With ‘Messages from the Darkroom’, Alexander Gehring draws a parallel between the nineteenth-century séance and film photography. Photographing his darkroom as if it were haunted, the German photographer invokes mediums, whether these are the camera or the living who communicate with the dead, on the border between disappearance and apparition. Where belief is born, where it fades away. In this interview he talks about ghosts, photographic film, and vinyl…
“All photographs are memento mori, as Susan Sontag said. Spirit photography relates to the idea that’s at the heart of all photography, and does so in ways both naïve and beautiful. It’s so absurd, you can so easily see it’s fake. If we had proof that it was real, our world would be turned upside-down. Rationality has a strongly irrational history, but this particular type of photography has become a sort of embarrassment for art history, after having been considered to be authoritative documentation.
At a time when occultism prevailed, people had powerful beliefs, they were convinced they could use magic to make contact with the dead. And just then—photography was born. The two are linked. Spirit photography first appeared only twenty years after the invention of photography, and it became very popular. A huge market developed and photographers seized the opportunity. People were all the more willing to believe thanks to a technique that lent an air of rationality. Communication was becoming disembodied, much was changing all at once. In photographs, one could see people from another town, from another time, so why not the dead? I’ve taken part in three séances. It was like a circus act. You knew that something would happen, but also that it would be fake. We were in an all-black room, the medium invoked a ghost, forms were floating in mid-air, it felt good to believe.
In my work I use Albert von Schrenck-Notzing’s book Phenomena of Materialisation. It’s both the bible of spirit photography and the most occult, craziest photo book I’ve ever seen. The author photographed séances over twenty years, in Munich and Paris—he wanted proof. With these pictures you never quite understand what you’re looking at. They seem to be very beautiful stagings. There’s the séance room, hung with black curtains on the walls and windows. In the middle, a little room within the room, with the medium inside and audience members outside. It’s actually a photographer’s darkroom, and there are two mediums: Schrenck-Notzing’s camera and the person inside the little room. The medium goes into a trance and generates ectoplasm, like a large piece of white fabric emitted from their mouth, materialising the ghost’s presence. The audience can see, since there’s red light, and the photographs are made using flash. Schrenck-Notzing notes that ectoplasm is sensitive to light, which makes it shrink back into the medium’s mouth.
A séance can last three hours, with four to six trances. It’s so ambiguous that it’s impossible to visualize. Looking at the photographs today, you don’t know what to make of it. As for me—I know I want the spectacle. Plus, in the audience, there’s Thomas Mann or Marie Curie! It was very common, one would go attend a séance without necessarily believing in it, but being open to asking oneself: “Why not?” As with X-rays, one sees through the flesh, it’s so sensitive that perhaps one might see other things, like ghosts, precisely. Like a séance, photographs and X-rays might open the doors to the beyond, perhaps one will bring the dead back to life, as with vinyl records. After all, these are singing ghosts, we listen to opera singers who are dead. In my darkroom, something comes to life.
The darkroom I used as a student must surely be haunted now, because I was the only one to use it. And anyway, most art schools no longer have a darkroom, it’s much too expensive and nobody uses them. It’s a room of the past. I work with film photography, of course, and I photograph my darkroom as if it were a haunted room.
Film photography, too, belongs to the past, it won’t come back. Of course, there are still some photographers who work with film, but not on commissioned work, just for pleasure, and then they scan, they no longer make their own prints. I buy paper on eBay, I stock up, it’s getting harder and harder. I belong to a generation that learned both film and digital, so I was at the turning point. It’s exactly like vinyl records making a comeback lately. It’s nostalgic and it’s expensive. As for black and white, it’s so classic, it’s yet another thing. But colour film photography is truly dead.”
Interview by Carine Dolek, 2019 / Translation by Lucile Dupraz