Ghostly sights and otherworldly images inhabit imaginative 'Spiritual' exhibit
Anyone who has seen an image emerge in the darkroom knows what a fundamentally mysterious, even ghostly, process photography is: the way it seems an emanation from beyond.
There's no scientific mystery, of course. It's a simple matter of chemistry and physics. But emotionally -- or, better yet, spiritually --
each time a photograph develops it's like a small, inexplicable miracle. No other art form so forthrightly proclaims itself to be supernatural. For almost as long as photography has existed, the medium's affinity for otherworldliness has been exploited by artists and charlatans alike. Both halves of the equation are on display in "Concerning the Spiritual in Photography." (If the title sounds familiar, that's because it alludes to painter Wassily Kandinsky's landmark 1911 book, "Concerning the Spiritual in Art.")
A viewer enters the show through a set of heavy burgundy drapes: The seance is about to begin. It's a delightfully deadpan touch -- decor as declaration of intent -- and suggests how imaginatively the show has been put together by Photographic Resource Center curator Leslie K. Brown.
The first half consists of work by nine contemporary artists whose images either evoke the otherworldly or depict it. Shannon Taggart, for example, has spent three years photographing two modern-day spiritualist communities: Lily Dale, in upstate
New York, and Arthur Findlay College, in England. In "Brian in the Medium's Cabinet," she ups the ante by bathing the image in an infernal red of Luciferian hue. It's the spookiest thing in the show. By definition, religion is supernatural -- and spiritual in a way that spiritualism is not. Daniel Ranalli's ethereal images of the Buddha spiritualize the spiritual. Jane Marsching and Deb Todd Wheeler's "Stain" is a video/audio installation about the widely reported appearance last year of the Virgin Mary's image on the wall of a Milton hospital (although the piece, which includes interviews with onlookers, would seem to have more to do with mass psychology than with spirituality).
As for Lauren O'Neal's slide projection, "Common Visions, Saint on Door," it strikingly combines the intangible with the incongruous. The way the wood grain of the door shows through the image gives the saint's face the texture of a scrim -- and the look of a relief map.
Wondrously delicate and detailed, the three photographs from Carol Golemboski's "Pyschometry" series show assemblages that render psychic activities (numerology, say, or palm reading) in visual terms.
The most haunting images come from Jo Sandman's "Memento Mori" series of photograms. Sandman has taken small stones or pieces of coral, carved them to accentuate their resemblance to human faces, and placed them on light-sensitive paper. The smallest are no more than 2 inches square. The objects become studies in immanence, tiny emanations of white that glow at the center of a much larger field of black, like skulls on velvet or nebulae in the void.
To be sure, haunting is as haunting does, something the second half of "Concerning the Spiritual" makes plain, as it sets aside aesthetic concerns for a brief excursion into social history and human credulity.
Drawing on photographs and documents from the University of Texas's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center and Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Center, it looks at how various mediums and spiritualists in the 19th and early-20th centuries "documented" the afterlife through photographs. It also shows how photography was used to debunk them.
One of the best-known skeptics was the celebrated magician and escape artist Harry Houdini. One of the best-known believers was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. The determined look on Houdini's face as he sits before a doctored photograph is enough to scare away any ghost. Conversely, there's "Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Study at Crowborough." It's hard to exaggerate the sheer, imperial solidity of the scene: from Doyle's beefy bulk to the oaken weightiness of the furniture to his pipe's big-bowled thickness. Even so, it's an irrefutable demonstration that death does not necessarily remove a creature from this world. Note the tiger-skin rug and mounted stag's head. Who needs ectoplasm so long as there's taxidermy?
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.