Today scientific thinking may appear unassailable, yet magic remains surprisingly attractive to the modern mind. From the micro-superstitions that permeate our daily lives, to the fantastical tales of 4chan conspiracists, magic thrives in Western society.
Magic trades in spectacle. As sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke has written, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Indeed, modern technology bestows the user with formidable powers; godlike, we now conjure alternative worlds with the mere tap of an OLED display.
Since its inception, photography has enjoyed a privileged relationship with the truth. But from capturing the souls of colonized subjects to the ectoplasmic séances of mid 19th Century spirit photography, the medium has maintained an equally close relationship with the supernatural. Despite its documentary credentials, even today it can be tempting to view photography as a window onto other dimensions. Dimensions that, as Barthes famously noted, are frequently located beyond the grave.
Spiritualists maintain that the deceased have both the ability and the inclination to communicate with the living. Because photography served as the primary method of “documenting” 19th Century Spiritualist phenomena, it could be argued that Spiritualism constitutes the earliest example of a religious faith emerging from modern technology. As Shannon Taggart has observed, it was certainly the first to have produced its iconography not by means of painting, but photography. What’s more, widespread belief in the indexical nature of photography meant that Spiritualist images - rather than merely being seen as idealized artistic depictions - were treated by many as “documentary evidence” of paranormal activity.
Nonetheless, if recent digital innovations have drastically undermined photography’s hold on truth, the first seeds of doubt were planted by Spiritualism itself only a few decades after the medium’s invention. In the late 19th century, the pioneering spirit photographs of William H. Mumler attracted the curiosity of scientists, scholars, and the general public alike. Following the American Civil War, Mumler saw great success in reuniting the bereaved with lost relatives by photographic means. Mumler’s claims that he could summon supra-normal apparitions in the form of silver halides did not convince everyone, however, and he was eventually taken to court for fraud and larceny.
Yet advocacy of Spiritualism also came from more respected quarters. Most notably, science and mysticism met in the experiments of the esteemed British physicist and chemist, Sir William Crookes. Crookes invented the cathode-ray tube; a core component of both television and the X-ray. But he is also notorious for having attempted lens-based communion with the spirit world - with rather less spectacular results.
Over the years, many other learned individuals championed the photo-occultist cause, employing that scientific apparatus par excellence, the camera, in the name of psychic research. As we’ve seen, though, in dialogue, spiritualism and photography not only symbiotically create each other, but also “expose” o ne another. At a time when photo-generated realities coincide with “fake news,” clearly magical thinking is once again ascendant. This calls for similar exposure.
Revisiting the overlapping terrain between photography and Spiritualism, The White House reflects upon these issues by means of a sequential photographic narrative depicting esoteric rites. Inspired by the visual language of comics and the photographic storytelling of Duane Michals, I was interested to discover how our ingrained proclivity for magical thinking would manifest itself when transferred to the realm of staged photography. In practice, although the narrative follows a “script” based on research into the 1692 Salem witch trails, I encouraged the actors to freely explore this theme for themselves within the defined parameters. The goal; to create a parallel docu-fictional reality encouraging magical thinking.