Eerie 19th Century Photographs of Ghosts: See Images from the Long, Strange Tradition of “Spirit Photography”

We might draw any number of conclusions from the fact that rats’ brains are enough like ours that they stand in for humans in laboratories. A misanthropic existentialist may see the unflattering similarity as evidence that there’s nothing special about human beings, despite our grandiose sense of ourselves. A medieval European thinker would draw a moral lesson, pointing to the rat’s gluttony as nature’s allegory for human greed. And a skeptical observer in the 19th and early 20th centuries might take note of how easily both rats and humans can be manipulated; the latter, for example, by pseudo-phenomena like Spiritualism, which encompassed a wide range of claims about ghosts and the afterlife, from seances to spirit photography.

One such skeptical observer in 1920, Millaias Culpin, even wrote in his Spiritualism and the New Psychology of the “’scientific’ supporters of spiritualism,” most of them “eminent in physical science.” They are easily convinced, Culpin thought, because “they have been trained in a world where honesty is assumed to be a quality of all workers. A laboratory assistant who played a trick upon one of them would find his career at an end, and ordinary cunning is foreign to them. When they enter upon the world of Dissociates, where deceit masquerades under the disguise of transparent honesty, these eminent men are but as babes—country cousins in the hands of confidence-trick men.”

Such adherents of Spiritualist beliefs were taken in not because they were naturally credulous or stupid, but because they had been “trained” to trust the evidence of their senses. So-called spirit photographs, like those you see here, allowed people to “show material evidence for their beliefs.” Photographers who created the images, Mashable explains, could "easily make two exposures on a single negative, manipulate the negative to create ghostly blurs, or overlap two negatives in the darkroom to produce an extra face within the resultant frame."

The audience for this work was "vast," and many fit Culpin's generalizations. In 1921, for example, paranormal investigator Hereward Carrington wrote of “a number of ‘spirit’ and ‘thought’ photographs, the evidence for which seemed to me to be exceptionally good.” In describing other pictures as “obviously fraudulent” or “extremely puzzling,” Carrington made critical distinctions and appeared to use the methods and the language of science in the evaluation of objects purporting to prove the existence of ghosts.

It may seem incredible that spirit photography had widespread appeal for as long as it did. The photographs first began appearing in the 1860s, emerging “from a small Boston portrait studio” and first made by William H. Mumler, the genre’s inventor and “most prominent early proponent,” writes Mashable.

Mumler was neither a photographer nor a medium. He originally worked as a silver engraver, while dabbling in photography in the local studio of a woman named Mrs. Stuart. One day in 1861, in the midst of developing a self-portrait, Mumler reported that the dim figure of a young cousin who had died twelve years earlier emerged in the final print.

These ghostly images continued to appear—on their own, the story goes—and the studio’s receptionist, a part-time medium, helped popularize them. Soon Mumler “received visitors from across America, including the recently widowed Mary Todd Lincoln.” Most of these visitors did not work as scientists or professional paranormal investigators. They were ordinary people bereaved by the mass death of the Civil War and deeply motivated to accept physical confirmation of an afterlife. Moreover, before the rise of Fundamentalist Evangelicalism in the 1920s, Spiritualism was on the front lines of an earlier culture war: spirit photography was “a tangible symbol of the overarching argument of mysticism versus science and rationalism.”

The three images at the top of the post date from the earliest period of spirit photography, between 1862 and 1875, and they were all produced by Mumler in Boston and New York, where he moved in 1869, and where he was charged with fraud, then “acquitted of all charges because they could not be sufficiently proven.” (See many more of his photos at Mashable and the Getty Museum online archive.) Though his business suffered, spirit photography only grew more popular, particularly in Spiritualist circles in Britain, where Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes, was one of the most ardent of Spiritualist believers.

Doyle supported a British photographer named William Hope, who began taking spirit photographs in 1905, founded a group called the Crewe Circle and later “went on to prey on grieving families,” writes River Donaghey at Vice, “who lost loved ones in WWI and desperately wanted photographic proof that their relatives were still hovering around in spectral form.” Even after Hope and his crew were exposed, Doyle continued to support him, going so far as to write a book called The Case for Spirit Photography. The four photographs above and below are Hope’s work (see many more at Vice and the Public Domain Review). They are seriously creepy—in the way movies like The Ring are creepy—but they are also, quite obviously, photographic fictions.

