AHIS W3884 UFO Photography

B. Joseph

Since it’s invention, the medium of photography has been valued for its claim to visual veracity.  Approaches as diverse as Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature through to Roland Barthes’s notion of the photograph as a “message without a code” and Rosalind Krauss’s discussion of the “index” have stressed the seemingly causal relationship of photography to an existing, physical, real-world referent that at one time—no matter how fleeting—stood before the camera’s lens.  Yet, throughout its history, photographers have also used the medium’s implicit truth claims against itself, as practitioners have indulged in myriad means of producing trick photos—as documented recently in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” (2012)—as well as various types of spirit photography, featured in the Metropolitan’s excellent show “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult” (2005).  Like spirit photography (or the related genre of early 20th-Century “fairy” photography), photographs of UFOs strain the credibility of the photographic document, while relying upon the implicit truth claims of the medium all the more heavily to make their point.  In this course, we will examine three related aspects of pre-digital photography: (1) the photograph’s “rhetoric” (as Barthes famously put it) of visual evidence; (2) the history of spiritual photography from the mid-19th- to the early 20th centuries; and (3) the mid-20th century phenomenon of UFO photography, which follows directly from the older tradition of occult photography.