New York

“The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult”

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

On first and second sight, “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a very weird show. I wouldn’t call it fabulous—too many of the photographs in it are revolting little things—but it is fascinating. And it is puzzling on a number of fronts. How were these things made? The wall texts and catalogue do not always tell us, unless we are meant to suspend disbelief and give some credit to occult concepts like “vital fluid” and ectoplasm. The caption for one plate in the catalogue matter-of-factly claims that photographer Frederick Hudson “probably incorrectly” identified the spirit of the daughter of a seventeenth-century buccaneer. Indeed. (But who knows?)

Did their makers and consumers believe in these “documents,” even when they were in on the artifices involved in their production, even when they were intelligent, modern people like Sir Arthur

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