Even as viewers of photography became savvier as the century wore on, many people thrilled to Hope’s work until his death in 1933, maybe for the same reason we watch The Ring; it’s a fun scare, nothing more, if we suspend our disbelief. As for the true believers in spirit photography—they are not so different either from us 21st century sophisticates. We’re still taken in all the time by hoaxes and frauds, maybe because it’s still as easy to push the buttons in our brains, and because, well, we just want to believe.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Photo Archive Lets You Download 4,300 High-Res Photographs of the Historic Normandy Invasion

Taxis to Hell – and Back – Into the Jaws of Death, by Robert F. Sargent, via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-20th century, theorists like Roland Barthes and Pierre Bourdieu exploded naive notions of photography as “a perfectly realistic and objective recording of the visible world… a ‘natural language,’” as Bourdieu wrote in Photography: A Middlebrow Art. Bourdieu himself wielded a camera during his ethnographic work in Algeria, taking dozens of conventional and unconventional photographs of the nation’s struggle for independence from France in the 50s. Yet he urged us to see photography as formally mediating social reality rather than transparently representing the truth.

We have been trained to interpret the perspectives most photographs adopt as objective views, when in fact they are “perfectly in keeping with the representation of the world which has dominated Europe since the Quattrocento.” Photography, in other words, tends to give us art imitating Renaissance art. It can be difficult to bear this in mind when we look at individual photographs—what Barthes calls “the This."

Whether they document our own family histories or such momentous events as the Normandy Invasion that began on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, photographs elicit powerful emotional reactions that defy aesthetic categories.

At the Flickr account PhotosNormandie, you can browse and search over 4,300 high resolution photographs from the pivotal Normandy campaign, “From iconic images like Into the Jaws of Death by Robert F. Sargent,” My Modern Met writes, “to troops interacting with locals as they liberate areas of Normandy.” The photos are deeply affecting, often awe-inspiring. When we look with a critical eye, we’ll find ourselves asking certain questions about them.

The skewed perspective and ominous sky in Sargent’s “Into the Jaws of Death,” for example, at the top of the post, might make us think of the Sturm und Drang of many a dramatic shipwreck painting from the Romantic period. Was Sargent aware of the similarity when he looked through the lens? Did he position himself to heighten the effect? In photos like that further up, of a French home displaying a pro-U.S. sign on July 11th, 1944, we might wonder whether the residents made the sign or whether it was given to them, perhaps for this very photo op. As always, we're justified in asking about the role of the photographer in staging or framing a particular scene.

For example, the photo of a German soldier surrendering to American G.I.s, above, looks staged. But what exactly these soldiers are doing remains a mystery. How much do these external details matter? Photography is unique among other visual arts in that “the Photograph,” Barthes writes, “reproduces to infinity” what has “occurred only once.” It is the meeting of infinity with “only once” that engages us in more existential explorations.  All of these soldiers and civilians, sharing their joy and anguish, most of them now passed into history. Who were these people? What did these moments mean to them? What do they mean to us 70 years later?

The bombed-out cathedrals and defeated tanks make us ponder the fragility of our own built environment, though the destructive forces threatening to undo the modern world now seem as likely to be natural as man-made—or rather some new, frightening combination of the two. In the faces of the wounded and the displaced, we see specific manifestations of the same tragic invasions and migrations that reach back to Thucydides and forward to the present moment in world history, in which some 60 million people displaced by war and hardship seek sanctuary.

The images draw us away into general observations as they draw us back to the unrepeatable moment. This project began on the 60th anniversary of D-Day “as a way,” My Modern Met explains, “to crowdsource descriptions of images on the now defunct Archives Normandie, 1939-1945. Thus, users are encouraged to comment on photos if they are able to improve descriptions, locations, and identifications.” History may rhyme with the present—as one famous quote attributed to Mark Twain has it—but it never exactly repeats. The photograph, Barthes wrote, “mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” Moments forever lost to time, transmuted into timelessness by the camera's eye. Enter the PhotosNormandie gallery here.

via My Modern Met

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Gustav Klimt’s Haunting Paintings Get Re-Created in Photographs, Featuring Live Models, Ornate Props & Real Gold

Image by Inge Prader

Gustav Klimt painted a glittering, erotic, haunting reality of his own, distinctive even by the standards of his artistically abundant environment of late 19th- and early 20th-century Vienna. "Whoever wants to know something about me," he once wrote in a commentary on the self-portrait he never painted, "ought to look carefully at my pictures." Given the level of scrutiny with which she's no doubt had to look at his pictures, Klimt's countrywoman Inge Prader must therefore know everything about the painter there is to know.

