Introduction to
Concerning the Spiritual in Photography

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and science.

Albert Einstein, "What I believe," 1930

Approaching photography and photographer literally as a "medium," this exhibition considers how historical and present-day practitioners utilize and reference intrinsic mechanics of light-sensitive media to achieve spiritual allusions and illusions. The title of the show is a nod to the early-twentieth century painter Wassily Kandinsky's landmark book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), which heralded artists as the leaders of a new spiritualist age. Many of the makers represented here are from New England or have ties to Boston, an area that gave rise to spirit photography itself as well as one of the most notable mediums in Spiritualism's history. Accordingly, each artist represents a different angle and approach to articulating this illusive concept. Playing upon the idea of the psychic and the séance, this modern manifestation highlights what has been unique to photography since its invention: its simultaneous straddling of science, magic, and art.

Photography, Spiritualism, and spirit photography all came into being within a mere twenty years (with the canonical birth years of 1839, 1848, and 1861 respectively). Distinct from mysticism, Spiritualism focused on the esoteric and occult side of the otherworldly and was a loosely organized doctrine based on communication with the dead. As many critics have noted, Spiritualists clothed themselves in the language and trappings of modern advances in technology, such as wireless telegraphy and electricity. During this positivistic age, photographs of the paranormal were considered proof of phenomena as well as the only method of communication with another world: a medium and a message. Mediums and spirit photographers followed the example of the dark chamber accordingly, mimicking and recasting various aspects of the photographic process. Indeed, there appeared to be a photographic corollary for every clairvoyant component: from performing in the dark to the psychic acting as a highly sensitized conduit.

Acting like 21st century mediums, the contemporary responses in this gallery summon ghosts of photography's past and future. The concept of "film" functions on a variety of levels—a latent image as well as a symbolic membrane between material and spiritual worlds. Many of the works on paper are thus created very simply using some of the earliest forms of photography, directly with the trace or touch of an object (photograms and cliché verres) or with elemental technical aspects (focus and exposure). Some pieces utilize different forms of "light" often associated with the spiritual (the aura and the x-ray) and others utilize darkroom trickery (double exposure, compositing, retouching, and toning). These photographic sleights of hand—be they tricks of the trade, chemical aberrations, or even mistakes—could equally have applied to spirit photographs, but are instead used here for different, artistic purposes.

This exhibition is only one of many recent shows and critical voices that examine and consider Spiritualism, spirit photography, and other paranormal themes in contemporary art. It is apt then to conclude by questioning: Why this sudden interest in spirits? The avant-garde and academia has long aligned itself with the bizarre, delving into the vault of cultural history for inspiration. Perhaps, with so many photographers today moving from the darkroom to the "lightroom," a new beginning of the medium is heralded and pondered. The artists in this exhibition reset the clock, playing with some of photography's most essential qualities at a time when they are being radically redefined. This gathering, itself in a "dark room," conjures a chorus of voices, reminding us again of photography's—and by extension our own—ongoing relation to the unknown.

Leslie K. Brown
PRC Curator

The PRC wishes to thank the University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center and Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center for generously loaning archival materials to this exhibition. Concerning the Spiritual in Photography is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

Copyright © 2002, Photographic Resource Center, Inc.