in Features | 05 MAY 98
Featured in
Issue 40

Remain in Light

The Photography of the Invisible

in Features | 05 MAY 98

There is a famous image by Daguerre that is often, controversially, credited with being the first true photograph. It was taken around 1838-39 and depicts a view of Paris - Boulevard du Temple to be exact - taken from high up in a house facing into the street. It is a scene that is familiar from the paintings and illustrations of the time, but there is something distinctly unearthly about it. The pavements and buildings are bathed in a stark light that seems to bleach them away. There are no people, except for the ethereal presence of a dark-suited man who stands with one bent knee in the near-ground. It is a Paris that no one, including Daguerre, had ever seen. Its emptiness and luminous stillness take it well out of the realm of visual truthfulness that has come to be associated with photography in this century. By James Roberts

Yet many very early photographs have a similar quality of otherworldliness. Another well-known historic image by Daguerre's collaborator Joseph Niépce depicts the view through a window in Gras, though it is difficult to tell what it is when you see it. There is very little detail in the grainy lumps of tone and it is reminiscent of one of Turner's Petworth interiors, where the architecture melts into the light and air, or the blurred split-second of vision when you wake in the morning unaccustomed to the brightness and straining to focus. In a strange way, these two early images by the pioneers of photography stand at opposite ends of the visual spectrum. Daguerre's is tangible, but uncanny: although it is familiar enough to be recognisable, it is not an image of a place that you feel you know, or could exist in - it's an airless, empty world with a sense of melancholic inertia reminiscent of a de Chirico. Niépce's is almost like a dream image in that it doesn't appear to bear any traces of an optical reality - it doesn't look like a room, it feels like a room, or perhaps the memory of a room.

It is more than likely that the qualities of these two images were accidental - just blips on the road to technical perfection - but the limitations of (and things that can go wrong with) the photographic technique were quickly absorbed into its visual language and exploited. The almost total absence of human life in Daguerre's image was caused by the extraordinarily long exposure times required by his photographic process - only a single stationary figure (having his shoes shined) survived from the bustle of a teeming Parisian street over the duration of the 30 minute shot. For almost 20 years photography recorded a much larger slice of time than it does today. Yet even when advances in chemistry finally allowed exposure times of fractions of a second, ushering in the 'instantaneous photograph' (if you had enough light) in the late 1850s, many photographers continued to exploit the peculiarities of lengthy exposure. You can see this in the clarity of Charles Marville's depopulated architectural views of Paris taken during the 1860s and 70s to document the enormous changes in the city's infrastructure under Georges-Eugène Haussmann; you can see it in Julia Margaret Cameron's figure groups, whose sitters seem to swim in and out of focus and whose differing states of motion suggest that they are actually alive - in marked contrast to the rigor mortis of contemporaneous studio portraits and cartes de visite.

It is perhaps important to make a distinction between the camera and the photograph. The camera has been around for centuries - it was only film that had to wait until the 19th century - and its properties of optical correctness and role as an aid to the representation of perspective on a flat surface had long been known and utilised by artists. But the photograph is different. If the rapid development of photography was grounded in the 19th century's desire to record, quantify and analyse, it is revealing to think of the things that can (and sometimes still do) go wrong with photography and then see them avidly adopted by photographers: double exposure, accidental fogging of the film or paper, using the wrong chemicals, getting things too hot or too cold. All of these produce visual effects that take photography away from the everyday and place it somewhere else. The camera simply projects light in a continuous stream, reflected from the objects in front of it - it never lies, only the print does.

So, from its very beginning photography has depicted spectres and scenes that have never existed. But how did viewers of the time see Daguerre's image of Boulevard du Temple? They were certainly overwhelmed by the extreme clarity and abundance of arbitrary detail, yet they were also aware of the strange temporal and formal distortions wrought by the photograph, and of its problematic relationship with reality. The extraordinary varieties of technologies in common use up to the beginning of this century - albumen, pigmented gum bichromate, callotype, wax-paper, collodion and bromoil - offered markedly different representations of optical reality. These were exploited by photographers to create painterly or Naturalistic effects and many processes involved the intervention of the photographer's hand, brushing in pigment, building up layers of tone in a manner not dissimilar to etching. At the other extreme, figures such as Henry Peach Robinson constructed montages of separately-shot, precisely delineated and unretouched elements to create photographs that echoed the composition and aesthetics of late 19th-century academic painting.

The first reported photograph of a ghost is recorded as appearing in 1861, shortly after the arrival of the snapshot and a somewhat wider accessibility to the technology involved. The picture, taken in America, depicted a spectral image of a girl as an apparition in a self-portrait by the photographer. It was probably a double exposure, perhaps a fortuitous one given that hundreds must have occurred previously as stressed photographers grappled in the dark with identical exposed and unexposed plates. The fact that this particular image was perceived as depicting a phantom, and launched a cascade of images of supernatural phenomena, says more about the preoccupations of the viewers of the time than it does about the existence of ghosts. The slew of staged photographs of phantoms of all descriptions that continued unabated until the outbreak of the First World War are in the majority of cases far less sophisticated than the elaborate manipulations of Peach Robinson and Naturalistic photographers like Peter Emerson. These photographs therefore seem to have served a role in reassuring believers rather than converting sceptics.

