Sunday, May 1, 2016

Fox Sisters' Lost Cabinet Card?

About a year ago, a curious item popped up on eBay. It was a cabinet card claiming to be of the infamous Fox sisters.

It didn't last more than a few days before it was removed. Miraculously, it returned last week, and I was able to snag it.   The seller provided this description:

DESCRIPTION: - Please Read – Years ago, I obtained this cabinet card from a photography collector in Philadelphia. He has since passed away, so I could not obtain more information. The card is labeled “Fox Sisters’ in pencil twice on the back. I started this card as an eBay listing some time ago and was contacted by a number of people to ask if it was really related to the Fox sisters of spiritualism fame. Because of the questions, I ended the listing. For a short period after that, I fiddled around with google to see if I could determine if it was of the Fox Sisters involved in spiritualism. I could not. Images of them are rare and I could find very little to compare. One collector advised me that the image did not appear to be the Fox sisters. He thought there were of dissimilarities in likeness and that they would have been in late 45 to 50 years old at the time the Gutekunst studio operated.

These two girls look simultaneously familiar and older girl with a slightly rounder face and a younger with sharper features...a common depiction of the sisters. 

From left to right: Maggie, Kate, and Leah

Unfortunately, though the eBay cabinet card does seem like a plausible match to the above depictions, it is very different from their most famous photograph: 

This image, which resides in the Easterly Daguerreotype Collection at the Missouri History Museum, was taken in 1852 by Thomas M. Easterly in St. Louis, when the girls were 19 and 15 respectively. At the bottom is inscribed: Kate and Maggie Fox, Rochester Mediums, T.M. Easterly Daguerrean. 

It is interesting to note that this famous photograph was taken during their first national tour, just four years after the events in Hydesville and just months before Maggie would meet Elisha Kane. 

Looking at the comparison, it is hard. There are clear physical differences between the Easterly daguerreotype at the new Gutekunst cabinet card.

As to be expected the illustrations of the sisters vary greatly. 

Again, the Gutekunst girls are younger, but could that be enough to explain the physical differences? Puberty does obviously affect people differently, and some drastically. 

In the lower photo both girls are leaning their faces downward, and their higher collars cover the necks. Unfortunately too, the photograph is overexposed so some of the details are obscured. It is hard to compare their physical differences without knowing the camera lens and distance to the subjects. Which can make a huge difference on subject's appearances. 

The girls look just similar enough in both photos, that I go back and forth about the possibility. 

Amazingly, when the girls were in Philadelphia arriving in 1852, they stayed Webb's Union Hotel, at 317 Arch Street. Gutekunst studio was located at 704 Arch Street...a crazy connection. 

Unfortunately there is a huge reason that the Fox sisters never visited the Gutekunst studio. Gutekunst didn't open his studio until 1856, after the girls had left Philadelphia and four years after the Easterly image, which meant, the girls were 22-23 and18-19 when the studio was opened...definitely not the age of the girls in the photograph. 

Even further, the seal on the back of the card lists the studio address as 712 Arch St., the studio which he didn't move into until 1864. So that's not good for the fate of the photograph. 

So despite the amazing coincidence that the girls would've stayed blocks away from where the studio would eventually open, they didn't overlap. 

So what are the possibilities? 

1. Fox is a very common name, and these are simply a different set of sisters. 

2. These two girls looked similar enough to infamous ones, that someone found the card, made some tangential connections, and penciled their names in well after the fact. 

3. Gutekunst was an enterprising business man, who similar to #2 had a photograph of two girls, thought it'd pass for the famous sisters and proceeded to sell the card as a Spiritualist relic. 

Which is a hard one to believe as the Fox sisters were popular figures during their tenure in Philadelphia with a great deal of prominent supporters. The newspaper covered their movements, seances, and of course Maggie's relationship with Kane. So people knew who they were and presumably would be able to spot a fake. 

Now there is a final interesting piece of evidence that could again return provenance to the card. A little stamp in the lower right corner:

The stamp reads "Copy." A common practice of photography studios when they had a famous sitter, or a client who wanted several copies on the portrait. The image would've originally been an ambrotype, taken on glass, and then exposed as a negative to create an albumen print. 

It was also common to straight up take photographs of other photographer's famous photos and reprint them for their own uses. Which would explain why the image looks over-exposed, a photo of a photo. 

