With the exception of some digitally post-produced blurring at the periphery of these photographs, and a hint of sepia, you’re looking at ‘what happened’ late one night in the dark in rural France.
Equipped with my old 35mm camera, some 1600 black and white film, and a cheap battery-operated camping light, I produced a series of long-exposure photographs with myself as the subject. At risk of demystifying the resulting images still further, you have to imagine me running from one position to the next in the dark, switching on the camping light between my bare feet, and posing – or moving through different poses – for short intervals of seconds.
I had to wait until my return to England to process the images, and when I saw the resulting images, I was delighted and spooked in equal measure. What the camera had seen that night out in the dark was not what had been put in front of it. I promise, hand-on-heart, I wasn’t wearing a black Cleopatra-style wig (in truth I wasn’t wearing very much of anything at all!), and so I can’t explain everything caught on camera. I’ve taken lots and lots of photographs in ominous settings in the hope of capturing something otherworldly on film; these snaps, taken with old technology, taken hurriedly (and with so inelegant and earthly a subject!), are proof that cameras are haunted.
One of my favourite moments in Richard Donner’s 1976 horror film, The Omen, is when Jennings, the photographer reveals his photographs are prophecising the deaths of their human subjects – including, chillingly, his own. This scene never fails to raise the hairs on my neck, I think because it has the ring of truth about it. Very few of us would happily scour the eyes of a loved one from their photographic image, because we already intuit some causal link between the image and its subject.
Jennings notices the blemish on his photograph of the priest, who will later be impaled by a church spire, The Omen, 1976.
An impromptu self-portrait reveals Jennings’ own days are numbered, a mark having appeared in the photographic image, severing his head from his body, The Omen, 1976.
I’m sure there’s a story in my own family of haunted photographs, though I might have remembered it wrong, or invented it entirely. I do recall my grandma talking about some ill-fated relative-or-other whose bride died on her wedding night. I remember two details about this story, the first being how the woman was killed, her wedding dress covering the tail-light of her new husband’s motorbike as they rode away together into the sunset, another vehicle ploughing into them and killing her. The second detail is the one about the wedding photographs developed after the bride’s untimely demise, and how in each image taken on her wedding day, the bride’s face is seen to be in someway obscured by a flaw or shadow in the image… and up go the hairs on my neck again.
Venturing out in the pitch-darkness of the rural countryside with a camera, a camping light and the goal of conjuring ghosts can seem like a particularly silly thing to do – especially when you’ve watched as many horror films as I have, but it’s mostly hope I experience in these moments, not fear. When I took these particular photographs, the activities themselves were comedic, ill-suited surely to producing any eldritch results. I was largely nude and waving my arms in the air like an enthusiastic participant in a music and movement class with no way of knowing what the old 35mm camera was seeing, or how the effects of the long exposures would manifest. Upon seeing the developed images, I experienced that same pleasurable horripilation already familiar to me from watching The Omen or listening to my grandmother’s story about the tragic bride. I had the uncanny realisation I hadn’t been alone out there in the dark at all, that my ordinary camera possessed an extraordinary acuity of vision for other realms and their beings. I still feel that way when I look at these images now – a sense of vindication almost. You might even call it hope.
But rather like a seance on a dark and stormy night, you can’t always know who is going to ‘come through’ from the other side – and so it was with these photographs. Just to reiterate, no, I wasn’t wearing wigs or any semblance of costume when these images were taken, so I can’t readily explain what Cher was doing in my ensemble of fae folk, holding her microphone very proudly aloft! (Stealing the show obviously).