Image by Inge Prader

A photographer with a wide variety of corporate clients, Prader has drawn a good deal of attention by shooting recreations of Klimt's canvasses made for Vienna's Life Ball, an AIDS charity event, using real models, real costumes, and real gold. That last has a particular importance, given Prader's focus on paintings from the "Golden Phase" that Klimt entered after becoming a success. "In 1903 Klimt visited Venice, Ravenne and Florence," writes Konbini's Donnia Ghezlane-Lala. "It was his visit to the San Vitale basilica in Ravenne that struck him the most. Fascinated by Byzantine mosaics, he decided to integrate the colour gold into his work using gold paper and gold leaf. Also, fun fact, Klimt was the son of a goldsmith."

Image by Inge Prader

Prader's "carefully posed models and intricately crafted props duplicate some of Klimt’s most iconic masterworks like Death and Life and Beethoven Frieze, mirroring the gold hued, highly decorative and erotic aesthetic the Austrian artist became best known for," writes Designboom's Nina Azzarello. "Richly ornamented costumes clothing warriors and women alike are situated alongside semi-nude figures and set against detailed mosaic backdrops." These "paradise-like conditions" on the canvas transfer surprisingly well to photography, especially with the eye Prader has developed in fashion and advertising, two realms guaranteed to instill anybody with a positively Klimt-like appreciation for striking compositions, luxurious materials, and beautiful women.

You can see more of Prader's Klimt recreations at Konbini and Designboom.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Long Before Photoshop, the Soviets Mastered the Art of Erasing People from Photographs — and History Too

Adobe Photoshop, the world's best-known piece of image-editing software, has long since transitioned from noun to verb: "to Photoshop" has come to mean something like "to alter a photograph, often with intent to mislead or deceive." But in that usage, Photoshopping didn't begin with Photoshop, and indeed the early masters of Photoshopping did it well before anyone had even dreamed of the personal computer, let alone a means to manipulate images on one. In America, the best of them worked for the movies; in Soviet Russia they worked for a different kind of propaganda machine known as the State, not just producing official photos but going back to previous official photos and changing them to reflect the regime's ever-shifting set of preferred alternative facts.

"Like their counterparts in Hollywood, photographic retouchers in Soviet Russia spent long hours smoothing out the blemishes of imperfect complexions, helping the camera to falsify reality," writes David King in the introduction to his book The Commissar Vanishes: The Falsification of Photographs and Art in Stalin's Russia. "Stalin's pockmarked face, in particular, demanded exceptional skills with the airbrush. But it was during the Great Purges, which raged in the late 1930s, that a new form of falsification emerged. The physical eradication of Stalin's political opponents at the hands of the secret police was swiftly followed by their obliteration from all forms of pictorial existence."

Using tools that now seem impossibly primitive, Soviet proto-Photoshoppers made "once-famous personalities vanish" and crafted photographs representing Stalin "as the only true friend, comrade, and successor to Lenin, the leader of the Bolshevik Revolution and founder of the USSR."

This quasi-artisanal work, "one of the more enjoyable tasks for the art department of publishing houses during those times," demanded serious dexterity with the scalpel, glue, paint, and airbrush. (Some examples, as you can see in this five-page gallery of images from The Commissar Vanishes, evidenced more dexterity than others.) In this manner, Stalin could order written out of history such comrades he ultimately deemed disloyal (and who usually wound up executed as) as Naval Commissar Nikolai Yezhov, infamously made to disappear from Stalin's side on a photo taken alongside the Moscow Canal, or People's Commissar for Posts and Telegraphs Nikolai Antipov, commander of the Leningrad party Sergei Kirov, and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet Nikolai Shvernik — pictured, and removed one by one, just above.

This practice even extended to the materials of the Soviet space program, writes Wired's James Oberg. Cosmonauts temporarily erased from history include Valentin Bondarenko, who died in a fire during a training exercise, and the especially promising Grigoriy Nelyubov (pictured, and then not pictured, at the top of the post), who "had been expelled from the program for misbehavior and later killed himself." Yuri Gagarin, the cosmonaut who made history as the first human in outer space, did not, of course, get erased by the proud authorities, but even his photos, like the one just above where he shakes hands with the Soviet space program's top-secret leader Sergey Korolyov, went under the knife for cosmetic reasons, here the removal of the evidently distracting workman in the background — hardly a major historical figure, let alone a controversial one, but still a real and maybe even living reminder that while the camera may lie, it can't hold its tongue forever.

h/t @JackFeerick

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers & Francis Stewart’s Censored Photographs of a WWII Japanese Internment Camp

Image by Ansel Adams

In places where atrocities or widespread human rights violations occur, we sometimes hear ordinary citizens later claim they didn’t know what was going on. In the case of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, this would be almost impossible to believe. “120,000 people,” notes Newsweek, “lost their property and their freedom,” rounded up in full view of their neighbors. Every major publication of the time reported on Franklin Roosevelt’s 1941 Executive Order. Newsweek wrote "that people in coastal areas ‘were more anxious than ever to get rid of their aliens after rumors that signal lights were seen before submarine attacks'" off the coast of Southern California. There were many such rumors, the kind that spread xenophobic fear and paranoia, and which people used to vocally support, or tacitly approve of, sending their neighbors to internment camps because of their ancestry.