If either was the case, Gutekunst was pretty scrupulous to include the Copy stamp.  Which also explain the time difference, as in the photograph was taken when the girls were young, but later printed as a copy when he was in the 712 Arch st. studio, and at the height of their Spiritualist fame. It is very possible he was among the throngs of supporters who saw the girls perform.  
Which leads to...

4. He acquired a glass plate negative of the girls, or that someone claimed was of them, and created this cabinet card for sale using either the original plate or a copy? 

Occam's Razor - 
Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.  

Monday, February 22, 2016

Anthropology of the Supernatural

Very pleased and excited to be a keynote speaker at the "Anthropology of the Supernatural" conference at the University of Minnesota put on by the Undergraduate Anthropology Club! Can't wait to hear the other keynote speakers and all the student papers!

How do humans make sense of something "supernatural" and unknown? How do different cultures explore and understand this concept in our past and present? This year, our conference tackles human folklore, practices, and belief.

The Undergraduate Anthropology Club presents their 37th annual conference, Anthropology of the Supernatural. Admission is FREE and refreshments are included. Doors open at 9am. All are welcome to attend!

Keynote speakers will include:

• Professor Sabina Magliocco of California State University, Northridge
• Emeritus Professor David Hufford of University of Pennsylvania
• Adjunct Professor Nathan Lewis of Minneapolis College of Art and Design

Sabina's research interests include: religion, folklore, foodways, festival, witchcraft and Neo-Paganism in Europe and the United States. Her most recent book is called: Witching Culture: Folklore and Neo-Paganism in America.

Hufford's research interests "incorporate perspectives on applied folklore and theory, are in the areas of alternative health systems and folk belief and practice." His book, The Terror That Comes In The Night, explores the experiential basis for belief in the supernatural.

Contemporary Paranormal Investigation - Since 2007 Lewis has been involved with the Twin Cities Paranormal Society, a non-proft organization that investigates claims of the otherworldly, supernatural, and things that go bump in the night. "Though the pursuit has been over-shadowed by garish inaccurate TV shows, everyone in the group is bonded by the desire to help and understand things beyond ourselves. We visit families who have often very recently lost a loved one and wish to communicate with them. Rarely are we running around in dank basements chasing chain-dragging specters."

Funding provided by Student Services Fees.
Special thanks to the Anthropology Department!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

PhotoSynthesis - A Mystery and a Dream!

Very pleased to be included in an exhibition at PhotoSynthesis, Gallery 136 1/2 in CT! The exhibition is entitled:

A Mystery and a Dream
Juror: Beverly Rayner

That dream was fraught
With a wild and waking thought
Of beings that have been
Which my spirit hath not seen.
A Mystery and a Dream.

Life presents us with things and situations that are difficult to explain. We don’t always understand or believe what our eyes show our conscious mind, and yet the imagery and stories our mind’s eye shows our subconscious often seem real. The lines are blurred. What is true and what is imagined? A mystery and a dream.

This is a juried exhibition of images that address the topics of mysteries and dreams, inspired perhaps by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

October 3—October 31, 2015

Catalog available for download, here. Exhibition images available, here.

The two pieces included were collaborations with the fantastic ferrotypist, Zoey Melf!

Nathan Lewis and Zoey Melf, Planchette, Ferrotype, 2015

Nathan Lewis and Zoey Melf, Giving up the Ghost, Ferrotype, 2015

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Wee Gee Wee Gee Tell Me Do

Great new find!

The Craze of the Country, The Great Ouija Board Song


Lyrics by William Jerome 
Music by Harry Von Tilzer 


(Right at the beginning of the craze! Even though it had been patented, at least an early form, for 30 years)

The lyrics are fantastic, and really indicative of the feelings toward the device at the time! 

There is a game played by nearly every family
Seems to be the thing

Rich folks and poor folks play this little game to see what future days may bring

Right across the hall from me there lives a girlie dear

And when her girlfriends call each night – Why this is what I hear

Wee Gee Wee Gee tell me do

Tell me if my loving baby loves me true

Tell me quick and tell me fast is our love too pure and good to really last

Oh, Wee Gee Wee Gee you know me

I will never tell him don't you see?

Once he used to bring me candy by the box

Now he only calls to have me darn his socks

Is he true, the sly old fox, Tell me Wee Gee do.

