New York

“The Cottingley Fairies and Other Apparitions”

If the birth of photography was the result of an illicit affair between science and art, the question of custody has never been settled. Supposedly objective in their relation to the phenomenal world, photographs are often taken as reliable evidence, but as Fox Talbot recognized at the birth of the medium, they are “evidence of a novel kind”—a volatile mixture of fact and fiction in which subjectivity is the catalyst for belief.

This smartly curated show essayed the turbulent relation between photography and belief, juxtaposing vernacular, often anonymous late-nineteenth-century “spirit photographs” depicting supernatural occurrences with the work of contemporary artists more self-consciously exploiting the medium’s ambiguities. The centerpiece was the “Cottingley Fairy” photographs taken by two precocious girls, sixteen-year-old Elsie Wright and her ten-year-old cousin, Frances Griffiths, in a grassy Yorkshire glen in 1917 (more photos were taken in 1920). The two earliest images show Elsie helping a tiny winged gnome onto her lap and Frances gazing out over four cavorting fairies. When the theosophist Edward L. Gardner alerted Arthur Conan Doyle to the pictures, the two men published an article about the images in the Christmas 1920 issue of Strand Magazine (which also published Doyle’s accounts, purportedly by a Dr. Watson, of the career of Sherlock Holmes), under the headline “Epoch-making Event—Fairies Photographed.” The issue sold out in three days, and the story became an international media event. It wasn’t until 1982 that the elderly photographers publicly admitted that they had copied the fairies from illustrated books and stuck them to the ground with hatpins.

What the Cottingley hoax proved was not so much the gullibility of the beholders but the unreliability of photographic evidence. The girls’ work succeeded for the same reason as did Doyle’s fiction: it was a good story. And many other photographers have long known that after the documentary content of a photograph is accounted for, there is often something left over in the image, and that this remainder cannot always be explained rationally.

James Van Der Zee’s beautiful mortuary portraits made in Harlem in the ’40s make use of the same kind of “inserts” that appear in spirit photographs to signify angels or loved ones welcoming the deceased. The Kentucky fantasist Ralph Eugene Meatyard used dolls, masks, shadows, and long exposures to make affecting portrayals of subjective states. In Medusa Marinara, 1997, Vik Muniz creates a truly frightening apparition with the simplest of means (a skillfully arranged plate of spaghetti). Special effects don’t always produce believable fictions. The long exposure in Duane Michals’ Death Comes to the Old Lady, 1969, looks hokier than the most obviously manipulated of the spirit photographs. The sites in Tim Maul’s 1995 diptych may really be haunted, but his images of them aren’t, and we’re not scared by them. Sometimes less is more, as in the picture by Andrea Robbins and Max Becher of a road sign for the Little A’le’inn (the Louvre of UFO photographs) near Roswell, New Mexico. Their documentary approach manages to make this place look even weirder than it is. Other work in the show traded on photography’s innate clairvoyance to good effect. Michael Lavine’s portrait of a funereal and obviously worried Biggie Smalls (a.k.a. Notorious B.I.G.) in Cypress Hills Cemetery was taken one month before the rapper was killed.

Both Barbara Ess (who once organized a show of “thoughtographs” by Ted Serios) and Joan Fontcuberta are seasoned explorers of the objective/subjective chasm. Fontcuberta’s La urna te olvida, 1977, is eerie without being cloying, and Ess’ large color print, No Title, 1991, might be the signature image of the show. A ghostly draped figure seems to shrug, gesturing with palms upturned toward two hand-lettered signs reading YES on one side and NO on the other. Like, believe it or not.

David Levi Strauss