Ghosts (2) — Spirits

Photographing the invisible

But where are the images of real ghosts?
Where are the spirits of the dead, separated from their corpses; those who haunt castles and old houses, who live in the stories passed down from generation to generation becoming literature, that bind the living to the dead, who are so close to us, both feared and expected? Those who live on so many years after their departure?

There were these photos of shadows — white shadows in the streets of Paris, white marks on the dark skin of strange foreigners photographed in Paris, Lisbon, Gondar or Zanzibar. In the 1850s, these shadows suddenly gained power in various images when the presence of unexplained white silhouettes was noticed: many stories tell of translucent apparitions of the dead among the living, from which William Mumler soon figured out he could make money. The photographic technique met the fashion of the occult and spiritualism, and because the possibilities of the simplest tricks fulfilled the desire to see and to reveal invisible spirits, ghosts who accompany the living, it produced strange images: the photographic plate became the medium itself, the magical object filled the void and revealed what was hidden to the profane.

Some of these photographs have already been presented here. They were often made in the aftermath of wars like the American Civil War, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 or the First World War. After this initial period, however, photography became more experimental, serving as a study of psychic phenomena. These images of spirits belong to this latter record. Some were made in the 1920s by the medium and photographer Ada E. Deane on plates “magnetized” before the meetings, and on which appeared abnormal white spots, often unidentifiable, but sometimes revealing the familiar face of a deceased one. As for William Hope’s spiritualist photos, they were marked with a “ghost stamp” which printed bright white circles on the plates.

From the 1870s and into the inter-war period, there were also such images “produced” by the spirit of the medium, the “scotographies” without posing or light, made only from the effect of magnetism produced by the concentration of the medium’s thoughts on a wrapped photographic plate pressed on his or her face. One such medium, Madge Donohoe, entered into communication with “invisible operators” who sometimes even moved the package on her forehead. Thus arose the image of eyes staring right at us or, even more mysterious, the “view” of Mount Pelée in Martinique a few days after the eruption of May 8, 1902, which was produced by evoking one of the “spirits of people deceased in St-Pierre.”

But there are other ways to photograph what should remain invisible, what can not be exhibited or described. The appearance of the white shadows of the deceased in the background quickly disappointed fans, however the “materialization” of spirits in the form of a whitish material issued by the body of the medium, had for a long time a troubling effect on observers — especially since they generally appeared in the darkness of a room, on a body sometimes half-hidden by a curtain and, on some occasions, naked. These materializations, the ectoplasms, could take the form of long filaments, while others built the face of a spirit anew — a face of unknown and unexpected dead ones, no longer of these relatives that grievers sought to recognize. Undoubtedly, the study of these photos convinced unbelievers who recognized in them pictures cut and crumpled, worn lace shawls or old slippers — but without any photo losing too much of its poetry nor, for some, its powerful obscenity.

In the end, only the pictures that show the medium in trance, contacting the spirits, can make us forget about the various riggings, and return us to that which is stronger in any ghost story: the meeting.

These meetings are close to possession: the medium - more often a woman - is plunged into a state of trance and cries in pain, seized with convulsions, whereas the spectators are caught in the projection of the medium's dreams, and experience, as long as they don't question the setup, visual hallucinations… The faces of mediums and their voices are transformed during the session by the spirit speaking through their body. The sessions take place in the dark and only subterfuge can expose to the photographic plate what happens there: magnesium flash first, then infrared photography helped to seize what the audience could not see - but lived. Thus, the medium experience makes itself visible even to the unbelievers who needed an image to give up their doubts, whereas the faithful experienced, as an assembled group, a communion, what could not be imagined: levitation, duplication of bodies, spirits descending upon the bodies, as in the dark and heated room, they awaited the voice of strange, disparate worlds, boundless faraways and fabulous pictures.

Photographing those who haunt us

For me, I’ve always lived in a haunted house – or rather a house where there is a room crowded with shadows.

Few of us have ever been able to sleep in this room, the “back room” or “blue room” – even the dog refuses to enter. Yet, long ago, I tried once – I was young then. I was lying on the bed with its ornate draperies and I fell asleep immediately. The thunder woke me, the rain poured down heavily – and in this moment of awakening, I heard footsteps on the pillow. Yes, I heard them on my pillow. A moment to recover and then turn, I saw it. A huge black spider crossing the bed. I fled.

Alfred Kubin, détail d’une gravure extraite de L’autre côté, 1905

In this room, there is a stained mirror hanging on the chimney. You see everything slightly distorted in it – you, the walls, the ceiling beams, the furniture, the door – and the whole scene is dotted with black and yellow spots.
In this room, to the right of the fireplace, there is a closet full of books – nothing but worm-eaten books of piety, hidden behind the blue wainscoting.
One day or another, each of the inhabitants of this house in turn has the same dream: he or she opens the closet door to discover a secret room hidden behind the paneling. For some, there would be a staircase, leading to a secret room on the first floor, windows overlooking the garden. For others, the door would open to a tortuous corridor going into the bowels of the house before emptying out into a room, then to another and another and another. For my part, I know the secret chamber is lined up with the “blue room”; it looks like it except that it is yellow. You would be able to find there, to the right of the fireplace, a closet with books of piety. In my dream, a milky Chinese porcelain vase “sat” on each of the four chairs in the room, awaiting me and wearing a woman’s yellow silk dress, its empty sleeves folded on its lap.

Everyone can hear the shadows who live in the house, you just have to listen carefully and be patient. Small, busy foot-steps on the floor above you, that unsealed tile that resounds when an invisible foot hits it, cracks in the wood panels and the reverberating sound of a race in the ceiling some winter nights. Objects that move, that disappear – or that appear: a small pale blue egg in a nest next to the phone, feathers everywhere, water flowing endlessly from an abandoned wood stove, rose petals under the beds, doodles on a telephone directory, broken pencils in a drawer, and a photo that winks at you.

Everyone can try to see the shadows who live in the house, but one has to be very humble and patient. To keep silent and not look up when one feels a current of air. To keep hold of the camera, just in case. To accept that the picture may be blurred.

I took this one a dozen years ago in the wee hours of the morning. By the time I advanced the film to take another picture, she was gone.