Location Livorno, IT
Vincenzo Estremo
November 11, 2020

the spiritual transition of the image

William H. Mumler, Mary Todd Lincoln and Spirit of her husband pesident Abraham Lincoln, 1872.

At the end of the 19th century an American photographer named William H. Mumler invented spirit photography, a photographic genre that was very successful in New York and Boston. Mumler enjoyed great success by exploiting the condition of social unease and collective trauma of American citizens following the bloody civil war that was affecting the country. The relatives of thousands of soldiers who died in the war went to Mumler with a photo of their loved ones and were re-photographed by Mumler himself who promised to capture the image of the dead thanks to his supposed ability to “impress” the spirits with photographic technology. The story of this colossal scam is actually the pretext to start writing on the history of the capitalist occupation of air. A story in which technological partnership and liberal determinism find in the logic of cloud computing only the latest evolutionary stage of an extractive practice that instead characterizes the complexity and evolutions of capitalist thought at different levels.

”Now, if there is a spirit of Marxism which I will never be ready to renounce, it is not only the critical idea or the questioning stance […]”

“It is even more a certain emancipatory and messianic affirmation, a certain experience of the promise that one can try to liberate from any dogmatics and even from any metaphysico-religious determination, from any messianism .”

—Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx .

The analogue adjective referring to photography recalls a series of production and printing techniques that belong to the reproduction of the image. An adjective that in contemporary visual production, lives in the discourses almost only in opposition to or in relation to its digital counterpart. Therefore, when we speak of “analog” we do not mention the possibility of placing, by means of this term, the logical order and of properties of the image itself, but we allude, almost without a doubt, to an accuracy or an indexical relationship, so much to quote Charles Peirce, in the resulting physical contact between the photographed object and its image. A pact, the analogical one, which in the case of the image itself, has seen the real world flattened into its rectangular support through a chemical process until it generates an object-like relationship (not objective) of reliability between things and images. An absolute value, a unique and indistinct function in which the apparent lends service to fantasy.1 And yet, as in any pact, even in the case of the image, the terms of the agreement may not be completely clear and its effect is little more than a sensation. The analog image would therefore arouse a sense of truth, of trust, from an apparently extreme weak foundation and condition. Something, like with its digital descendant, makes us think that in the end, everything that “seems” or that belongs to the optic realm and to appearance, can only inspire doubts rather than truths.

In this text I will deal with the transmission of the image, the fragile bond that this transmission has with air, and how this transmission has produced a genetic memory of the image itself. I will do this by talking about spectres and how their inconsistency, their ubiquity and lightness, are a pretext and a useful characteristic for domination. A power that extends into the air through the image and populates the clouds we use to transmit our information, warehouses full of data and infested with spirits. I will therefore deal with a new indexicality of the image and how it was and still is possible to claim, to impose truth, starting from the evidence of the icon. On the other hand, the transmission of images is something that has to do with an energetic passage that through light and space, returns to the object.


The relation between things and their representation has interested mankind ever since we began to think about the representations of bodies in their forms. An idea that with technical evolution has also been linked to transmission as well as reproduction. The concepts of displacement and reproduction, that have marked the boundaries between authenticity and its copy, is among the themes Walter Benjamin talks about when he defines distance as the opposite of vicinity. The innefable, as the aura, is in connection with the cultural image,2 while the reduction of the distance is directly proportional to the exposure of the image itself.3 Reflecting on the journey of the image, I wondered what happened to images in this path that led them to be each time more present, but not from the perspective of an aesthetic idealism, nor supposing the existence of a world of images suspended in mid-air –middle substance that if intercepted, would reveal itsealf as visibility or copy4– but in the hegemony of their socio-economic function. As previously mentioned, the birth of photography must be considered as an advancement and/or an adaptation of pre-existing conditions to innovative technological recording possibilities, from chemistry to computer science. To suppose that an image could be “transmitted” or made, starting from its object source up to its apperance through a darkroom device, is like admitting, since the appearance of the first photo-reflection phenomenon, the existence of a telefotia5 phantom. An invisible phenomenon in which a hypothetical ray of light has intercepted an equally hypothetical solid body capable of reflecting the wave and producing a shift from the object to the image. This thought, is actually more probable than it seems, in fact, if at the base of photography and cinematography there was the desire to materialize, duplicate and transmit images, these same desires were joined by the illusion of a hyperuranium of images. A great intermediate transcendental scheme, able to homogenize and foretell the very idea of the image with its phenomenal part. This intermediate representation, in which the external lines (outline) of the empirical element coexist, can be considered the transcendental scheme of the image, or rather the meta-archaeological engine of much more concrete forms of materialization. This indefinite space becomes, in a social reinterpretation of forms, a place of conquest. An area that constantly undergoes human attacks, an “air” that contains and carries neutral content, which is thought of as something that is or could be. The idea is that of an image that can be modified in the space and time of its journey. An object that changes its shape and its meaning along the way from the thing to its shape regardless of the support.