Image by Francis Stewart

Other reactions were less than subtle. The West Seattle Herald confronted readers with the blunt headline “GET ‘EM OUT!” Nonetheless, Newsweek’s Rob Verger writes, “the policy was by no means greeted with unanimous support,” and a vigorous public debate played out, with opponents pointing to the blatant racism and violations of civil rights. Two-thirds of the internees were American citizens. Yet all Japanese Americans were repeatedly called “aliens,” language consistent with the virulently anti-Japanese propaganda campaigns emerging at the same time.

Once the camps were built and the internees imprisoned, however, a massive propaganda effort began, not only the sell the camps as a necessary national security measure, but to portray them as idyllic villages where the patriotic internees patiently waited out the war by farming, playing baseball, making arts and crafts, running general stores, attending school, waving flags, and running newspapers.

Image by Clem Albers

Much of that information was conveyed to the public visually by photographers hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the camps. Among them were Clem Albers, Francis Stewart, and Dorothea Lange—well known for her photographs of the Great Depression. All three visited the camp called Manzanar in the foothills of the Sierra mountains. Another famous photographer, Ansel Adams, gained access to Manzanar by virtue of his friendship with its director, Ralph Merritt.

Image by Dorothea Lange

Their photographs, for the most part, show busily working men and women, smiling schoolchildren, and lots of patriotic leisure activities, like Stewart’s photo of sixth grade boys playing softball, further up. The photographers were strictly prohibited from photographing guards, watchtowers, searchlights, or barbed wire, and the heavy military presence at the camp is nearly always out of frame, with some very rare exceptions, like Albers’ photograph above of military police.

Image by Ansel Adams

Adams worked under these prohibitions as well, but his photos captured camp life as honestly as he could. The stunning landscapes sometimes compete, even in the background, with the real subject of some of his images (as in the photo at the top). But he also conveyed the harsh barrenness of the region. He tried to intimate the oppressive police apparatus by capturing its shadow. “The purpose of my work,” he wrote to the Library of Congress in 1965 upon donating his collection, “was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, business and professions, had overcome a sense of defeat and despair [sic].” His images often show internees “in heroic poses,” writes Dinitia Smith, as above, in order to ennoble their conditions. Lange’s photographs, on the other hand, like that of a young girl below, “seemingly unstaged and unlighted… bear the hallmarks” of her “distinctively documentary style.” Her pictures “compress intense human emotion into carefully composed frames.” Some of her photos show smiling, relaxed subjects. Many others, like the photograph of a barracks interior further down, show the faces of weary, uncertain, and despondent civilian prisoners of war.

Image by Dorothea Lange

Perhaps because of her refusal to sentimentalize the camps, or because of her left-wing politics and opposition to internment (both known before she was hired), Lange’s work was censored, not only through restricted access, but through the impoundment of over 800 photographs she took at 21 locations. Those photos were recently published in a book called Impounded: Dorothea Lange and the Censored Images of Japanese American Internment and hundreds of them are free to view online at the Densho Digital Repository’s Dorothea Lange Collection. The National Park Service’s collection features 16 pictures from Lange’s visit to Manzanar. At the NPS site, you’ll also find collections of photographs from that camp by Adams, Albers, and Stewart. Each, to one degree or another, faced a form of censorship in what they could photograph or whether their work would be shown at all. What most ordinary people saw at the time did not tell the whole story. For all practical purposes, writes Oberlin Library, “life at a Japanese internment camp was comparable to the life of a prisoner behind bars.”

Image by Dorothea Lange

h/t @Histouroborus

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Cindy Sherman’s Instagram Account Goes Public, Revealing 600 New Photos & Many Strange Self-Portraits

A post shared by cindy sherman (@_cindysherman_) on

The career of Jenny Holzer, the artist who became famous in the 1970s and 80s through her public installations of phrases like "ABUSE OF POWER COMES AS NO SURPRISE" and "PROTECT ME FROM WHAT I WANT," has made her into an ideal Tweeter. By the same token, the career of Cindy Sherman, the artist who became famous in the 1970s and 80s through her inventive not-exactly-self-portraits — pictures of herself elaborately remade as a variety of other people, including other famous people, in a variety of time periods — has made her into an ideal Instagrammer.

