Jane Marsching and Leslie Brown are sitting in the library of the Photographic Resource Center (PRC), cracking jokes about a haunted cable. The idea doesn’t seem all that improbable. Cloaked in a gloomy darkness maintained by plush, red curtains that block any natural light, the setting of the latest PRC exhibition, Concerning the Spiritual in Photography, is just right for ghostly behavior. Marsching, who has dropped by to fix the DVD player that displays her six-minute film Stain, says it’s just technology being temperamental. But Brown, the PRC’s curator, likes to think that it’s the mysterious ambience of the exhibit at work. “We want people to feel like there’s going to be some magic going on in here,” she said.
Though Spiritualism is a movement that began in New York with two women who claimed to communicate with the spirit of a dead peddler, Brown curated the show with the intent of creating a New England slant. “This is a place where science and pseudo-science are mixing. It’s an old, spooky city,” Brown said. Not surprisingly, the majority of participating artists in Spiritual in Photography are residents of Massachusetts.
Spiritualism and publicized spirit photography arrived in Massachusetts in the early 1900s with Margery Crandon, later nicknamed the Boston Medium. Margery was challenged by Scientific American and magician Harry Houdini to show proof of her psychic ability. The debate played out in the press, and a selection of the resulting photographs that documented her séances is featured in Spiritual in Photography. You can view shots of séances with Margery, a look of concentration on her face as blurry, disconnected appendages levitate above her. Set aside from the rest of the exhibit in an even darker corner of the PRC, it’s easy to become lost in what Houdini so firmly believed was just another illusion.
Brown arranged the second half of the show around contemporary artists who approached the concept of Spiritualism from different angles. Marsching’s piece, done in collaboration with Deb Todd Wheeler, is one of two new-media installations, offering close-up footage of a Milton Hospital window where people claimed to see an apparition of the Virgin Mary. Through special glasses, a visual projection can be observed, along with snippets of conversation from onlookers who argue about the placement of Mary’s hood or whether she is carved into the window in more than one form. But other artists, like Carol Golemboski, are credited for producing images with precise, elemental techniques of photography, similar to those available to early spirit photographers. Her Psychometry series deals with psychic abilities such as palm reading and numerology. Delicate black and white prints are manipulated in the darkroom through a number of photographic tricks to cover the artist’s tracks. Shannon Taggart also turns to the simple tactic of immersion, having spent three years photographing two modern psychic communities. Prints of men and women who could easily be someone’s odd, eccentric grandparents are made even more disturbing when portrayed in an eerie red light, channeling dead souls in a psychic cabinet.
Emily Gabrian, the PRC programs coordinator, receives the brunt of the reactions and commentary from people who have seen the exhibit thus far. “It’s all sort of predetermined whether or not you’re going to find something in these works,” Gabrian said. “For me, the fact that people are willing to explore it at all is what I get a kick out of. I don’t think I would enjoy it any less if it were all fake.”
Still, neither Brown nor Gabrian will admit whether or not they believe in psychic powers or the supernatural. “I’m going to be the person in the darkroom and not answer,” Brown said.
For anyone who wants to go beyond the gallery walls, the PRC has organized a talk on March 4 with the local artists. Before Spiritual in Photography is taken down, the lights turned back on and the walls repainted, the PRC is expecting a visit from Margery’s great-granddaughter.
“That should be … interesting,” Brown said. “Weird. But interesting.”