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).

Galton sample composite photographs
From Francis Galton, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, 2nd edition (London: J.M. Dent; New York: E.P. Dutton, 1908), facing p. 8. Image courtesy of the Internet Archive.

The theory behind Furness’s experiment was that of Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, who believed that composite photographs could reveal links between physiognomy and behavioural traits. Inspired by the late 19th-century pseudo-science that would metastasize into scientific racism through the early 20th century, Galton asked whether there was an essential “criminal type,” and whether it had a face.

Instead of looking for representative instances of criminal faces, Galton hit upon the proto-big-data technique of looking for patterns that wouldn’t be evident in any single face, but might become clear as patterns among aggregates at larger scales. Galton’s innocuously titled Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883), which inspired Furness’s experiment two years later, gives samples of composite photographs that purport to show family resemblance, health (drawn from images of 23 Royal Engineers), disease, and criminality. Galton’s theories both fed upon and fueled the Victorian obsession with criminality and its scientific detection; as Allan Sekula describes, “This photographic impression of an abstract, statistically defined, and empirically nonexistent criminal face was both the most bizarre and most sophisticated of many current attempts to marshall photographic evidence in the search for the essence of crime” (p. 19).[1] Fittingly, Galton’s own work on race and criminality has become, as it were, a representative face of bogus science.

Detail of image above.

Furness, however, seems to have taken his cue from the odd inclusion of a composite of Alexander the Great, taken from images found on six different medals (visible in the upper-left of the image above, and in a detail here). Alexander was Galton’s very first experiment in composite photography, as he describes in Inquiries (p. 8), but among these samples it’s an odd inclusion, considering that it’s a composite of historical artifacts and artistic representations rather than photographs taken under controlled conditions. The questionable logic behind Galton’s overall project falls apart completely with the Alexander example, as he fails to account for the variance of style and other representational dimensions. Sekula’s comments about Galton’s composites generally would seem to apply with special force here: “In retrospect, the Galtonian composite can be seen as the collapsed version of the archive” in which “the archive attempts to exist as a single, potent image” (p. 54). What I find so interesting about the Alexander example, despite its seeming throwaway status, is that it represents an archive not of present-day records, but of historical artifacts. It is not synchronic but diachronic, seeking to somehow reverse the pastness of the past (again, not unlike a Ouija board).

Furness’s even stranger experiment with Shakespeare takes the idea of the historical composite to its limits. While I was doing research for the photography chapter of my book The Shakespearean Archive: Experiments in New Media from the Renaissance to Modernity (just out from Cambridge University Press!), I happened upon Furness’s 1885 limited-run octavo volume, Composite Photography Applied to the Portraits of Shakespeare, in the Folger Shakespeare Library catalogue. Readers can peruse a well-digitized version of the whole of this short book at the Folger’s Luna website, but the image that arrested my attention that day in the reading room is the one shown here, a composite of six different Shakespeare images, including the frontispiece from the First Folio and the Stratford Monument:

From Walter Rogers Furness, Composite Photography Applied to the Portraits of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: Robert M. Lindsay, 1885). Folger call no. PR2929 .F8 1885 Cage. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This image is reproduced in my book, but it really has to be seen digitally to appreciate the details. Note the lines showing how the various photographs were aligned, and the spikes to hold them in place, which give the image an apparent third dimension to match its historical multidimensionality. Furness appears to have skewered the past like an entomologist might pin down an insect specimen in a glass case. But does this image show us Shakespeare’s true face? Does some ghostly but somehow real presence from beyond show through in this experiment with the most spectral of Victorian new media?

Nope. Sorry, but I don’t think we’re making eye contact with the real Shakespeare here. Historical evidence just doesn’t work that way, and we’re better off following Ben Jonson’s advice in a poem that faces the author’s portrait in the 1623 First Folio: look not on his picture, but his book. As the poet Earle Birney famously claimed about Canadian literature, “It’s only by our lack of ghosts / We’re haunted.”[2] However, while the Furness experiment reveals next to nothing about its historical subject, it speaks volumes about the late nineteenth-century photographic imagination.

For one thing, the photograph above reveals a desire to find a singular truth among variant versions, and its method is to neutralize differences. Although the early camera was often imagined as an enhancement of human vision, Galtonian composites actually work by suppressing certain details. The resulting composite becomes something other than a record of the real world at a specific moment in time; rather, it selects and constructs the past.[3] (As a textual scholar might put it, Galton’s camera edits the past, and does so while pretending to objectivity.) Another lesson this photograph offers is that attempts to edit the past sometimes fail, and fail revealingly. In this case, the very historical differences and contingencies that Furness wanted to transcend show through all the more, in the form of the superimposed collars and text below the images, which linger like ghosts in a Victorian spirit photograph. Here the past manifests itself unbidden, like that prematurely buried creek in my neighbourhood that seems to be reaching up to pull down the houses above.

There’s a lot more to say about this image and its contexts, but knowing that several other Floating Academicians have also worked on photography and Victorian science, I’ll leave it to the comments. (I also go into more detail in my book chapter on “The Counterfeit Presentments of Victorian Photography.”) One of the big questions, of course, is how statistical and evolutionary concepts can be applied to literature without lapsing into pseudo-science, or merely positing answers to questions that aren’t important to begin with. There has been some debate about this in the digital humanities, but not nearly enough.

For a provocative historical and theoretical discussion of the Galtonian legacy in literary studies, I recommend the chapter “Textual Eugenics” in Joseph Grigely’s excellent book, Textualterity: Art, Theory, and Textual Criticism (University of Michigan Press, 1995; and badly in need of a softcover reprint). On the theme of ghosts and new media broadly conceived, one can find a fascinating survey in Jeffery Sconce’s Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television (Duke University Press, 2000). For a digital project that achieves something like Galton’s composites using historical maps, but in a way that highlights historical difference and avoids bogus scientism, I recommend the UCLA project HyperCities. It’s not a digital Ouija board, but something better: a reminder that other kinds of ghosts of the past persist in the modern world built up around us, and they choose their own moments to speak.

[1] Allan Sekula, “The Body and the Archive,” October 39 (1986): 3-34.

[2] Earle Birney, “Can. Lit.”, in Ghosts in the Wheels: Selected Poems (McLelland & Stewart, 1977), p. 49.

[3] James Lastra rightly points out that all photography involves selection, composition, and framing, and that the camera’s click should not be essentialized as the capturing of reality in an instant; Sound Technology and the American Cinema: Perception, Representation, Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2000), pp. 12-13.


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