript blobs of energy, but there is also a nice one of a floating woman facing a wide-eyed man. The distinguishing feature is that the woman is visible only from the waist up, emphasizing her disembodied state.

A set of three photographs entitled “The Ghost of Bernadette Soubirons (#19 in the catalogue) improve on the stiff poses of Hudson’s images, actually suggesting action, with a pair of children conducting a séance and visibly reacting to the ghostly figure they summon. The effect still looks staged for the camera, resembling a set of publicity photographs for a scary silent movie.

The point where artifice becomes accidental art is most obvious in “Cabinet Card with Ghosts” (#20 in the catalogue), which features a seated man surrounded by disembodied faces. If not for the title attached to it, a modern viewer would interpret this image not as a supernatural manifestation but as transparent manipulation of the photographic medium for artistic purposes: the subject could be an author imagining his characters, or a sculptor surrounded by visions of his models, or even just a man thinking of his family. In short, it is an intriguing image, but it conveys little sense of bridging a gap between the living and the dead; rather, it suggests thought made visible.

“Immaterial World” also features more modern photography. Some of it claims to be journalistic in nature. In other cases, the artifice is openly acknowledged, with photographic techniques used to suggest abstract concepts like thoughts or emotions. There is also something called “Looking Glass” by Stephen Berkman, which claims to be “the world’s first transparent, glass camera obscura.”

The exhibitions more contemporary photographs are technically, perhaps even artisitically, superior, but they lack the intrigue of their Victorian forbears, which provoke questions about perception and gullibility as we wonder how anyone could have accepted these images as proof of the afterlife. Lest we grow too self-satisfied with our superior modern sensiblities, there are some relatively recent infra-red photographs of table tipping and two newspaper photographs illustrating an article about a haunted apartment, all of which have been taken at face value by at least some contemporary viewers. The newspaper photos are even less convincing than the Victorian images: too embarrassed to present ghosts on camera, the anonymous photographer simply shows us the supposed results of the haunting, with tables and chairs in disarray, allegedly overturned by a poltergeist.

Shrouded in the center of the gallery, is Berman’s “Looking Glass” display. Walking inside, you see an artificial skull against a black background, illuminated by a small spotlight. On a table in the center of the room is a transparent glass box shaped like a camera. Look at the back of the box and you will see a small image of the skull projected on the glass, apparently floating in space. The effect is remarkably atmospheric, with an interesting, uneven texture, and the display perhaps gives some hint of the techniques used to create so-called authentic spirit photographs.

Most of the items in the “Immaterial World” catalogue are for sale. Prices range from $1,200 to $60,000 (not counting “Spirit Apparition” and “Looking Glass,” which are Price on Request). Frankly, the prices seem inflated. The interest generated by these pictures is mostly of a historical nature: they document beliefs and attitudes from an earlier era, and they provide evidence of how early photographers learned to use double exposures and other tricks to take advantage of those beliefs. It would certainly be worthwhile for scholars to acquire original negatives that might reveal more about the trickery employed, but they aesthetic qualities of the images themselves hardly justify the exorbitant price tags, especially when many of the photographs have been published in the coffee table books on display in the gallery, such as The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.

Of course, if any of these photographs actually proved the existence of the “Immaterial World,” that would be another matter. A few thousand dollars hardly seems unreasonable in exchange a glimpse into the Afterlife.

“Immaterial World” runs at the Stephen Cohen Gallery through November 4. Hours: 11:00am to 6:00pm Tuesdays through Saturday. Call 323-9375525 for information.