Jennifer's Reviews > The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult

The Perfect Medium by Clément Chéroux
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bookshelves: photography, 2017-reads

Produced in conjunction with the 2005 exhibition of the same name at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Perfect Medium makes one thing perfectly clear from the start: the editors take absolutely no position as to the veracity of the phenomena depicted in the photos herein. None. Nada. Nope, be the spirits ever-so-obviously double exposures, be the ectoplasm expelled by the medium ever-so-obviously cheesecloth, be the science supporting the images be ever-so-obviously-pseudo, the editors here want you to know - really, really want you to know - that they've got no opinions as to whether or not any of this shit is real. Looking over the descriptions of the organizations from whose archives (the Society for Psychical Research, the College of Psychic Studies) these photographs were drawn, one can't help but suspect that carefully cultured neutrality has more to do with necessary curatorial discretion than open-mindedness.

Unfortunately, the side-effect of this lack of position is to suck the life out of most of the thirteen contextual essays scattered throughout the book's three sections, which feature photography of spirits, photography of fluids (which has nothing to do with fluid and everything to do with thoughts influencing film), and photography of mediums manifesting things that most definitely are not regurgitated bits of cheesecloth. Really. They're not. The necessity of carefully walking the line between belief and nonbelief - spoiler alert, I'm a fan of the latter - means that the various authors spend more time justifying than contextualizing, which is a pity. I'm far more interested in what drove people's need to see such phenomena, and their perception of photography as a "science" that could help them capture them, than I am in why a 19th century scientist believed something I could have faked in a darkroom after half a semester of Photography 101 was legit, and there's little to none of that here.

The book itself is gorgeous, the quality of the image reproductions impeccable, and the stories in it - no matter how drily told - are full of fascinating figures such as Civil War spirit photographer William Howard Mumler and the cheeky (and surprisingly hot) French faker Edouard Isidore Buguet. Houdini and Doyle even make cameos here. There's no arguing it's educational, and that the images are occasionally moving (or inadvertently funny) because of what they say about human nature, but the text at least is a ghost of what it could have been had the editors come down on one side or the other, or even decided to offer essays that alternated in their points of view. Despite its many high points, that lack leaves this Medium distinctly imperfect.
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Reading Progress

May 26, 2017 – Started Reading
May 29, 2017 – Shelved
May 29, 2017 – Shelved as: photography
May 29, 2017 – Shelved as: 2017-reads
May 29, 2017 – Finished Reading

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