An Offer of Questionable Intent: Photographs by Ben Cauchi

Ben Cauchi’s photographs summon a host of forms, spectres, and practices. Inanimate objects seem possessed by malevolent forces, wisps of smoke transform into vaporous spirits, flames dance in eerie formations. The photographer’s studio provides both the setting and the subject of these photographs. It is a site of arcane powers and energies, presided over by the shadowy figure of photographer and the enigmatic equipment he commands.

Cauchi’s use of mid-nineteenth century photographic processes initiates these explorations into the mysteries of the studio and the medium. This exhibition consists of ambrotype and tintype photographs, variations on the collodion or wet plate process. Both produce a unique photographic image through the chemical binding of light sensitive salts to a highly prepared glass or metal plate surface. These labour intensive photographs are displayed behind glass in elaborately constructed frames.

This return to anachronistic photographic processes and the values they embody may initially read as a rejection of contemporary technologies and developments. Cauchi works in an era where digital technologies have combined with critical theory to utterly revolutionise and demythologise the ways photographs are produced, transmitted, and operate.

Yet by invoking the historical, Cauchi explores contemporary ways of looking at and responding to photography. These photographs may be set in the darkened spaces of the studio, but they operate in a much murkier realm between the contemporary and the historical, the gallery and the museum, the authentic and the fake. Refiguring the historical through the contemporary allows Cauchi to test the cultural meanings and values invested in both the photographic image and the figure of the photographer.

While the ambrotype and tintype now evoke a distant pre-digital past, these processes once represented major technological advancements. The discovery and rapid development of photographic technologies in the first half of the nineteenth century saw the medium bound up with positivism and scientific endeavour. The photographer was viewed as alchemist, fixing images of the material world to a two-dimensional surface through the chemical mysteries of the photographic process.

Like many new technologies, photography was quickly found to hold even greater powers. Victorian spirit photography traded on the faith that the sensitive lens of the camera could extend beyond the material into the world of the spirit. Portraits were expected to reveal the presence of deceased family members hovering over the shoulder of the sitter. The camera now functioned as medium in two senses, the photographer as conduit between the material and the immaterial, life and death, science and magic.

Not all were convinced with photography’s supernatural powers. Boston engraver William Mulmer, proprietor of the first spirit photography practice, was quickly exposed as a fraud. His ghostly ‘extras’ were revealed as the product of double exposures and various parlour tricks. Photography was no longer seen as conduit between living and dead, but rather between truth and untruth, or reality and illusion. The photographer, once celebrated as a scientist, was recast as charlatan or fraudster.

Cauchi features in many of these photographs, solemnly playing out these roles and mythologies. He has appeared as an alchemist mixing solutions, a spiritualist summoning shades, and as a swindler holding the ace up his sleeve. Most often, and most honestly, Cauchi fuses all of these roles under the highly loaded singular label photographer.

Many of these constructed scenes reveal the tricks of the trade. White Lie shows Cauchi clutching smoking incense sticks behind his back. He is concealing the devices used to doctor photographs that can make spectral presences appear out of the darkness. Yet his back is turned to the viewer. It is as though the camera has caught the photographer’s deception, which is enacted upon both the viewer and the medium’s claims to truth.

The hand of the photographer features in many of these photographs as both the vehicle and the symbol of this legerdemain. Pseudo-levitation shows the bible hovering beneath the open palm of the photographer/performer. Yet the strings that suspend the book from the hand are faintly visible, and the mechanics of Cauchi’s illusions are revealed. In other photographs chairs levitate and swathes of cloth hover through similar deceptions.

This emphasis on the construction of the photographs further lodges Cauchi’s practice somewhere between historical and contemporary approaches and responses. The strict codes governing Victorian photography demanded that any form of manual or chemical interference with the photographic process be announced.[1] Contemporary photography is largely premised on the challenge to notions of the integrity of the medium and photographic truth these Victorian codes strove to uphold. Critical strategies like the quotation and masquerade Cauchi practices draw attention to the artificiality of the medium and the coded nature of representation.

It is not always easy to gauge where Cauchi’s allegiances lie, except to photography as both a theatre and a medium of illusions. His photographs directly address the viewer, inviting us to share in this restaging of the smoke and mirrors lurking behind Victorian photography. But this intimate mode of address is as common to the art of the magician and the illusionist as the complicit contemporary artist. Despite the poker face and open hands Cauchi continually offers the viewer from the other side of the glass, his photographs do not reveal all of their tricks or mysteries. His greatest bluffs are enacted upon contemporary expectations and ways of responding to photography. These photographs play on the ways ‘sophisticated’ contemporary incredulity has replaced ‘gullible’ Victorian faith in the medium.

As Harry Houdini’s famed debunking of Victorian spiritualist scams demonstrated, these parlour tricks were always obvious if you knew what to look for.[2] Photography has proved a powerfully effective tool in allowing us to see what we want to believe. The Lies We Tell Ourselves directs a mesmeric device at the camera and the viewer. It serves as both a warning and a celebration of photography’s abilities to upset sensory perception and suspend consciousness—a power that Cauchi simultaneously interrogates and harnesses.

We may not believe Cauchi channels the paranormal, but a keenly felt presence lurks in all of these photographs. Through his blend of contemporary and historical processes and approaches, Cauchi conjures the ghosts of photography’s past for a sceptical twenty-first century audience. It is the power, mystique, and wonder once invested in photography that haunts Cauchi’s practice. If ghosts do represent the energy of the deceased caught between this world and the next, the material and the immaterial, they provide a telling metaphor for photography in the hyper-mediated digital age. As this exhibition reveals, when channelled the right way, the power of photography to sway and compel the viewer remains undiminished.

Published in Smoke and Mirrors, Masterton: Aratoi, 2005

[1] Jennifer Green-Lewis, Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996, 53-61.

[2] Harry Houdini, A Magician Among the Spirits, 1924.