Contacting the Spirit World
by Michael Odom
The source and setting for this intelligently interconnected series of photographs is a small town in upstate New York, Lily Dale, that was founded in the 19th century by practitioners of Spiritualism, a loosely religious movement devoted to contact between the living and the spirits of the dead. For more than a century, Lily Dale-sanctioned mediums have offered believers guidance, advice and especially the reassurance that those who have died are not truly dead but have only passed on to another plane of being. Seances are regularly held as are private consultations and workshops on various aspects of spiritualist belief. In short, Lily Dale is a place where one can seek proof of continued well-being beyond the grave and attend classes with titles like "Ascension 101."
William James (to whom McDowell sometimes refers when discussing these images) once observed that a person'spredilections can affect religious experiences profoundly; Catholics are much more likely to see visions of the Virgin than are Muslims, for example. For a hard-headed skeptic like me, the residents of Lily Dale present simple targets of opportunity. A few of the Lily Dale photographs allow my skepticism to bloom evilly. Kitty Osborne Meditating (1993), the image of a middle-aged woman sitting with eyes closed in front of a house whose roof sports a huge satellite dish, suggests a coldly ironic disbelief about mediumistic practice — at least to me — as it nourishes my latent sarcasm.Meditation on the beyond? Yeah, right. Trinitron transcendence is more like it. It's a fierce association of mutually exclusive modes of communicating with the Great Beyond, this apparent conflation of mysticism and electronic engineering. But McDowell brings an understanding generosity and a notable patience to his task, a sympathy born of familiarity with his subject. Eight years elapsed between his first visit to the community and his first photograph there, and five more years passed before the project was done. The very deliberate pace offered ample time for the town's atmosphere of spiritual yearning to saturate the images and the picture-maker alike and for the photographer to finely tune his understanding of the unfolding project.
Consequently, McDowell's work is not as simple as it might first appear. He proceeds from a genuine affection for his subjects and a tolerance for their foibles born of his own sometimes positive experiences with Spiritualism. So in the context of the whole photo series, Osborne's dish loses any meanness I might read into it at first.
And therein lies much of the power of these pictures. McDowell describes this work as turning on the "odd relationship between document and metaphor," which is as concise a formulation of the problems of reading an image as one is likely to find. Complexities of modes of interpretation, the relationship of what we see to what we might see, pulse through the series as a whole.
The special aura of Lily Dale was the original context for these photographs. The light that exposed the film reflected off the skins of people and the surfaces of objects in a particular New York village at a particular time. The results are thus documents of a place and a time like no other in texture and detail. But McDowell has discarded the conventions of documentaries if he ever held to them. Having steeped himself in the village and its culture, he jettisoned signifiers of the place in these photos, relying on his sense of the subject instead. In a sense these images could have been made anywhere, even if it is quite doubtful that they would be made elsewhere. Particularly in the later pictures, the idea of the context shifts markedly away from social and geographical location to an internalized, self-supporting system of interlocking meanings and gorgeous formal relations that is much more akin to poetry than documentary reportage.
The visual congruence of the rings of Saturn as represented on placemats as in Hilda Wilkinson discussing astrology at herdining room table (1994), in a mobile, Planets mobile, Wilkinson house (1996), with a couple of old ceiling lights Bathroom light fixture, Maplewood Hotel, (1994), and Light fixture and window, Lewis apartment (1996) constitutes more than a lovely formal exercise. Crossing the all-important frames of pictures with visual rhymes like these asserts a continuity ofcontent and form that posits the photographic series itself as the primary context for their interpretation. Even though each image can stand alone on some levels, pictures that claimed their individuality too assertively were edited out of the series, according to the artist.
Spirit paintings — paintings alleged to have been made by the spirits of the dead and thus to provide powerful evidence of the continued presence of departed souls among the living, according to the Spiritualists — often appear either as background elements or primary subjects in McDowell's photographs. The paintings' apparent lack of overt brush-work constitutes proof of their non-corporeal origins for believers. It is interesting to note both the congruence of this idea of brushwork with the common Modernist notion that expressive gestures are signs of the artist's material "presence" in the painting and how nicely the lack of an artist's mark fits as a description of photography, smooth and shiny, made as if by magic in a darkroom. Not coinciden-tally, McDowell reshot several Spiritualist photographs at Lily Dale, too. Three pictures from 1996 lovingly show an elderly man's hands holding snapshots of UFOs, a baby leprechaun and unnamed spirits. The latter image is identified as fraudulent in the caption, suggesting the absence of fraud in the other two.
Regardless of the (to me, highly doubtful) facture of spirit paintings and photographs or their truth value, their inclusion in the Lily Dale pictures presents a particularly resonant observation about the act of reading images in general to the extent that one's point of view profoundly informs their power to embody meanings. Like a Spiritualist looking behind the surfaces of ordinary states of affairs for evidence of an unseen world, I find myself looking at these photographs as carriers of poetic signification. I might call my system of analysis critical and semiotic and the Spiritualists' superstitious or even gullible, but there remains between us a common urge to seek meanings somehow embedded in the mute images before us. We want a deeper truth than we trust the surface to offer.
Yet photography records surfaces; it produces precise documents of the skins of things without regard for the relative value of its subjects, attending equally to trash and treasure. Much of the strength and the beauty of the Lily Dale photographs derives from McDowell's ability to invest his images with a preternatural calm even if the overt subject is essentially unimportant. Over the course of his project, McDowell came to notice that unlikely observations and seemingly minor snatches of advice he got from the mediums (e.g., "Your fruit trees need pruning," from someone who ought to have no knowledge of his home at all, much less his fruit trees) carried much more significance for him than purportedly weightier pronouncements. These little lessons formed what he calls a "white crow" experience, borrowing from William James' characterization of an experience unexpected enough to alter one's habits of thought: Once you see a white crow, your concept of crows in general is for-ever changed. In such circumstances the commonplace can take on extraordinary meaning, as it does in McDowell's photographs. Images of a light fixture, a bit of note paper on the ground, an empty chair take on poetic power as their concrete particularity is made to contain more general ideas within the context of the photographic series. Their surfaces reflect more than light.
Michael Odom is a painter and critic who lives in Commerce, Texas.