November 27: Born this day in 1918, a hard-drinking Chicago hotel porter claimed to be able to use his psychic powers to produce “thoughtographs; photographic images made by placing a paper tube, that he called gizmo, between a camera and his forehead through which he would project his ‘mind’s eye’ vision of a subject, which would then appear on the film.
Theodore “Ted” Judd Serios’ “thoughtographs” originally had supporters such as Denver psychiatrist Dr. Jule Eisenbud who in 1967 authored The world of Ted Serios : “thoughtographic” studies of an extraordinary mind. (Morrow, New York). Most were sceptical and he was debunked as a fraud by professional photographers Charlie Reynolds and David Eisendrath who wrote in the October 1967 issue of Popular Photography that they observed Serios, when he thought no one was looking, sticking pictures into his “gizmo”. Though some claim he produced images without the tube, and at some distance from the camera, this is easily attributed to double exposure or use of previously made exposures, followed by the fake snapping of a picture. Rebecca Baron’s short documentary film Detour de Force (dir. 2014) on Ted Serios.
Serios was not the first ‘thoughtographer’. In 1910 a psychology professor at Tokyo University, Tomokichi Fukurai, carried out in public experiments with Mifune Chizuko, an alleged psychic. One of his fascinations was what he termed nenshu, or psychography – Serios’s thoughtography. But Fukarai’s demonstrations with Chizuko were considered a failure, the psychic was branded a fraud, the professor a dupe, leading to her suicide and his resignation.
Fascination with the possibility that photography might record emanations, for want of a better term, we must admit, is not restricted to the gullible American public (who given the election result, will believe anything!), but is found worldwide. Kirlian photography is one instance; a technique for creating contact print photographs using high voltage, it was named after Armenian/Russian Semyon Kirlian, who in 1939 accidentally discovered that if an object on a photographic plate is connected to a high-voltage source, an image is produced on the photographic plate. It has been claimed as a ‘paranormal’ means of generating images of ‘auras’; emanations of the soul or spirit otherwise visible only to psychics.
Even against all evidence the desire to believe in a spiritual aspect of photography, or its capacity to prove its existence, remains strong. Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories of the prince of deduction, Sherlock Holmes, reveal how logic can untangle cause and effect. Nevertheless, after a series of family tragedies the popular writer developed a belief in ‘spirit photography’, rife in the nineteenth century, which claimed to depict the ectoplasmic emanations of clairvoyants, and other ‘paranormal’ psychic phenomena. He encouraged Ada Emma Deane, a cleaning lady who became a photographic medium at age 58 and who very quickly one of the most famous mediums in Britain. Disembodied heads would appear in pictures taken by her which she claimed were departed spirits. Deane required that photographic plates be submitted to her in advance so that she could “pre-magnetise” them with her psychic powers.
Her most famous feat was to produce spiritualist images on Armistice Day commemorations in 1921, 1922 and 1923 until in 1924 The Daily Sketch won the rights to publish, on November 13, the photo she made showing a group of faces floating in a cloud above the Cenotaph in Whitehall. But two days later The Daily Sketch announced it had discovered the photo to be a fraud. The faces in the cloud were not dead war heroes; they proved to be of living sportsmen whose heads appeared exactly as they did in existing portraits of them.
Five photographs created by two girls Elsie Wright (1900–88) and Frances Griffiths (1907–86), achieved widespead notoriety because of their validation by the celebrated Doyle who released in 1922 a book The Coming of the Fairies, (London: Hodder and Stoughton Ltd) on their photography in Cottingley near Bradford in England.
It proved later that their fairy imagery was the result of their experiments with photomontage and collage to create images of fairies playing and conversing with them in a garden setting. Clearly loathe to disappoint their eminent supporter and other believers, the girls waited until 1981 before Elsie Wright confessed to Joe Cooper, who interviewed her for The Unexplained magazine, that the fairies were, in fact, paper cutouts.
So are we still inclined to accept that the ‘factual’ medium can produce images of a spiritual realm? In art of course, anything is possible. Adam Fuss’s series My Ghost is one example where we are prompted to suspend our disbelief, or reassess our faith.
Using the daguerreotype and the photogram, Fuss’ “images remind one of the early traditions of spirit photography,” writes Roberta Smith, in reviewing Fuss’s work for The New York Times. Fuss’ use of flash to record in large-scale photograms moving subjects such as babies, snakes, water and smoke directly onto film and photographic paper relates to them to Kirlian photographs which themselves are photograms, also made without a camera.
Long practice in ‘painting’ with light extends through Australian photographer Marian Drew’s since her experiments of the eighties in New York in which fleeting, struggling human figures pay ghostly homage to Muybridge.
‘WaterLine’ (2004) is a series of photogram murals commissioned for the Brisbane Magistrates Court to flow through five floors of the building. Here Drew figuratively disinters the invisible, long-lost freshwater spring, the Tank Stream, from beneath the site and from under the concrete of Brisbane. Using the archaic materials of wet photography she makes visible the water, its motion, the lifeforms inhabiting it and its transparent substance.
A floating apparition, a vessel, formed from skeins of light, hovers like a blazing premonition on the water of a mangrove. Lightning flickers on the horizon. The threat of the European ghost-ship is all the more present and distinctly located as it casts its hard glare on the surrounding sand, bush and grasses, planting sharp blades of light along the aboriginal shore. This is Marian Drew’s Moreton Island, the Creek that Leads to the Sea (2008). Drew describes a physically exacting process, in this instance, of drawing with light and motion as she stood in the water with a torch to animate the invisible history and politics of her landscapes.
The eastern beaches (on the oceanfront, and along creeks leading to the sea) of Quandamooka (Moreton Island), were in 1833 the site of a massacre of the resident Ngugi by white settlers. Drew thus delineates the Queensland landscape to infer that a passage of experience from pre-European settlement co-exists with us. Nathan Shepherdson (Shepherdson & Drew, 2008) was prompted to write of this phenomenon in his book-length poem ‘what marian drew never told me about light’:
my ability to remember is always a significant gesture
my gesture is implicit
the materiality i live
liberating ephemeral material from decay
walking a line
moving into the frame
and through the body
an extension into the image
By leaving light-traces of her physical movement Drew extends her body into landscape image in a reflective reversal, light-on-dark, of the usual photographic circumstance in which the photographer is behind the camera.
A sense of presence, an emanation, is embedded in the image.