Wednesday, April 22, 2015

"Agents of a Fuller Revelation" Photographs and Religion in Nineteenth-Century America

Rachel McBride Lindsey discusses the significance of photography in the study of religion and, particularly, how photographs were "made sense of" as an emerging technology in the nineteenth century. In reviewing the meaning of photos in American religion, she suggests that these images are not mere "things" but enable an entirely new way of engaging religious practices and doctrines.

 MLA citation format:
Lindsey, Rachel McBride.
"Agents of a Fuller Revelation" Photographs and Religion in Nineteenth-Century America
Web blog post. Material Religions. 22 April 2015. Web. [date of access]

When William Hubbard’s son died shortly after the American Civil War, his wife bereaved the loss of their child by sitting for a photographer. Going to the studio alone, she exchanged pleasantries and directives with the proprietor of the establishment and, just before the plate was exposed, she made a mental note of what she desired to see in the developed likeness. To her satisfaction, when the negative was developed she beheld the object of her soul’s deep yearning—the spirit likeness of her departed son, “standing in front of her, and resting his head on her breast.” [i]

William Mumler stirred quite a sensation in Boston and New York in the 1860s when he began his trade in spirit photography. In late spring 1869, he was arrested in New York, on charges of perpetrating “a great swindle” on the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Many of his clients, Mumler later recounted, were Spiritualists, but many were bereaved parents, children, and siblings with no prior Spiritualist affiliations who mourned their losses by securing “actual likenesses of those who have passed to spirit-life.” [ii] After his arrest, Mumler was the subject of a hearing in New York’s Tombs Police Court. The hearing ended with the photographer’s discharge when the presiding judge declared that although he was himself “morally convinced that there may be fraud and deception practiced by the prisoner,” the prosecution had “failed to make out the case” within the parameters of New York law. The hearing was not, in other words, a resounding victory for either the prosecution, which pivoted rather quickly from the specific charges of fraud to a broader indictment of Spiritualism, or for Mumler, whose character was besmirched to the public and whose reputation never fully recovered. And yet the proceedings shine a stark light on questions of religion, technology, media, and politics in nineteenth-century America. [iii]

Plate 1: Georgiana Hougton, Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Human Eye (London, 1882). Image URL.

Both the prosecution and defense argued from Christian scripture on the truths or falsehoods of modern spiritualism, employed dailies and other newspapers to shape popular reception of testimonies and evidence presented at trial, and debated the truth-claims of photographic method through expert witnesses. The prosecutor, Elbridge T. Gerry, further used the occasion to reflect on the extent of religious freedom in American law, arguing that although the law “constrains no man in the exercise of his religious belief . . . it does restrain men of every opinion and creed from acts which interfere with Christian worship.” [iv] This, in short, was a trial of authority played out in courts of law and public opinion, a titillating precursor to debates pitting religious against scientific knowledge and interrogating connections between religious and national identities that lasted well into the twentieth century. But there was also something tangible at the core of this trial, something tactile upon which these far reaching debates of ideas and principles and convictions gathered. The case of William Mumler beckons us to consider the photograph as a material agent of American religion.  

But what is a photograph? What does the history of photography reveal about the history and study of religion? Moving away from the object itself, how have epistemologies of (a)materiality shaped historical inquiries of religious experience? Does turning attention to photographs contribute anything to this emerging and energetic avenue of inquiry?

There is an official version to the genesis of almost every academic project. What brought me to study religion and photography in nineteenth-century America was in part a familiar academic trajectory. As a graduate student, I began to see holes in the narratives I was reading, or rather, silhouettes sharpening a negative space between historical practice, where photographs were objects as ubiquitous and multifaceted as language, and historical narrative, where photographs were far less frequent and, more often than not, employed as flat illustration rather than generative historical or ethnographic sources. In the years after 1839, when the first commercial form of photography came and took root in the United States, photographs were everywhere, touching on nearly every aspect of American life. These material artifacts, changing form, material and process over the decades, were neither mere chemical deposits on the great hull of American religion nor techno-tyrants determining the course of faith. Instead, photographs and their attending practices of production, circulation, display, and beholding were actively caught up in the production and negotiation of religious identities, beliefs, and practices throughout the century. And yet what I was reading and, at the time, what I was writing did not reflect this generative and consequential history of photographs. I wanted to change that.

Such is the official version of my "come-to-Daguerre" moment.

But there is a personal story caught up in this project as well. In a sense, I recognized those absences in the historiography because of the place photographs held in my own life and history. As a child of a single working mother, I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ house. At the base of my grandmother’s stair was an old copper bowl filled with stereographs and a stereoscope, marvels that she had delighted in at her grandmother’s house decades before the 1980s when I began to peer through the lens of the scope and discover new worlds for myself. Some of my fondest girlhood memories are of turning through the brittle pages of ancient family albums, my grandmother introducing me to relatives long since returned to dust—or, in her telling, long in the bosom of the Lord—but newly alive with every memory. And then there were the slide shows. The metrical click of the carousel my grandfather had borrowed from the astronomy department where he taught measured the cadence of Kodachrome polyesters and freckled faces of my mother and her siblings as they splashed on the screen. As a child, I learned to behold photographs as powerful objects in a community transcending past and present. If I had learned how to see—and to feel, smell, hear, behold—photographs in this way, what, then, was the larger social history of photographic beholding, and how was religion part of this story?

