by Barbara Diener
with essays by Allison Grant and Gregory Harris and an interview with Lisa Janes
Review by Leo Hsu
Barbara Diener’s Phantom Power is a moebius strip of a book. What initially appears to be a contemporary take on spirit photography reveals itself to be a meditation on the nature of photography itself as well as a response to grief, both of which ultimately return the reader to spirit photography. How are rationality and reason molded by human desires? How do our desires to see what we cannot inform the expectations that we place upon technology? These ideas play out in Diener’s photographs, and are developed more acutely with the aid of two essays and an interview providing valuable context, and a short story by Diener that serves as a compass for reading the images.
In the early decades of photography, beginning in the 1860s, spirit photographers accommodated grieving customers by producing photographs that purported to show the image of their departed loved ones hovering or superimposed over themselves. The double-exposed images not only served as evidence that the spirits of the deceased were still among us, but that they could be recorded photographically. In a period of massive technological development, the public was negotiating just what a photograph represented, and how. Could photographs show them what they needed to see? Technology then, as now, seemed like magic to most, with powers that did not have to be understood, only believed.
Diener appropriates the tools of spirit photography - double exposures, specular artifacts, electronic spirit detecting devices - and also uses tropes associated with the paranormal, such as eerie staircases and visible auras. “I ‘misused’ all of the tools to create the kind of photograph I wanted,” Diener explains in an interview in the book. In her colorfully solemn photographs, lightning streaks across the sky and birds take flight. Every tree and fence and field of grass appears to host some invisible anima. Stairways and couches are ominous, speaking to ghost stories more than to lost loved ones. Throughout, images are made of scenes across which a ghost-hunting laser grid projects green or red points of light, an electronic veil that transforms a mundane scene into something uneasy. A forest or an ordinary room is remade into a space where the ordinary and the paranormal might intersect. This feels more unsettling than any 19th century ectoplasm would today; the effect looks and feels like it should be explained by science, just as spirit photographers sought to justify their apparitions through the public’s misunderstanding of photography’s actual processes.
From the short story tipped into the book, “Conversations with My Medium,” we learn that Diener grieves the unexpected and premature death of her father, and that she is willing to bend reason to find comfort. In the story, a medium appears to make a number of misjudgments in her clumsy attempts to convince Diener that she has made contact with her father’s spirit. And yet Diener, while skeptical, finds herself open to the solace that the medium offers. With this story as a guide, Phantom Power, which at one level is about the fabrication of seemingly impossible subjects, turns around on itself, revealing itself to be driven by the hope that something- a psychic, a camera, technological vision – could fill the disconnect between feeling and knowledge, that photographs might reveal what the eye cannot perceive but that the heart demands to know.
This turn is most keenly felt in the several portraits throughout the book that feature heavy color interference. These are the most like 19th century spirit photographs in that they imagine a relationship between the portrait subject and some supernatural effect expressed in the photograph. And yet they have a completely different feel than the 19th century photographs, in that the contemporary subjects seem to be aware of whatever manifestation is at work. (One of these subjects is a woman named Kathy who lives on a farm haunted by her husband’s ancestors, using ghost-hunting tools like the laser grid to engage with their spirits. It was through meeting Kathy that Diener set out on the path of this project.)
In his 1896 lecture “The Will to Believe,” William James set out to reconcile the relationship between the rational thought that drove an increasingly secular modernity and the facts of perception, experience, and desire. James argued that just as reason is based on experience, so should rationality allow for “human passions” to guide our investigations. “A fact cannot come at all unless a preliminary faith exist in its coming,” James argued, and “faith in a fact can help create the fact.” Diener’s Phantom Power similarly brings rationality and emotional purpose together as complementary instruments for arriving at knowledge or understanding, rather than as competing ones. For both Kathy and Diener herself, and surely for the many customers of 19th century spirit photographers, the desire to connect with the deceased led them to seek out some promising path that involved the newest technologies. Phantom Power takes this one step further, perhaps: if photography can help you to realize your belief in spirits, can the desire to see spirits help you to realize your belief in photography?
William James, “The Will to Believe,” in The Will to Believe and other essays in popular philosophy, 1897 (1956, New York: Dover)
Leo Hsu is based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA.
Visit his website or find Leo on Instagram @hsuleol