This little board is the ruler of the nation now

Some game talk of fun right in your own home settles any little row

Most every home has one

Old maids love it most to death and play it night and day

And one made laughed and lost her breath when she heard one girl say

Wee Gee Wee Gee tell me do

Are the men who marry girlies always true?

Should the supper table wait for the ones who really love to come home late

Oh, Wee Gee Wee Gee should I swear if up on his coat I found a hair?

If your husband talking in his sleep says "Pearl"

Does it mean a present or some other girl?
Is it girl or is it pearl, Tell me Wee Gee do.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Let's take a picture of the baby...

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Awhile back I was invited to be a Visiting Artist Indiana University SE. It was a super interesting time and I got to meet great students and faculty!

During some down time I popped into the Joe Ley antique store in Louisville. Very cool place, and I found one of my prized possessions there.

An early 1900's William Fuld Ouija board and original Planchette.

(I framed it for preservation.)

As unique and great of a find this was, it was the back of the board that intrigued me the most. 

The instructions had been scratched off:
The text should read:

Place the board upon the knees of two persons, lady and gentleman preferred, with the small table upon the board. Place the fingers lightly but firmly, without pressure, upon the table so as to allow it to move easily and freely. In from one to five minutes the tablet will commence to move, at first slowly, then faster, and will be then able to talk or answer questions, which it will do rapidly by touching the printed words or the letters necessary to form words and sentences with the foreleg or pointer.

2nd - Care should be taken that one person only should ask questions at a time, so as to avoid confusion, and the questions should be put plainly and accurately.

3rd - To obtain the best results it is important that the persons present should concentrate their minds upon the matter in question and avoid other topics. Have no one at the table who will not sit seriously and respectfully. If you use it in a frivolous spirit, asking ridiculous questions, laughing over it, you naturally get undeveloped influences around you.

4th - The Ouija is a great mystery, and we do not claim to give exact directions for its management, neither do we claim that at all times and under all circumstances it will work equally well. But we do claim and guarantee that with reasonable patience and judgment it will more than satisfy your greatest expectation."

5th - In putting the table together wet the tops of the legs, and drive them firmly into the table. Care should be taken that they are firm and tight.

6th - The board should be kept smooth and free from dust and moisture, as all depends upon the ease with which the feet of the table can glide over the surface of the board. Rubbing with a dry silk handkerchief just before use is advised.

Strangely the most innocuous part of the instructions were removed, 5 and 6. Still, it spoke to me of frustration or a parent trying to obscure something they didn't agree with. If anything, I liked that the board had a history!

The original instructions would've looked similar to this:

Even better, there was a clear description on the board:

It's hard to read, but you can see Age 13, a name, address, and date: April 8, 1900.

The other inscription is fainter but with the numerous underlined marks, I knew it would be something worth reading.

What a great note!  There are so many fascinating narratives to draw from this.

Of course the words weren't all legible, so with a bit of googling using multiple combinations of what I thought I could make out, I was not only able to confirm the last name of Mersdorff, but the actual address.

Here is the house the young Mr. John attempted to contact the spirits at:

With a bit more, I found out it is now known as the Weist Home and is on the National Registry of Historic homes:

It is classic Federal structure located on a long and narrow lot, which is typical in Madison. Originally a frame house was built on the lot in the 1830’s and in 1840 Hamilton Hibbs purchased the property. Mr. Hibbs was a carpenter and a staunch supporter of his next door neighbor Senator Jesse Bright who held strong southern sympathies. In the 1850’s, Hibbs attached a double-brick walled two-story front onto the frame house. The new structure had four fireplaces, stone window caps and a front that was flush to the sidewalk. Only its Italianate box gutters (circa 1870) and its 9 foot Victorian front door (circa 1890) pay homage to “modernization” of the home’s exterior prior to 1900. For many years the home was known as the Mersdorff house as that family purchased it in 1896 and owned it for over 90 years.

A 1990’s addition to the back of the home removed the remaining frame structure, replacing it with a kitchen and an upstairs master bedroom and bath. Since purchasing the home, the Wiest’s have added a family room with fireplace on the first floor; an upstairs office; a covered back porch; and a Federal style outbuilding. They also remodeled the 1920’s upstairs bathroom. This year, they have remodeled the kitchen, replacing the cabinets with handmade bead-board cherry cabinets and have attempted to remain true to the house’s 160 year old heritage by ensuring that changes to the home compliments and preserves its Federal style.

