Allison Grant: From One World to the Next

The French film critic André Bazin (1918–1958) famously described the mechanical processes of photography as a form of embalming time. For a person to “preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life.” Whatever aspects of a human being’s appearance can be arrested in a photograph, anyone who has lost a loved one knows that a negotiation of absence and presence marks every picture—photography can describe the subtle idiosyncrasies of one’s features as no other medium can, just as it reminds us of how utterly inaccessible flesh is in an image.

After a person passes, only remnants remain. For the living, photographs, belongings, a lock of hair, a grave marker, or an embalmed corpse allows a sense of connection that pivots endlessly back and forth between the full-bodied experience of a life and the loss of it.

Barbara Diener’s series Phantom Power (2013–17) emerges from such negotiations, and their ultimate unresolvability. Drawing on her experiences of loss and a desire to investigate a past that will never be fully accessible to her in the present, she has created a complex body of work that engages the mysterious ways the dead remain with us in barely tangible yet profound ways.

When Diener was 25, her father passed away suddenly, and she never had the opportunity to say goodbye or to tell him how much he meant to her. In the 10 years since, she has carried his memory with her, and his absence infuses her reality.

In 2013, when Diener was exploring rural towns in Illinois, she met a woman named Kathy. The two women forged a connection over the nostalgia of place Diener recalling Mechernich, the German town of her upbringing, which is threaded with memories of her father, and Kathy living on the ancestral land of her husband, John’s farm.

Passed down through generations, the Illinois farm is haunted by John’s ancestors, with whom Kathy regularly attempts to commune using technological devices designed to penetrate beyond what is perceptible to the unaided senses.

The dead remain not only with us, but also within the hold of life — as memories, as photographs, and also, perhaps, as perceptible spectral forces.

Feeling a special kindship with Kathy and her land, Diener began observing and photographing her new friend’s ghost-hunting rituals. From these initial photographs, she formulated a project that examines the supernatural with a particular focus on the idea that aspects of the dead remain not only with us, but also within the hold of life—as memories, as photographs, and also, perhaps, as perceptible spectral forces.

An early photograph in the series, Tracing Spirits (Tree) (2015), searches directly for visible clues of the supernatural. A ghost-hunting tool called a laser grid casts green points of light across a forest scene. The eerie matrix foretells the device’s purpose: to detect the shadows of ghosts. Yet in the image, no ghost shadows appear. Like most images in the series, the photo contends with spectral forces obliquely as it captures a moment when the possibility of encountering a trace of the dead is ripe but not actually visible.

Replete with these sorts of glimmers of light, Phantom Power uses suggestive aberrations, double exposures, and camera tricks—hallmarks of ghost photography that can be easily explained by a trained photographer, but which have long been fodder for amateurs and pseudoscientists seeking to confirm the presence of the dead as something that lies just beyond human senses. By employing these methods, Diener draws on an expansive history of photographers who play on the medium’s unique relationship with the concept of truth.

The notion of photographic veracity often suggests that the camera is a machine that lifts reality straight from its source, making our encounters with the world both permanent and portable rather than fleeting. And throughout time, photography has proven itself able to show us aspects of reality that we haven’t been able to see before.

In an era when infrared imaging technologies allow us to see galaxies deep within the cosmos, and cell phones connect us with people halfway around the world, the idea that photographs and imaging technologies might be able to connect with the dead is a tempting prospect for those who believe that spirits walk among us.

Mindful that extraordinary experiences and reminders of the dead are not relegated to ghost hunts, Diener includes images like Birds (2015), which find the stirrings of spirituality and magic in the everyday. Her mixture of approaches indicates that she does not consider the idea of ghost hunting from the position of either a believer or a skeptic. Her photographs are not attempts to offer proof. Rather, she is a seeker, and through her openness to the mystical, she taps a common human experience.

Who among us has never felt the presence of something not quite there, be it a flash of the supernatural or a latent memory drawn into awareness through some unusual occurrence? It is the possibility of that presence that interests Diener, and she embraces its mystery as a direct line to the inexplicable nature of human life and death. Her work seems to declare: even if supernatural events have been established as illusory in scientific communities, they haunt us, and they meaningfully illuminate aspects of our consciousness that lie beneath rationality

Will some readers of this book dismiss its embrace of the spectral? Or course. Will some see no mysticism in the fog and no specter in the light? No doubt. Diener does not seek to convert the disbeliever. Her works pursue much deeper questions about the spiritual and emotional undercurrents of loss, and the profound human desire to understand and contend with the reality that human life is finite, and the past will never be fully accessible to the living.

Once the body dies, the spirit is not recoverable, at least not in any robust way that might satisfy the living who long for direct contact. We each grapple with this reality through mysterious means, and rub against the unexplainable edges of human experience that lie beyond comprehension in our own ways. Whether those means align with the truth may not be the point.

Barbara Diener

Barbara Diener is the Collection Manager in the Department of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago and teaches photography at Oakton Community College and at the School of the Art Institute. Her work has been exhibited at Alibi Fine Art, Chicago, IL, Museum of Contemporary Photography, New Mexico Museum of Art, Santa Fe, NM, Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, MA, and many more.

Allison Grant

Allison Grant is a writer, curator, artist, and Assistant Professor in the Art and Art History Department at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.