Sep 30, 2005

Ghosts in the Lens, Tricks in the Darkroom

Source: The New York Times
Written By Michael Kimmelman

Who knows what suddenly possessed the Vicomte de Renneville in 1859, when he and a friend visited the Paris studio of the society photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, but, bless his heart, we can be grateful that the spirit moved him as it did.

Posing for a carte de visite, the vicomte, after Disdéri had snapped several dour shots of him in the de rigueur black frock coat and top hat, decided he would remove his clothes, all except socks and shoes, don what looks very much like a hot water bottle on his head but was in fact some sort of helmet, hold a shield and pretend to be a ghost.

His friend (raised eyebrows, forefinger scratching forehead) acts as if the apparition startles him. (He doesn’t look half startled enough.) Disdéri also sloshed around some chemical on the exposed negative of the naked vicomte to make the image look less corporeal.

What results, while slightly obscuring the body (about which the vicomte was either peculiarly proud or, like a good comic, heroically shameless in the service of a joke), is, alas, still not quite suited for a morning newspaper.

Fortunately, you may find the picture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, hereafter known as the Swingin’ Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a show titled “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.” Hands down, it’s the most hilarious, not to mention the most charming, exhibition the museum has done in years. Like all examples of great humor, it is, at heart, also a sneakily serious affair. Its subjects include the depths of human gullibility and the conjuring power of photography, whose technology, we may forget in the cynical day of digital manipulation and Photoshop, seemed unfathomable to so many people a century and more ago.

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“The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, (212) 535-7710, through Dec. 31.

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