One of William H. Mumler's
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book review / culture

The Man Who Photographed Ghosts

A new book explores the work of William Mumler and the mysteries of spirit photography.
Before there’s even a chance to delve into “The Apparitionists,” the frontispiece gives the whole thing away. It’s a quote — I’d never seen it before — from Franz Kafka: “Nothing can be so deceiving as a photograph.” It immediately caught my interest because it captures something that I already believe: that photography is inextricably connected with lying. How could it be otherwise? I have a theory of how language started. Whether it was in the Garden of Eden or in some primal swamp, Og was trying to trick Ug into believing the wildebeest went to the right when in fact it had gone to the left. He at first tried various forms of gesticulation and pointing, but was unclear whether he had effectively communicated his deception to Ug. Suddenly it occurred to him that if he said, “The wildebeest went to the right,” he could more effectively trick Ug into believing this falsehood. It’s hard for me to imagine that language could have been invented without the simultaneous need to communicate and to deceive. In fact, in my more pessimistic moments — they occur fairly frequently — it’s hard for me to imagine communication without deception. They go hand in hand.

So how does photography fit in with all of this? Isn’t lying, if you buy into my argument, an artifact of language? Where are the verbs, the adjectives, the nouns in a photograph? They’re nowhere to be found. That alone has led me to assert that photographs have no truth value. They can’t be true, false or anything in between, whatever that might be. However, stick a sentence next to a photograph and you have a potent missile more powerful than anything dreamed up by either Donald Trump or Kim Jong-un.

In “The Apparitionists,” Peter Manseau takes us on an expedition through the beginnings of photography and its deceptions. No sooner had people invented a way of creating photographic images (whether it was a daguerreotype, an ambrotype or a hallotype) than people found ways of altering the images — and, even more relevantly, of lying about their contents and how they were obtained. A photograph, as we well know, can’t talk back. It’s like a piece of taxidermy. It can’t say to us, “No, I’m not a picture of Abraham Lincoln.” And often the provenance of a photograph, its causal connection to the world, is hidden. All we’re left with is an image that, for all intents and purposes, could have been given to us by aliens. This is where Manseau comes in. In a world overcome with death and the horrible losses of the Civil War, people turned to photography hoping to be united with deceased loved ones in perpetuity. It’s that strange combination of desire, hope and the presence of an image that seems almost alive that makes us think we’re in contact with a timeless realm that transcends death.
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