Truth and Spirits

Sir David Brewster, seated at Lacock Abbey next to Talbot’s microscope, July 1842

Truth and Spirits

I’ve been researching Sir David Brewster for the last day or so. He’s most famous for inventing the kaleidoscope (and for naming it). However, what drew me to him was a citation in M.A. Root’s 1864 The Camera and the Pencil:

Thus, in the North British Review, of February, 1862, Sir David Brewster, the scientific luminary of Scotland, has a long essay on the heliographic art, wherein, among other kindred passages may be seen the following:—

“ . .The want of absolute truth manifest in the finest portraits, is thought to be compensated by an ideal beauty, which, if not perpetuating the sitter’s happiest expression, at least suppresses the main defects in his features. Youth is given to age; to the pallid cheek color; brightness to the ordinary eye; and new and fashionable drapery to complete the picture.

“The heliographer has none of these advantages in his favor. His work may, and often does disfigure, but it never flatters the human countenance. If, however, an instantaneous process is employed, and a minute portrait is taken with a small lens, or a large one at a remote distance, and is subsequently enlarged to life-size, we shall have absolute truth in the portrait. And who would not prefer an absolutely true portrait of Demosthenes or Cicero, of Paul or Luther, of Milton or of Newton, to the finest representations of them which time may have spared?”

Thus far the Scottish Savant. The reader will perceive, that he goes nearly the whole length of corroborating our views of the rank of heliography. And there can be little doubt that, when so short a distance remains between the goal and his present position, he will not long delay in traversing that distance. (422-424)

“The Scottish Savant” authored over a 1,000 articles and wrote the definitive book on stereo photography in 1856. I’ve got that book and the article cited here on the way, but in the mean time I did more snooping.

Who would have thought that such a staunch proclaimer of “absolute truth” in photography might be at least indirectly responsible for the spirit-photography craze in the mid-nineteenth century? It seems that his stereo manual provided the suggestion that if a person moved through the frame while an exposure was underway that the person would be registered as a “apparition” hovering in the visual field. Brewster spent a lot of time debunking “natural magic” and wrote a treatise on it; but he also provided a recipe book for spirit photographers. Most of the current literature seems to cite the origin of spirit photography as 1861, in the work of Mumford who was the subject of a major suit. Besides being interested in “absolute truth,” Brewster also pursued explanations of a variety of optical illusions that seem noticeably absent from the article that Root cites.

I get so sick of the naiveté of critics who seem to think that everyone in the nineteenth and early twentieth century thought of photographs as uncritically “real.” These people were not stupid. They were well aware of the limitations and trickery that were possible through images. Emphasis on the positivist aspects of the narrative ignores the distinctly critical posture adopted by nearly all of the major practitioners. They knew they were only making pictures, not truth—it’s just that their ebullience attenuates critical parts of the ongoing discussion.

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