Aspen Times Weekly: Seeing the Unseen at the Aspen Art Museum

by Andrew Travers

At the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park last spring, I stumbled around a parlor room snapping photos at random and looking at the digital results for evidence of ghosts.

We were in supposedly the most haunted room in supposedly the very haunted 1909 hotel that inspired “The Shining.” Our tour guide said that spirits there rarely will show themselves to the human eye but are routinely captured in photos. So we stumbled about with our phone cameras and camera cameras, huddling and pointing at the photos in search of the ghosts.

I wondered a bit why we trusted the idea that a ghost might show up in a picture, and why, when something sort of weird did show up, we were so easy to laugh it off and chalk it up to light refraction or some such thing. I don’t believe in ghosts. What was I doing?

The tour groups that file through the Stanley daily, it turns out, are part of a long tradition of photography ghosting, as evidenced in the “Spirit Photography” exhibition at the Aspen Art Museum. The show, which opened in July and runs through Nov. 1, displays 53 photographs — as old as 1863 and as recent as 1977 — that include something like ghosts.

As long as cameras have existed, people have been using them to see the unseen.

The photos in “Spirit Photography” come from collections across the U.S., including the New Orleans Museum of Art. Its curator, Russell Lord, writes in the museum guide that spirit photography took hold during the industrial revolution with proponents including “Sherlock Holmes” author Arthur Conan Doyle, who also was a participant in séances held by the Great Metropolitan Spiritualist Association. Spirit photography has made a comeback, he writes, during the 21st century’s digital revolution.

“Photography’s relationship to the otherworldly goes back to the origins of photography itself,” he writes.

No doubt some are fakes and photo tricks and double exposures and accidental transmutations in the developing process. But the Aspen Art Museum show playfully doesn’t give us any context or explanation. We’re left to guess which photos are tricks and which auras may have appeared on their own. The unknown, of course, is more interesting. So we see the woman’s face, upside-down in a smoky swirl, in the 1931 photo “From a Séance.” We see the face of a young girl appearing to look in on two men seated at a breakfast table in a 1967 picture identified as “The First Supernormal Photography Obtained by the Veilleux Family. The Neighbor’s Dead Daughter.”

There are less overt versions, with swirls and odd misty discolorations covering photos with unsuspecting corporeal subjects. If it’s indeed a spirit in the room captured by a camera, the people posing for these pictures didn’t see it. But photos, Lord writes, can often see things that we can’t with our eyes.

“Photographs of bullets frozen in midair, X-ray pictures of the contents of our bodies, and long exposures that make visible the paths of stars in the night sky are all evidence of photography’s super-human capabilities,” he writes. “Why then, does it seem so silly to see photographs of ghosts?”

Whether or not you believe in ghosts or trust these pictures, “Spirit Photography” is worth a trip this Halloween season.

Aspen Times Weekly

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