Review by Rebecca Wright
Photography, thanks partly to Walter Benjamin’s infamous appraisal of the medium, has always been attached to the haunted, the spirited, the ghostly and the possessed. Recent exhibitions, which consider the process of photography, go under ubiquitous titles such as Shadow Catchers: Camera-less Photography at the Victoria and Albert Museum (October 13th 2010 - February 20th 2011) or the survey showHaunted: Contemporary Photography/ Video/ Performance held at the Guggenheim Museum in New York (March 26th -September 6th 2010). This is perhaps not surprising as the medium itself has an inherent ‘goulesque form,’ spirited from traces of past light, engrained in silver nitrate. Therefore, one’s trepidation on hearing the recent title of the exhibition, Haunting the Chapel; Photography and Dissolutionat Daniel Blau, comes not from the validity of the subject discussed, but from one’s craving that photography at last break out from this tepid metaphor which has clung to the medium throughout its history.However, displaying work from anonymous and known artists such as Cecil Beaton, Tina Modotti, René Barthémy, Arthur Conon Doyle, Walker Evans, Michael Grieve, Fritz Lang, Leni Riefenstahl and Diane Pernet (to name a few) this exhibition somehow poetically extends the notion of the ‘haunted.’ A row of Spirit Photographs at the start of the exhibition establishes a frame by which the rest of the works are to be viewed. Spirit Photography, first used by William H. Mumbler in the 1860s, was developed as a way to capture images of ghosts or spirits, through the technique of double exposure. In the exhibition these small, barely legible images by figures such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle offer a different origin to the genesis of the ‘haunted,’ one often dominated by figures such as Eugéne Atget. As the re-appraisal of Surrealism in light of photography has been largely responsible for the rise of the medium into the canon of art-history and into museum collections, its exclusion in this exhibition enables us to reassess the concept of the ‘haunted’. Spirit photography therefore becomes a frame to assess anonymous images such as Graffiti of the Crucifixion (1880) through concepts such as dissolution, decomposition and scratching. The graffiti caught in this image becomes a metaphor for photography itself. As someone’s previous indexical marks are photographically recorded, so do we realise the process of tracing inherent in the practice of photography itself. Other images in the exhibition capture fallen monuments, derelict buildings and remnants of past civilisations, which all reiterate marks left by the ghosts of the past. The ruin captured in Emilé Gsell’s, Porte des Mystéres Élucidés, Montagnes de Marbre Huyen Khong Quan, Annam, (c.1875) strengthens the analogy between decay and the camera, which as an object could be seen to be both implicit in, yet a weapon against the passing of time. As Brad Feuerhelm writes poetically in the catalogue; these photographs tell us that ‘nothing is fixed, no interpretation can be managed, and ultimately the human presence is nothing but passing dust.’ The works displayed are diverse in chronological breath and subject with early photographic experiments sitting comfortably next to more recent works such as Blue of Night (2008) by Michael Grieve and Abbatoir (2008) by Rut Blees Luxemburg. All of this comes together to make a show that is intensely visual.