Developments in the humanities have equipped us with new ways of retrieving sources and analyzing the past—turning to cultural histories, for instance, that take seriously the material, social, and imaginative landscapes that shape systems of power and experience, including the knotted threads of race, religion, and nation in the American context. [v] As I began to study the history of photography alongside the history of religion in America, the disconnect between the ubiquity of photographs in American life and the paucity of them in the study of religion became too glaring to ignore. Instead of simply asserting the prevalence of visual technologies in nineteenth-century American life and culture, I began to investigate this history of entanglement and to ask what, if anything, my focus on photographs qua photographs contributes to the study of religion. More particularly, what does it contribute to a deeper understanding of the haptic cosmologies in which generations of Americans have lived and died, celebrated and mourned, remembered and forgotten?

Photographs were, and until very recently remained, unquestionably material artifacts that invited recognition of their “thingness.” [vi] These were not only visual fields subject to semiotic analysis or transcripts of their makers’ minds. Indeed, the “religion” of these commonplace photographs was often less in their compositional subject than in the ways they were archived, displayed, and beheld. In other words, the turn to recognize the “thingness” of photographs and to recognize photographs as mechanisms of history, rather than exclusively as illustrations or theoretical touchstones, was only part of the story. Ordinary studio photographs placed in die-cut leaves in commercially produced family bibles, postmortem portraits of parents cradling their dead child, spirit pictures of spouses and children and parents, stereographs of Mormons in the American West, and landscapes of biblical “relics” in the Holy Land—including people alongside architecture and objects—were all part of a porous devotional culture that traded in politics of representation and expectation. The history of commonplace, or “vernacular,” photography in American religion cannot be told apart from the history of visual habits mediated in moments of encounter. Photographs were cultural sites of exchange between images, objects, and narratives wherein what beholders saw was often not what the camera had recorded—and these imaginative acts of beholding are as central to the study of photography and religion as the material artifacts that survive.

Hence, the story of religion and photography is not only one of religious actors and communities adopting photographic technologies and incorporating them into their devotional lives and theologies—it is that, but it is also something else. Religion was not a stable category that could be captured by the camera or picked up by a historian. It was instead a dynamic subject that was created through practices of beholding motivated and shaped as much by the events in politics, law, and entertainment as by theological debates and devotional practices. Photographs, in short, ask us to reconsider "religion" in the nineteenth-century United States as a bounded composition whose frame suggests transcription but in truth delivers an artificial stasis in the unyielding current of human experience. Indeed, the very definition of religion was caught up in the visual regimes of the nineteenth century that sought so desperately to control people, time and space through mechanisms of pictorial containment. To presume accessibility through the image is to authorize those regimes in our own narratives. Approaching photographs and their relation to religion as abundant objects, whose story never quite maps onto the visual field, creates a hinge from which to open new paradigms of analysis. As a physical object and as an object of critique, the "ghost in the picture" reminds us of a world in the throes of defining religion, attempting to contain it through techniques of power—be they legal, political, medical, mechanical, or otherwise—and of the haptic cosmologies shaping visual habits. [vii]

In the preface to her 1882 “chronicle” of spirit photography, the aging British Spiritualist Georgiana Houghton enthused to her readers that she could “conclude this work with a joyful anticipation of what may yet be in store” for those, like herself, who practiced in spirit likenesses and were bound to be “agents of a fuller revelation to redound to the glory of God.” [viii]  Miss Houghton, as she signed her book, saw in her work evidence of God newly revealed through the instruments of modernity—the camera and its handiwork were agents of a fuller revelation unfolding before her eyes. For Houghton, Mumler, and countless Americans of various faiths, the camera was conscripted as an instrument of divine revelation—of proving the truths of the spirit, invisible to the eye or obscured by time. And yet photography did not only archive the cosmos, it created new ways of seeing and being seen that cut across social, legal, and cultural boundaries, and that reinforced hierarchies and systems of oppression even as it became a medium of democratization—a beveled legacy that lives with us today.


Notes and References

[i] William H. Mumler, The Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit-Photography (Boston, 1875). Reprinted in Louis Kaplan, The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 88.

[ii] ibid., 87

[iii] “The Triumph of the Ghosts, Mumler Discharged by Justice Dowling,” New York World, May 4, 1869. Reprinted in Kaplan, The Strange Case of William Mumler, 204.

[iv] The Mumler “Spirit” Photograph Case—Argument of Mr. Elbridge T. Gerry, Of counsel for the People (New York, 1869). Reprinted in Kaplan, The Strange Case of William Mumler, 159.

[v] Four recent texts that have been instructive for me in this vein are Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister, eds., Race, Nation, and Religion in the Americas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005); Tisa Wenger, We Have a Religion: The 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); and Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

[vi] Art historian Geoffrey Batchen has been instrumental in forwarding the study of “vernacular photography” and in advancing the “thingness” of photographs as objects of historical and cultural inquiry. See, for instance, Geoffrey Batchen, Each Wild Idea: Writing, Photography, History (Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 2002), 57-59, and Batchen, “Vernacular Photographies,” History of Photography 24 (Autumn 2000), 262-71.

[vii] Empires of VIsion: A Reader, eds. Martin Jay and Sumathi Ramaswamy (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2014).

[viii] Houghton, Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye (London, 1881), viii.


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