New media’s ghosts: an experiment in composite photography

The Victorian-era mansion Hill House, from Robert Wise's classic film The Haunting (1963; avoid the remake)
The Victorian-era mansion Hill House, from the classic 1963 film The Haunting (avoid the 1999 remake)

The modern form of Hallowe’en isn’t particularly Victorian in its origins (unlike Christmas and Valentines Day), but there’s something very 19th-century about it nonetheless. Any holiday that celebrates ghosts is one that calls attention to the past’s uncanny tendency to manifest itself in the present, like the unquiet dead. Hallowe’en’s aesthetics are thoroughly Victorian, gothic, and pseudo-medieval, drawing our attention backward in time. It’s at this time of year that I’m most reminded how much of our present world, especially architecture and infrastructure, is composed of layers sitting atop what was laid down in the 19th century. For example, my neighbourhood in Toronto has several infamous leaning houses (scroll down at the link), whose foundations are sinking due to a buried creek beneath them, the result of a badly implemented infrastructure project begun in the late 19th century. At Hallowe’en, however, these crooked houses look just right. They’re a reminder that the past has unfinished business with the present, and Hallowe’en is its appointed reckoning day.

In that spirit, I thought I’d write a  ghost-themed post about a curious photographic artifact that I recently encountered in my research, in which layers of past images coalesce into a strange apparition. In 1885, one Walter Rogers Furness (the son of Shakespeare Variorum editor Horace Howard Furness) undertook an experiment to reveal Shakespeare’s true face from among the various surviving portraits and sculptures, as well as Shakespeare’s death mask. Furness attempted to do this by taking semi-transparent photographs of all these images of Shakespeare’s face, and then layering them over each other in different combinations to produce a composite. That composite, so the theory went, would reveal the true face behind the representations, channeling the long-dead subject like some photographic Ouija board (another 19th-century new medium, so to speak).

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