nthposition online magazine

Brought to Light

by Tom Ruffles

[ bookreviews ]

Brought to Light is a lavishly illustrated large-format catalogue accompanying an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Albertina Museum in Vienna. As the subtitle indicates, its subject is the ways in which photography was used to record and analyse phenomena outside the range of direct human perception in the medium's early years.

Corey Keller, who curated the exhibition, supplies an introduction outlining the range of scientific photographs in this period, and the various functions they performed, both as a technical aide to scientists and as a contribution to the public discourse around scientific exploration. They were seen as harbinger of a new age of discovery, the worlds that they opened up offering a glimpse of an unknown and unpredictable universe which ranged from the very close (but tiny) to the extremely distant. Even the way in which time was perceived was altered through its segmentation by Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey's sequence photographs. The result of this new way of seeing was an epistemological shift produced by a mode of observation that we take for granted but which was hugely significant for a public exposed to such images for the first time.

A section of essays begins with one by Jennifer Tucker, covering similar ground to her recent book Nature Exposed: Photography as Eyewitness in Victorian Science (which has a chapter called 'Photography of the Invisible'). She looks at these images within the wider context of scientific development in the period, and how this development was viewed socially, particularly when disseminated by mass-circulation newspapers and magazines, popular lectures and exhibitions. As she shows, these initiatives were not just part of a mission to educate the public about scientific developments, they were also designed to gain public support for the scientific enterprise generally and specific theories in particular. Although it might be assumed that photographs were able to speak for themselves this was not necessarily the case, and interpretation could be a vexed matter, with appeals to scientific authority undermining their ostensible objectivity.

Tom Gunning relates photography of the invisible to the parallel developments of cinema and X-rays, and discusses the expansion of the possible that these "new tools of vision" provided. He then goes on to examine spirit photography, as he has in a number of previous essays. What may be ridiculous to modern eyes was taken seriously by many because both photography and ghosts were in the process of redefinition, with efforts to place the latter within a rational scientific framework. As for recording them, photographic plates had proved themselves capable of capturing images beyond the capacity of human senses to perceive, so it did not seem a huge leap (conceptually) from, say, images of astronomical structures hitherto invisible to the naked eye to those of departed loved ones. A final essay by Maren Gröning moves away from the photographs themselves by providing an overview of the career of Josef Maria Eder, an Austrian chemist and pioneer of X-rays, who promoted the notion that the study of photography itself was a valid scientific discipline and should be a staple of the educational curriculum.

The magnificent plates which follow are divided into sections: microscopes, telescopes (astronomical images which are able to evoke a sense of wonder even in this Hubble era), motion studies, electricity and magnetism, X-rays and spirit photography. Each is introduced by a short illustrated essay and the plates themselves, while scientifically informative, frequently also demonstrate a beauty that gives them a value transcending their practical utility. The volume concludes with a short bibliography of secondary sources and a list of the exhibition's contents.

In contrast to the others, the section devoted to spirit photography is rather disappointing and has a tacked-on feel, perhaps because it is a subject that has received a great deal of academic interest in recent years. Most of these pictures feature cameraless fluidic pictures of hands rather than the better-known ones of spirit extras, though Jakob von Narkiewicz-Jodko contributes a photograph of what appears to be a rolled-up echidna but which is actually a "Spark made on the surface of the body of a prostitute", to which is added the reassuring information, "well washed". Another by the same photographer may have been cropped (showing only fingers rather than the entire hand), which if that is the case is unfortunate as it damages the picture's integrity.

In a compilation full of rarely-seen photographs it is a surprise that some of these supernormal ones have already been reproduced in other recent books. In particular the one by Albert Schrenk-Notzing of Eva C holding a "luminous apparition" dropped into Gunning's essay is by now exceedingly familiar, having formed the jacket covers of Andreas Fischer and Veit Loers' Im Reich der Phantome, Fotografie des Unsichtbaren (which is cited in the bibliography) and Deborah Blum's Ghost Hunters, as well as appearing in Clement Cheroux et al's The Perfect Medium. (Curiously, although these versions are the same in every other respect, and were all supplied by the Institut für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene at Freiburg, the one on Blum's cover is the only one in which Eva C is not wearing a "materialisation" on her head, which suggests that a print was doctored and both variants are now in circulation.) In any case, as this photograph was taken in 1912, its inclusion in a book that terminates in 1900 seems arbitrary. The photograph a couple of pages later of President Lincoln's widow sitting with the shade of her late husband resting his hands on her shoulders, taken by William Mumler, must be one of the most frequently-reproduced spirit photographs ever.

Similarly, an 'electrograph' (a forerunner of Kirlian photography) of a hand taken by Hermann Schnauss is identical to one in The Perfect Medium. Its reappearance is not surprising as the print belongs to the Albertina, though as Brought to Light does not have the informative captions of the earlier book it fails to inform the reader that Schnauss made electrographs "for fun" rather than as a serious attempt to record the vital force. Other pictures by Louis Darget and Hippolyte Baraduc were also in The Perfect Medium, which in what is a relatively short section compared to the others, represents a missed opportunity to show something new.

The production values are sumptuous, and guaranteed to elicit an awed 'wow' at regular intervals, though the decision to print footnotes in the essays in pale green and a tiny font size is deplorable. Contemplating the photographs, one is struck by how much was achieved so early in photography's history. They were, as the authors argue, located at the nexus of technology, science and art, and they speak to us in those terms today. In an age sated with images they still have the power to amaze. Keller and her collaborators have given these ones a new lease of life, and are to be congratulated for that. There must be many more languishing unseen in archives around the world and it is to be hoped that these in turn will be disinterred and given the airing they deserve.

Alas, like the exhibition upon which The Perfect Medium was based, Brought to Light is not coming to Britain. Exhibitions such as this deserve wider dissemination, though it is understandable that lenders may not want their treasures on tour for lengthy periods. For those not able to make it to San Francisco or Vienna, this book is a worthy substitute.