Portrait of a ghost
There is mystery and magic in the way things are made.
Bronson Murray by William H. Mumler via Smithsonian Magazine
In the 1860s, an amateur photographer named William Mumler made a startling claim: he could photograph the dead.
The grieving would visit his studio and, after a little conversation about their lost loved one, he would take the mourner's portrait. When the print was developed, a spectral image would appear hovering near the subject, often in positions that suggested comfort to the bereaved. Transparent hands would rest on shoulders, ghostly arms would wrap around the chest, a garland would be placed on the head.
Unknown Woman by William H. Mumler via Smithsonian Magazine
I learned about this phenomenon of "spirit photography" on an episode of the wonderful podcast Criminal. Of course, Mumler turned out to be a charlatan, preying on the vulnerabilities of the recently bereaved. I’m sure that shocks no one reading this.
At the time, photography was in its infancy, and still seen as what host Phoebe Judge described as a kind of "natural magic":
"A little bit of magic realised through, of course, technological means, very explainable combination of optics and chemistry. But for the layman, for the general public, there was in that first generation of photographic production, something magical, the ability to have one's image to be retained via the chemistry onto a glass plate negative and then to be developed onto a film."
When a technology is new, it's frequently imbued with a bit of magic. Without a clear concept of the mechanisms that underpin the tool, all sorts of strange mythologies are free to take over in our minds.
Without a satisfying mental model, our minds turn to stories. As Agatha Christie wrote in 1933, "The supernatural is only the nature of which the laws are not yet understood." Later, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke made this one of his 3 laws: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
Mrs. Tinkham by William H. Mumler via Smithsonian Magazine
But it seems to me that technology is not the only means of creation that people imbue with magic. I’ve noticed that artistic or craft skill of any kind can be seen with a bit of superstition by those who haven’t practiced it.
For example, I tell someone that I made the coat I’m wearing. They are shocked, amazed, and then tell me that they could never do that in a million years. Of course that’s not true. It’s only a collection of skills that millions of people have learned through dedication and practice. People know this, but because there is a gap in understanding what those skills are and how they are practiced, it seems like magic. Totally unapproachable.
I feel the same way when I see an incredible painting or read a great novel. I have no idea how it’s done. I haven’t seen the years of craftsmanship and skill-building that went into it. I don’t possess the creator’s natural abilities, either. It certainly feels magical, which is part of what speaks to me about it. It is beautiful, and mysterious, and says something that I cannot say, in a voice that I cannot use. It is a source of wonder.
The photographs of William Mumler were not actually magic, and they were not really depicting the dead. It turns out, he had an elaborate system of pre-exposed plates that he would slip in depending on the client, to mimic their dead relative.
But there was a mystery to how it was made, and that mystery gave the photos an aura of magic. And when mystery surrounds human art and craft, which it very often does, we also see magic in it. And maybe that’s one reason it means so much to us.
Prompt 2: Created with magic
Wonder and mystery can be a great source of creativity. And what better time to explore mystery than the week before Halloween?
Is there a piece of art – a song, a photograph, a painting, a book, or anything else – that feels magical to you because of the extreme skill that went into creating it? Share it here and maybe we can all revel in wonder together this week.
Head, Heart, Hands
Things to make us think, feel, and do.
Staying on theme, this article about the origins of near-death experiences is fascinating.
Alan Moore is my favorite writer of comics, by far. It’s terrible to think that he feels his work is so misunderstood (due mostly to hollywood) that he questions the point of creating it.
On the other end of the spectrum, this interview with cartoonist Lynda Barry is delightful. (possible paywall)
Friends, if you need a little dose of wonder today, please take a moment to view this image of the Pillars of Creation from NASA’s James Webb telescope.
“But thrift stores, used bookshops, and Goodwills are, accidentally, perfectly designed to show you things that people liked decades ago, then stopped liking.” This profile of Rod McKuen was oddly fascinating, and I learned that he adapted Seasons in the Sun from a wonderful Jacques Brel song.
This short video does a great job of succinctly explaining the concept of “flow state”.
“It is not just Agatha Christie who repeats herself. Most writers do. They don’t resemble creative geniuses so much as diligent craftsmen.”
This podcast interview with Arthur Brooks about the science of happiness was really interesting, especially the bits about how we change as we age. I’ll need to move his book From Strength to Strength further up in my queue.
Looking for a short, spooky read for Halloween? I love to re-read We Have Always Lived in the Castle in October.
For my fellow sewists out there, I saw these (very expensive) Liberty cocktail napkins online and thought they’d be fun to replicate.
Have a spooky halloween! There will probably not be so much talk of death next week. Probably.
By the way, I’m still trying to figure out the best day to send this letter, so if you have suggestions, please share. I’ll stick with Tuesdays for now.
Enjoyed this at all? Let me know! I’d love to hear from you.