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The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult

Exhibition dates: September 27 – December 31, 2005
Exhibition location: Harriette and Noel Levine Gallery and the Howard Gilman Gallery, second floor
Press preview: Monday, September 26, 10:00 a.m. – noon

Ghosts, spirit séances, levitation, auras, ectoplasm … extraordinary photographs of these and other paranormal phenomena will be on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, an exhibition devoted to the historical intersections between photography and the once wildly popular interest in spiritualism, on view from September 27 to December 31, 2005.

The Perfect Medium will bring together some 120 photographs culled from public and private archives throughout Europe and North America. The exhibition focuses primarily on the period from the 1860s to World War II, when occult and paranormal phenomena were most actively debated and both supporters and skeptics summoned photographs as evidence. Approaching the material from an historical perspective, the exhibition presents the photographs on their own terms, without authoritative comment on their veracity.

The exhibition is made possible in part by The Francesca Ronnie Primus Foundation, Inc.

The exhibition was organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, with the assistance of the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene, Freiburg im Breisgau, and The Howard Gilman Foundation, New York.

The Spiritualist movement, which began in the 1850s, was founded on the belief that the human spirit exists beyond the body and that the spirits of the dead can – and do – communicate with the living. The first photographer to produce and market spirit photographs was William H. Mumler, who opened a studio in Boston in the early 1860s, where he photographed clients accompanied by ghostly images of deceased friends or relatives. Mumler is perhaps best known for his portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, who appears with the spirit of her martyred husband, President Abraham Lincoln, hovering just behind her, hands reassuringly on her shoulder.

Included in the exhibition will be Mumler's portrait of Fanny Conant, a well-known Boston medium, who appears in the photograph with her control spirit, Vashti. Vashti was said to be the daughter of a Native American chief who was slain, along with her father, in the Yellowstone Massacre (1861). During and after the Civil War, the apparitions of Native Americans often appeared in photographs or were called on at séances, as many spiritualists regarded them as figures of reconciliation and forgiveness.

As the Spiritualist movement gained momentum in the late 19th century, spirit photography became a hotly debated topic, attracting the attention of major intellectual figures, including psychologist William James, scientists Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Richet, and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Exhibition Organization
The Perfect Medium is organized in three sections, emphasizing the different roles photography has played in its encounters with the occult. The first section is devoted to photographs of ghosts or spirits, beginning in the 1860s with the work of Mumler in Boston, Frederick Hudson in London, and édouard Isidore Buguet in Paris. This first phase of spirit photography was essentially commercial, and was marked by several well-publicized court trials.

As is often the case with spiritualist phenomena, the most intense interest in spirit photography has followed periods of war, when victims' families were willing to do anything to have one last contact with their loved ones. This was particularly true in the United States after the Civil War and in France after the war of 1870 and the Paris Commune. The millions of deaths during World War I also gave rise to a strong revival of spirit photography in Europe.

The second section of the exhibition is devoted to photographs documenting séances and the activities of mediums. Unlike images of spirits or emanations, these photographs record manifestations visible to the naked eye, capturing what an observer at the scene might actually have seen. Included are photographs of séances, experiments with telekinesis, levitation, and the production of ectoplasm, a mucous-like substance believed to be a visible materialization of the spirit world.

The photographs feature mediums active in the first decades of the 20th century, such as the Italian Eusapia Paladino, whose séances were thoroughly documented by leading scientists and intellectuals (Henri Bergson, Camille Flammarion, Pierre and Marie Curie), and Eva C. and Stanislava P., who were investigated by the German psychologist Albert von Schrenck-Notzing. At this time, scientific interest in mediums was prompted, to some extent, by Charcot's research on hysteria and Freud's investigations into the unconscious. But as advances in the fields of pathology and dynamic psychology were made in the 1920s and 1930s, this interest waned, loosening the ties that had bound photography, occultism, and the paranormal at the turn of the century.

The third section of the exhibition features photographs of vital forces or fluids that were believed to emanate from the body of the medium. These vital forces – which also included thoughts, feelings, and dreams – were often captured directly on the photographic plate, without the use of a camera. In France, Hyppolyte Baraduc, Louis Darget, and Jules-Bernard Luys sought to photograph their own thoughts and mental energy by placing their fingers or foreheads on the sensitized plates. Research into radioactivity and the discovery of x-ray photography in 1896 lent some scientific legitimacy to this photographic practice, which continued well into the 20th century with the work of the Russian Semyon Kirlian in the 1940s and the "thought photography" of the American Ted Serios in the 1960s.

The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult is organized by Pierre Apraxine, formerly curator of the Gilman Paper Company Collection, and Sophie Schmit, an independent curator, in collaboration with Andreas Fischer, Clément Chéroux, and Denis Canguilhem.

At the Metropolitan Museum, Mia Fineman, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Photographs, organized the exhibition. The exhibition is designed by Dan Kershaw, Exhibition Designer, with graphics by Barbara Weiss , Senior Graphic Designer, and lighting by Clint Ross Coller and Rich Lichte, Lighting Designers, all of the Museum's Design Department.

Before coming to the Metropolitan, the exhibition was on view at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris.

Exhibition Catalogue and Related Programs
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, published by Yale University Press (hardcover $65). Essays by Clément Chéroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, and Sophie Schmit study the more than 250 rare and remarkable photographs included in the catalogue through cultural, historical, and artistic lenses.

A variety of education programs will be presented at the Metropolitan in conjunction with the exhibition, including lectures, films, and gallery talks, as well as a Sunday at the Met program on October 9. During this daylong event, open to the public, exhibition curators and specialists will consider the various roles photography has played in recording paranormal and occult phenomena. The day will begin with a film, Telegrams from the Dead (1994), at 11:00 a.m. Directed by Matthew Collins, this documentary examines the spiritualist movement in the United States from 1850 to 1890, when people became intrigued with communicating with the spirit world through mediums and séances. A panel discussion at 3:00 p.m. will feature Pierre Apraxine, along with other exhibition catalogue contributors, and will be moderated by Mia Fineman of the Metropolitan Museum. Sunday at the Met is free with Museum admission and will be held in The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium; tickets and reservations are not required. For more information, contact (212) 570-5460 or e-mail lectures@metmuseum.org.

On October 7 and 8, a scholarly two-day symposium, Dark Rooms: Photography and Invisibility, will be held at Princeton University. The symposium will focus on how photography has been used, from its invention through the early 20th century, to explore the world that lies outside the limits of the visible. Speakers will include Pierre Apraxine, Carol Armstrong, Marta Braun, Clément Chéroux, Jonathan Crary, Andreas Fischer, Peter Geimer, Tom Gunning, André Gunthert, Linda Henderson, and Alexandra Owen. Registration is free, but must be made via the website, http://web.princeton.edu/sites/ArtandArchaeology/DarkRooms.

The exhibition will also be featured on the Museum's website www.metmuseum.org.

# # # July 21, 2005

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