But though Sherman had been using Instagram for quite some time, most of the public had no idea she had any presence there at all until just this week. "The account, which mysteriously switched from private to public in recent months, is a mix of personal photos alongside Sherman’s ever-famous manipulated images of herself," reports Artnet's Caroline Elbaor.

"What we see here is somewhat of a departure from the artist’s traditional model: the frame is tighter and closer to her face, in what is clear use of a phone’s front-facing camera. Plus, the subject matter is decidedly intimate in comparison to her usual work — the latest posts document a stay in the hospital. She may even be having fun with filters."

A post shared by cindy sherman (@_cindysherman_) on

She apparently started having fun with them a few months ago, from one May post whose photo she describes as “Selfie! No filter, hahaha” — but in which she does seem to have made use of certain effects to give the image a few of the suite of uncanny qualities in which she specializes. Though not a member of the generations the world most closely associates with avid selfie-taking, Sherman brings a uniquely rich experience with the form, or forms like it. Her "method of turning the lens onto herself is uncannily appropriate to our times," writes Elbaor," in which the stage-managed selfie has become so ubiquitous that it’s now fodder for exhibitions and often cited as an art form in itself."

Sherman's Instagram self-portraiture, in contrast to the often (but not always) glamorous productions that hung on the walls of her shows before, has entered fascinating new realms of strangeness and even grotesquerie. Using the image-modification tools so many of us might previously assumed were used only by teenage girls desperate to erase their imagined flaws, Sherman twists and bends her own features into what look like living cartoon characters. "A bit scary," one commenter wrote of Sherman's recent hospital-bed selfie (taken while recovering from a fall from a horse), "but I can't look away." Many of the artist's thousands and thousands of new and captivated Instagram followers are surely reacting the same way. Check out Sherman's Instagram feed here.

A post shared by cindy sherman (@_cindysherman_) on

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Accidental Wes Anderson: Every Place in the World with a Wes Anderson Aesthetic Gets Documented by Reddit

Wes Anderson's immaculately art-directed, immediately recognizable films may take place in a reality of their own, but that doesn't mean a reality with no connection to ours. To go by their results, the director of The Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Grand Budapest Hotel (to name only three of his most visually distinctive pictures) and his collaborators have clearly immersed themselves in the very real history of the West in the twentieth century, drinking deeply of its fashion, its architecture, and its industrial and graphic design.

So no matter how fanciful his constructed settings — The Royal Tenenbaums' dream of New York City, The Darjeeling Limited's train crossing India in quirky old-school splendor, The Grand Budapest Hotel's unspecific Alpine mitteleuropa — Anderson always assembles them from precedented elements.

And so the habitués of a subreddit called Accidental Anderson have set out to post pictures of his sources, or places that might well pass for his sources, all over not just Europe, of course — where they found the Viennese cafe at the top of the post and the Berliner delivery van with wagon just above — but America, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.

Much of a location's accidental Andersonian potential comes down to its geometry and its colors: deep reds, bright yellows, and especially pale pinks and greens. Many of Anderson's preferred hues appear in the Gold Crest Resort Motel just above, which may strike a fan as having come right out of an Anderson picture even more so than the motel he actually used in his debut feature Bottle Rocket. The director has since moved on to much finer hostelries, which thus form a strong thread among Accidental Anderson's popular postings: Florida's Don CeSar Hotel (known as the "Pink Lady"), Cuba's Hotel Saratoga, Switzerland's Hotel Belvédère, Italy's Grand Hotel Misurnia.

Berlin's humbler Ostel, a themed tribute to the design sensibilities of the former East Germany, might also resonate with the ever-deepening historical consciousness of Anderson's movies. (Remember The Grand Budapest Hotel's titular building, sadly redone in a utilitarian, faintly Soviet avocado-and-ochre during the film's 1960s passages.)

To think that Anderson came from a place no less impossibly distant from the realm of midcentury Europe than Texas, home of the Dallas music store pictured below. Given his increasing popularity, it's hardly a surprise to see his signature aesthetic being not just reflected but adopted around the world. If life continues to imitate art, Accidental Anderson's contributors will long have their work cut out for them. Pay a visit to Accidental Anderson here.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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