Vol. 5 No. 1 (2020): Magic

Since the invention of photography, our relationship with the medium, the image-taking apparatus and photographs as objects has always been invested with a set of beliefs in the excessive, pervasive, almost magical power of photography.

From early belief in the photography’s “soul-stealing” capabilities to the contemporary belief in photography’s “data-stealing” ones, our understanding of the origin of medium’s special power changed and evolved – for example from being anchored in the magical emanation of the objects onto paper to datafied signification within the omnipresent apparatus of social surveillance. But the belief in some sort of special power of photography persists, our continuous investment with mystical qualities making it one of the most enchanted technologies of present day.

This investment goes well beyond vernacular fascination with photographs of loved ones being something more than their mere pictorial representations and extends beyond professional and institutional settings into the very foundations of photographic theory. The magical element of photography was addressed in Benjaminian fissure between the shamanistic and chirurgic, in Barthesian insistence on photography as magic rather than art, in Piercean simultaneity of iconicity and indexicality, in Marxist and psychoanalytical notions of photography’s fetishism etc. In practices as diverse as photojournalism and spiritualism, photography has been invested with the notion that it can reveal more than the human eye, piercing the reality and turning unseen into seen, absent into present, distant into close, transgressing both the limitations of human perception and physical limitations of space and time. It is no surprise that it was and is intensively used to grasp the world further removed from our own senses but at the same time it could never be reduced to just being an extension of our senses.

It conjured up new dimensions of seeing – distinctly photographic ones – and had never stopped stirring the search for the unknown, unseen, incomprehensible, excessive, enchanted – the magical of the world, be it through spirit photography, UFO photography, cryptozoology, or even “thoughtography”. Through such “excessive” investments, photography came to be used as an object of societal magical rituals – either explicitly, as in voodoo practices, healing and curing rituals, spiritualistic rituals, or occultism, or implicitly, in its everyday uses, such as family photography, documentation of the rites of passage, or post-mortem photography.