Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Photography and the Occult" at the Met

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art has an enterprising and unusual special exhbition. "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult" contains two rooms displaying photographs of allegedly paranormal phenomena, among them apparitions of the dead, "vital forces," physical manifestations such as levitation and ectoplasm, and photo images created by thought. Most of the pictures date from the so-called golden age of spiritualism, roughly 1850 to 1930.

"Approaching the material from a historical perspective, the exhibition presents the photographs on their own terms, without authoritative comment on their veracity," the show's explanatory text says. And for the most part, the curator has kept that commitment. Nevertheless, notes next to the photos of a few of the "spirit manifestations" have a tinge of incredulity, which in those cases is quite justified. But using "Henri Robin and a Specter" as the show's iconic image, reproduced in a poster, is a little misleading. The photo's "specter" looks like a Hallowe'en costume, and the curatorial note acknowledges that Robin was an illusionist who never claimed to be anything else; he was simply demonstrating the "phantasmogorical" entertainment he devised to cash in on the spiritualist vogue.

Most of the "spirit photographs" consist of either a medium or a "sitter" (the medium's client), the translucent form of the departed above or to the side. We smile, knowing all about double exposures. In the late 19th century, though, photography was a specialized craft and few non-photographers had any concept of how the pictures were developed, so we can forgive the naive acceptance that such forgeries met with at the time.

But if we can understand why ordinary people tended to take these concoctions for reality, what are we to make of educated and presumably sophisticated students of psychical phenomena such as Albert von Schrenck-Notzing and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

On view is a photo by Schrenck-Notzing showing a naked medium, "Eva C.," peeking from behind a curtain, while a few feet from her is a supposed ghost. Schrenck-Notzing, according to the annotation, commented on the marvel of the medium's being without a stitch in which she could have concealed any apparatus for faking the ghost, which was captured in the same shot. It might have been marvelous, all right, if the revenant from the beyond did not look so utterly like a cardboard cutout, with features resembling those a child might have drawn. How could anyone, let alone a scientist, have fallen for this? I offer one possibility. Unlike the "ghost," the partially visible disrobed Eva C. is definitely three-dimensional -- and rather shapely into the bargain. Perhaps Schrenck-Notzing was distracted from concentrating too closely on the disembodied spirit by the embodied one.

Now we come to the embarrassing case of Conan Doyle and the famous "Cottingley fairy" photographs, two of which also figure in this exhibition. The creator of Sherlock Holmes developed, as is well known, a keen interest in the paranormal. He wrote quite a few books defending and explaining spiritualism. I've read a couple of them, and they struck me as reasonable in tone, neither dogmatic nor suggesting that the author had gone dotty in his later years. So there's no easy way to account for his being taken in by photographs of "fairies" who inhabited a garden in the village of Cottingley, and who were discovered there by two young ladies. The most, and the least, you can say about these fairies is that they were fashion conscious enough to dress very much in the mode of their time (circa 1920).

This is probably one instance where critics of psychical research are right when they say that an investigator fell prey to his own "will to believe" in the object of his research.

I left the exhibition with no doubt that most of its photographs of alleged paranormal manifestations were fakes, either cynically doctored to exploit people grieving over lost relatives or just for a hoot.

Why most rather than all?

Writing in the July 2005 Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, David Fontana remarks (in a book review, not in connection with the Met's show) that "photographs of materialisations always appear 'stagey' and rarely serve as hard evidence for paranomality ... ." True. But one reason such photos look "stagey" might be that we don't normally see materializations of non-material entities, so they are bound to look unreal when captured by the camera. In pictures (typically rather repellant) of ectoplasm being extruded from a medium, the ectoplasm may resemble cotton strands or cloth; but again, we don't know what ectoplasm, if such a thing exists, looks like. We shouldn't assume too quickly that what appears dubious must be phony.

So it is barely possible that even a few of the shots on view at the Met are what they purport to be, and they look dodgy because our minds don't know how to process what they have never experienced. That is of course only speculation on my part, and not offered as evidence.

But a few of the pictures in the exhibit do have some apparent claim to legitimacy. And, interestingly, they are among the most recent, taken long after the original "tricks of the trade" had been exposed (or double exposed).

A man named Colin Evans is shown in a photo taken in 1938, amid an auditorium full of people. The photo was taken using infrared light in a completely darkened room. Evans has risen into the air -- levitating, as D.D. Home, St. Joseph of Cupertino, and St. Teresa of Avila are said to have done. No means of aerial support are visible. And the audience members, including those right next to him, are looking not at Evans but at the seat he occupied when the lights went out. Supposing he had somehow leaped from a sitting position into the air,where he is shown to be almost vertical, it is hard to imagine that even in a darkened room no one would have heard or sensed it. And to have faked the whole scene would have required the cooperation of dozens of people, which a charlatan photographer could scarcely have expected would stay a secret for long.

For serios evidence -- excuse me, I mean serious evidence -- you should also consider a number of "thoughtographs" produced in experiments in the 1960s. Ted Serios, a boozehound and ne'er-do-well from the American midwest, appeared to have a singular talent: the ability to transfer his own visualized images to Polaroid film. Several examples are shown at the Met. The Serios phenomena, like practically everything else in the history of psychical research, are controversial, endlessly "debunked" and defended.

Whatever you want to make of the Serios "thoughtographs" or any other exhibits in "Photography and the Occult," they do not approach scientifically acceptable proof for post-mortem survival, energy fields, mediumship, or such. That, however, is not grounds for dismissing the paranormal.

In his book The Paranormal, Stan Gooch writes:
... It is not the case that the alternative universe is mysterious in itself. It is mysterious only to us. For our nervous system is poorly equipped to understand the paranormal. ...

The alternative universe -- I should really say universes -- of the paranormal do have their own laws and their own coherent existence. It is the case, however, that these in no way resemble those of the objective universe. They simply bear no relation to the rules of every day. This, in brief, is why the application of science and the scientific method to the paranormal not only produces no results, but rather literally causes the phenomena to disappear.
Although I question many of the conclusions in Gooch's book (and think that last quoted sentence is probably an overstatement), I do believe he is basically on the right track here. When we look for physical proof of a non-physical reality, or one whose "matter" exists in a more subtle realm than what we normally perceive, it's like trying to catch water in a butterfly net.

"Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine."

Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944)

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