The imperfect medium : spiritualism, science and photographic truth in the nineteenth century

2017-02-17T00:02:41Z (GMT) by La Pietra , Anita
This thesis re-examines the notion of truth and objectivity in nineteenth-century photography, using spirit photography as a case study. The trajectory of spirit photography demonstrates in microcosm a process whereby photographic truth absconds from the image itself and becomes dependent on the conditions of production. While the first spirit photographs were claimed as truthful, objective recordings of ghosts, only fifty years later spiritualists were instead claiming truth on the basis that, given the conditions of production - and the tight controls placed upon both their mediums and the equipment- the photographs could only exist through the agency of non-corporeal intervention. What this case study demonstrates is that nineteenth-century users of photography had a clearer awareness of its limitations than they have previously been credited with and that photographs were rapidly understood and treated as subjective documents open to the interpretation of those who viewed them. This becomes apparent in an examination of the writings of the English spiritualist medium Georgiana Houghton, whose aesthetic and philosophical interpretation of the imagery she produced with photographer Frederick Hudson is indicative of the early failure of photographic truth. Her commentary not only affirms that the use of photographs to furnish evidence of the existence of ghosts was problematic, but that its early users were aware ofthis and sought to overcome the problems they encountered through the regulation of the processes and conditions of production, and by the addition of expert interpretation of the imagery they produced. The spirit photography project failed in a number of revealing ways, and the manner in which these failures were circumvented, explained and sometimes overcome is exemplary of the establishment of the conventions and methods by which photographs continue to be accepted and legitimised to this day. One of the key issues raised by the failure of photography to prove or disprove the existence of spirits, was the question of who had the necessary authority or qualifications to interpret photographic imagery. Spirit photography was investigated by legitimate scientists such as Sir William Crookes and Albert von SchrenckNotzing, who sought to use photography to investigate spiritualism in a manner conforming to the scientific ideals of non-intervention and objectivity prevalent in the period. These scientists discovered that the embargo against the interpretation of the photographs they produced in their investigations, which was supposed to guarantee their objectivity, conversely resulted in their failure to accurately represent the phenomena they purportedly recorded. Truth in photographic image-making could therefore only be reinstated via the strict conventions surrounding its use in scientific investigation; in the meticulous recording of just those things the medium eliminated - the temporal, environmental and architectural components in the scene, the precise tabulation of the equipment used, and a comparative description of the lived observation of the events depicted. While these conventions overcame the problems encountered by scientists seeking exactitude in their image-making, they also definitively stripped the photograph of any inherent, medium-specific truth value.