In the summer of 2013, with research funding, I enrolled in what would be the first of a series of nineteenth-century styled tintype workshops at the Center for Alternative Photography. I knew that in order to write about photography’s magic, I had to practice it. Making photographs using 19th-century photographic processes completely altered the way I wrote about photography. In re-vivifying this largely dead technology, I experienced the kind of estrangement 19th century photographers might have felt.
My work explores how photographic science of that era is necessarily haunted. Images, much like specters, appear in baths of chemistry. Light itself is mysterious—it is unpredictable, magical. Photography is often read as the art form of modernity, the pencil of nature; my experiences, however, have taught me that we should not disenchant light. In the darkroom, when I am pouring wet collodion onto the tin that is balanced on my fingertips , and rocking the metal at each corner to spread the chemical emulsion evenly, I perform the role of photographer, scholar, chemist and conjurer.
Drawing on my formal training in 19th-century photochemical processes, my work fuses literary and visual inquiry with arts-based research. Much of this research is situated in sociology, anthropology and art practice, as articulated by the work of sociologist Patricia Leavy and artist Graeme Sullivan. But I bring these disciplinary concerns into the realm of literary analysis to weave together a visual practice and written one. Within my writings I include “visual pauses”—my own photographic work—in order to, as Shawn Michelle Smith says “understand photography through photography.” The visual vocabularies with which I experiment include stereoscopic images, spirit photographs, photo-microscopy, tarot spreads, and energy photographs of the human hand.
My research is broadly invested in showing how the sciences and the humanities have jointly participated in the modern project of eliminating the element of magic from scholarly inquiry. Both disciplines had even more in common when magic and science were one and the same, but the story of modernity has disentangled them from one another. Such methodological affinities are informed by Max Weber’s thesis, in which he defined modernity as the progressive disenchantment of the world. Yet, medieval necromancers and early modern magi were immersed in the learned worlds of letters, and modern chemistry stems from alchemical discoveries. As part of this, I incorporate the mysticism of my upbringing, having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish community. In doing so, I blur the distinctions between the personal and the public, turning myself into my own object of study, often making appearances in my photographic work. My second project, Archival Aura, is haunted by my religious past because my subject of study is Harry Houdini, who was born of Jewish parents and buried in Machpelah, a Jewish cemetery in Queens, New York. I discovered through my research that the famed magician is buried across the street from the cemetery in which the maternal line of my family is interred. I explicate these unexpected ties between my own history and my object of study to theorize the enchanted possibilities of archival discovery.