The Wiest’s family heirlooms and antiques have been collected for over 40 years. They collect Kitchenalia which is cooking equipment and other items found in a kitchen and enjoy Madison memorabilia. They look forward to your visit. 

It looks like they host historic and community events there. I sent an email to them with the find, here's to hoping they get back!

Check out an image of a couple using a very similar board.  

The image comes from Robert Murch. There is a really great 99% Invisible discussing the history of Ouija board and William Fuld. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Afterimage - Life After the Death of Photography

I was very thankful to have been given the opportunity to curate a show for MCAD, Afterimage: Life After the Death of Photography! In short, it was a show highlighting contemporary artists who use chemical, alternative, and/or antiquated photographic methods. It was an incredible chance to pull together some of my favorite art makers! Of course still I felt like I left out a ton of other amazing people, we could've done this show 10 times over.

Participating artists:

Check out some of their work! Though, it wasn't necessarily what we included in the show.

Timothy G. Piotrowski, Miss Tommie Riley with Victorian Bathing Outfit, 1900 - No. I, Toned silver gelatin print, 2012

Glenn Grafelman, Composition #5, Ferrotype photogram, 2013

Lacey Prpić Hedtke, Headless Ghost, Daguerreotype, 2013

Zoey Melf, Dakota, Ferrotype, 2014, Art Direction by Eric Timothy Carlson for Fugitive

Dave Molnar, Untitled, Gum bichromate, 2013

Cy DeCosse, Moon Flower, Platinum-palladium print, 2014, Printed by Keith Taylor

Stefanie Motta, Bodies of Water #3 (Lake Superior water, Sunlight), Archival Inkjet Print, 2014

Andrew Moxom, Muzzle, Wet plate collodion, 2011

Dave Rambow, Hartquist, The Undertaker, Ambrotype, 2010

Carla Rodriguez, Jonathan, Black & White Film and Nails, 2014

S. Gayle Stevens, Flight (installation view,) Wet plate collodion, 2014

"The Daguerreotype and the Photogenic revolution are to keep you all down, ye painters, engravers, and alas the harmless race, the sketchers!" —The Corsair: A Gazette of Literature, Art, Dramatic Criticism, Fashion and Novelty, 1839

Photography has always been a threat to the status of art as well as to itself; by some accounts it has died many deaths, and taken several casualties along the way. Since the medium's official introduction in 1839, each passing year brings new modes of making that continually challenge and redefine the previous standards. The contemporary use of processes once thought obsolete is proof that they were never fully exhausted in their time; they are still viable modes of innovation and exploration. In addition, the application of alternative methods are not just favoring past generations or fashionable new ones. These techniques never went away and never died.

The exhibition title, Afterimage: Life After the Death of Photography, is inspired by the rhetoric used in the last decades to describe photography's certain fate at the hands of digital imaging, a familiar argument made with each technological advancement. Photography is intrinsically tied to technology and the belief that we are perpetually on the brink of a new beginning or end. With an innumerable amount of processes and methods available to artists, photography's parameters are as blurred today as they were 175 years ago.

"Critical entomologists from Baudelaire to Benjamin and from Sontag to Crimp are constantly trapping the elusive medium in their butterfly nets, screwing it down into killing bottles, and then spreading out the apparently fixed specimen to best advantage in a display case—only to see it suddenly shake its wings and fly away, leaving behind a scattering of iridescent scales. It would be possible to paper a room with definitive pronouncements regarding the purpose and nature of photography." —John Stathatos, The Territories of Art, 2007

The artists included in Afterimage are modernizing the myth of photography and its ostensible technological progress. They are not simply replicating old methods, but recontextualizing them in the 21st century. From traditional themes like sexuality, religion, and nature to explorations of material, surface, and chemical reactions, the artists are filtering new ideas through demoded techniques.

The implied antithesis of chemical photography, digital imaging, is just one more amazing arrow in the quiver of the medium, and is often intertwined seamlessly with analog processes. We are inspired by the notion that photography is the quintessential amorphous gray mass. It has no edges, it is not truth or fiction, black or white, digital or analog, candid or staged; it is all these things, and none of them, simultaneously.

"[New technology] created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic? . . . They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases." —E. E. Cohen, Bad Form in Photography, 1893

Nathan Lewis, adjunct professor, gallery and fellowship coordinator

Some exhibition shots:

A big thanks to all the artists, Kerry Morgan, and the gallery installation crew for making this happen!