Perhaps, too, people were already running out of things to photograph. These often hilarious paranormal images were in all probability never taken too seriously - why would a ghost wander around in a crisply folded sheet and stand motionless for several seconds? - and they seem to crop up most often as illustrations to popular schlock-horror stories or as novelty studio portraits. The fact that such images were reasonably common currency is apparent in Alfons Mucha's lush self-portrait of 1905, in which the artist has become partially transparent through time- and double-exposure. The effect, like that of the solitary man in Daguerre's Boulevard du Temple, is one of serene temporality that makes you aware of the transience of sensory perceptions, rather than the impression that the artist might be a ghost. 'Photographs of the Invisible', an exhibition currently on tour which began at the Abteiberg Museum in Mönchengladbach, gave viewers a chance to look back over a century of this type of photography. From the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, it becomes clear how absolutely our imaginations are tied to the form and preoccupations of the present: late 19th-century ghosts and ghouls are straight out of Romantic painting and the theatre, while in the early 20th century they become more ethereal, either based on other photographs (reflecting the rise in visibility of the format) or poltergeist-like (neatly avoiding the problem of representation altogether) corresponding broadly to shifts in spiritualist thought.

Indeed, it is possible to divide up historical photographs of the paranormal into distinct, if generalised, categories. On one extreme there are the set pieces, based very much on standard photographic and painterly aesthetics of the time, in which the film records, give or take the odd double exposure, more or less exactly what passed through the lens of the camera. The more seriously the sense of paranormal investigation appears, the less camera-oriented the images become until they reach a hard-core stage of mental or spiritual projection onto unexposed film without the aid of the camera. The disappearance of the lens, and subsequently a sense of optical realism, is important because it transcends the 'I-saw-a-fairy-in-front-of-my-eyes-and-here's-the-proof' status of the photograph and instead offers an alternate reality to the optical. The isolation of X-rays in 1895 and Röntgen's discovery that they could be recorded on film, spurred on investigation into the ways that other non-visible wavelengths could be captured. This had a two-fold effect: firstly it tantalised late 19th-century and early 20th-century fascination with spiritualism and the occult, offering the possibility that other dimensions might be revealed, while also - ironically - providing new techniques for hoax photographers. A 1930s exposé of the methods used to create spiritualist and paranormal images demonstrated a new (and unhealthy) use of X-Rays, concealed images drawn in lead paint and ultra-violet light back-projection, alongside the more traditional illusionist's tricks involving sleight of hand.

Louis Darget spent much of his life pressing unexposed plates to the foreheads of sitters and having them mentally project images onto them. Titled with captions such as Dream Photograph - Eagle (1896) or Thought Photograph - Planet and Satellite (1896) the results are stained, blurred confused photographs (but are they still photographs?) that are sometimes abstract and sometimes representational in a rather fluid way. Some closely resemble Niépce's view through the window at Gras, in as much as they no longer seem to represent something as if seen through a lens, but rather as if remembered, or only half-remembered - they have a dull viscous quality as if the viewer must struggle to grasp the image from a murky chemical soup. Others look like Warhol piss paintings: chemical combat on a flat surface. From the 1890s to the 1920s, numerous such attempts were made to record non-visible human emanations through 'Electrography', Darget's 'Fluidal Photography' and various other techniques, and the degree of interest was manifested in the creation of groups such as The Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures (vice president Arthur Conan Doyle). But these experiments long since left the camera behind, nor do they require - ostensibly at least - light for their production; which raises the question of what they actually are if we can no longer call them photographs. Their closest visual counterpart is the religious relic - Veronica's Veil and the Shroud of Turin belong to the same world of images as Darget's records of 'nervous fluid' emanating from the fingertips of the subject to leave traces on the photographic paper. Perhaps they are articles of faith - expressions of a desire for the existence of another dimension; and as anyone with faith will tell you, once you achieve it, whether they are fake or not no longer matters.

In 1920, Conan Doyle, writing on fairy photography, claimed that 'The recognition of their existence will jolt the material 20th century mind out of its heavy ruts in the mud, and will make it admit that there is a glamour and a mystery to life'. He is really writing about himself, his own fears and aspirations, and the scale of his public conviction of belief in photographs of ghosts, fairies and psychic phenomena perhaps hid his own desperate search for a value system in the new century. Both these strands of paranormal photography continue today in one form or another. The ghost in the sitting room has become UFO photography, while Darget's direct exposures have metamorphosed into activities like aura spotting, drip-fed by continuing scientific research into areas such as Kirilian imaging and tomography. The fact that, in our own time, there seems to be an increasing desire to record evidence of the invisible, not to prove the existence of another dimension (any dimension will do), but to reassure those who want to believe in its reality, is yet one more indication of pre-millennial malaise.