FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 20 / APR / 2021
PHOTOGRAPHS OF THE UNKNOWN
by Robert Rickard & Richard Kelly
NEL Books: London, 1980
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen

"It is not easy to take photographs of things which are not supposed to exist", the authors of Photographs of the Unknown put it, with considerable understatement. "You don’t just go out and photograph 'the impossible'". Paranormal photographs have particular perils in the making. Even when a camera is present at "erratic, anomalous, short-lived and unexpected events", photographers can find their operations supernaturally jinxed or otherwise "bungled" in the excitement of the moment. This, the authors observe, is "the main reason for the badly framed, out of focus and under or over exposed views of UFOs, sea serpents and ghosts familiar to us all".

Photographs of the Unknown, in its large-scale hardback format, claimed to present "the greatest single collection of photographs" from this diverse area. Its 300 illustrations offer "an astonishing album of evidence", with the camera as "witness to the frontiers of human experience". With examples ranging from the historic to the recent, the result is certainly compelling, especially in lesser-known examples from the years leading up to the book’s release.

Bob Rickard, the founding editor of the Journal of Strange Phenomena, Fortean Times in 1973, joined forces with paranormal enthusiast and book designer Richard Kelly to produce Photographs of the Unknown. Rickard’s magazine, which he edited until 2002, continues to feature photographic material for spectacle and proof purposes. Both approaches are at play in Photographs of the Unknown, although the latter is what the authors claim is "urgently needed if our understanding of the neglected mysteries around us is to make any real progress".

Some of the earliest photographs featured include Edwardian mediums levitating objects and producing ectoplasm but the authors note the fraudulent origins of historic spirit photography and call the Cottingley fairy images "preposterous". While the book’s more recent illustrations of UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster may seem to have little more legitimacy, Rickard and Kelly argue that their book "borrows some of the spirit of modern photo-journalism". It uses the camera for occult scientific record as well as exploring its potential as a psychic device.

Rickard’s hero, Charles Fort, the American philosopher and iconoclast after whom Fortean Times is named, wondered in 1931 whether human imagination could affect a photographic plate. Photographs of the Unknown updates the enquiry to ask if "psychokinetic power" could influence film emulsion in the section on "thoughtography". Ted Serios, an unemployed Chicago bell hop in the mid-1960s, claimed to be able to produce mental images by merely glaring at a camera. His mind’s eye manifestations are unimpressive blurry depictions of police stations and hotels. In Britain in the 1970s, Gladys Hayter, described as "a vivacious East London housewife", moved from spiritual healing to "psychic photography". She claimed to have caught a ghost with her camera - a mysterious blonde child passenger – when photographing her daughter’s empty Datsun Cherry. The book cover highlights another media apparition. Orange and blue light bleeds together over a contorted phantom that emerged when Mrs Stella Lansing of Massachusetts took a Super 8 film to be developed in 1973. She described the form as "a monk in death-like agony holding a flute-like rod" but my art historian’s eye sees a Francis Bacon-style screaming pope.

Like any historic artefact, Photographs of the Unknown betrays the preoccupations of its period. The section on Kirlian photography, for example, a form that claims to be able to capture ineffable aura, is demonstrated through contrasting images. A hazy blue and green photograph visualises a cabbage’s raw energy; its glittering celestial freshness recalls the Northern Lights. A second image with fewer illuminations shows what happens when this most humble of vegetables is processed by pressure cooking, that most 1970s of culinary methods. Here unearthly and earthly worlds collide.

The book’s finale shows the magical and the mundane in spectacular juxtaposition. Through 11 photographs over two double-page spreads, the supernatural activities that took place in a council house in Enfield between 1977 and 1979 are laid out in full colour. The incidents, widely reported at the time and subsequently the subject of television and cinema dramatisations, have been described as the world’s most documented haunting. Graham Morris of the Daily Mirror took photographs in the humble bedroom of the two girls at the heart of the poltergeist case. Janet and Margaret Hodgson, aged 11 and 14, are seen in bed as pillows are spontaneously hurled by unseen hands. In another sequence, one of the girls is photographed levitating - or perhaps trampolining - from her mattress. The final and most disturbing image shows Janet sprawled over a table-top radio after being sedated with Valium following an episode of possession. The juxtaposition of ‘the unknown’ with a very familiar domestic setting – brown patterned wallpaper and carpet, magazine posters of Starsky and Hutch, David Essex and the Bay City Rollers – add poignancy to a photographic performance that is haunting in more ways than one.

Other articles in the ‘Flea Market Photobooks’ series:

Other articles by Annebella Pollen: