i see specters

while I was flipping channels yesterday, a spirit photography scene from the sixth sense caught my eye.

toni colette frowns at the family photos hanging on the wall.  she touches a wisp of light floating next to her son in one photo.  the camera moves from framed photo to framed photo, and her face becomes more and more distraught.  that blurred streak is present in every image.

the photographic medium is able to visually reveal what she cannot figure out on her own: her son can “see dead people.”  his supernatural power  is diagrammed out in their family snapshots.

photographing phantoms is not limited to the sixth sense.

this is an albert von schrenck-notzing photograph of a medium taken in 1912.  the photo is old, and the practice of spirit documentation seems trite, until tom gunning explains it in his essay invisible worlds, visible media:

“as it developed over the nineteenth century, photography extended human vision beyond its physical possibilities, showing things that no person could see.  the invention was undoubtedly a triumph of technology and science, yet its strange intertwining of the visible and the invisible also produced the apparently irrational deviation of spirit photography.  if today we find the concept of photographing ghosts risible, we have to wonder if this is simply because we no longer believe in spectral activity, or if it is because we have learned more about photography.”

the practice of spirit photography also feels disturbingly familiar both in the sixth sense and in the von schrenck-notzing photo. my visual understanding of the supernatural is so entrenched in early spirit photography that no explanation is needed for me to read blurs of light as magical apparitions.  and if the same decoding is required in a 1912 photograph as in a 1999 movie, i have wonder how much our understanding of metaphysical has changed.

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