The ghosts of capitalism

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the engraver and photographer William Howard Mumler produced his first spirit photograph, he was making a test to create a self-portrait and in printing the plate he realized that there was a barely perceptible presence just behind him. Mumler recognized a dead relative in the ethereal figure. It was 1860 and William Howard Mumler declared, with a certain cockiness, to be able to photograph the spirits of the dead through a special photographic process.6 Mumler’s story tells us indirectly, of a mode of exploitation in which technical innovation –in this case the superimposition of multiple images– grants one man the rule over other. Technical supremacy coupled with specific social conditions –Mumler’s invention coincided with a particular period in American post-Civil War7– opened the door to a new form of capitalist exploitation of the entire visual apparatus. A new immaterial industry8 that was forming in those years, that started precisley from the premises of diffusion and widespread distribution of the image.9 Mumler’s was more than a simple fraud, in fact, being a pioneer in the new art of photography, and having exploited this surprising technology through immediacy and manipulation, it opened up questions concerning the very concepts of authenticity and veracity, but above all, it showed some of the possibilities of the image for a capitalist exploitation. The aim was not only to bring out, through the use of a camera, what human sight could not perceive, but to create an economy out of these presences taking advantage of the psychological effects that these images had on the costumers. A condition of the possible iconic, such as that of the enlargement in the film projections by the Lumiere brothers or Eadweard Muybridge’s chronophotography, which laid the foundations for a capitalist-psyche that became a religious spirit 10, this thanks to the indissoluble union between of a “sacred and profane” based on the image. A further stage of capitalism that served to contempt the worries, torments and anxieties to which religions responded in the past.11 The apparitions, irradiations, specters in photography, the blind faith based on this technological means to portray reality, are the foundations of a spiritualistic form of capitalism, in which the machine is the extension of an unknown and omnipresent God. A diaphanous capitalism was distinguishing itself from other forms of relations between economy and religion. Some sort of capitalist spiritualism, total and omnipresent. A new device capable of exploiting the psychic dimension began to characterize itself first, as an imperialism of the soul and then, as a pervasive and totalistic tool. It is the image at the service of art that is at the forefront of the capitalist restructuring processes,12 becoming a vital and profound organ in the development of an economic system. Art, on the other hand, offered an emancipatory promise in which on one side, destabilization, and on the other, exclusivity, founded a contemporary capitalism that shifted from hierarchical to flexible and autonomous. A living system, animated by ghosts, in a trans-aesthetic society13.

The factories of images

In their exhibition value, images become increasingly accessible and are ready to be made available to everyone, usable at any time and in any place. As with the bogus spiritualism of Mumler’s multiple exposure, the contemporary image introduces us to a new dimension in which worship and magic disappear in favor of the triumph of technique placed at the service of a pseudoscience. If with Mumler’s lesson we begin to deduce a shift in the function of the image from a ritualistic instrument to an object of capital, in the same way it is understood that the image can assume an operational and independent function with respect to human beings.14 The spirit of these images has a purely technical “nature”, and as with Mumler’s scams, its visual accuracy is an accessory factor. These disposable spirits, often destined for a specific operation, are forced to wander in a digital multidimension,15 characterized by a lack of alterity because they are produced and self-produced as clichés. In today’s stage of this journey of the image, the creation of a photorealistic overlay close to photographic indexical reproduction, is characterizing the digital creation of our daily images. Mumler’s spirit photos essentially landed within a system of values, the capitalist one, occupying contemporary forms of socio-cultural exchange. Mumler’s specters are no longer the result of a simple double photochemical exposure, but they are living in the implementation and refinement of realistic renderers to which we entrust the task of simulating the physical reality that surrounds us. Digital rendering and the study of the behavior of light and surfaces, become the presupposition of a new hyperreality.16 The latter, as described by Jean Baudrillard, is like a veil over reality, and it ends up digitally surrogating it. Hyperreality defines models that do not exist in the factuality of places, but that live only as simulations. A sort of virtual hyperuranium, where reality itself is generated in an alternative way and completely detached from human experience, without any reference to it. A reproduction in which there is still a debate on the veracity or modifiability of the digital image and in which a substantial instability of the digital is stated, often in a hasty manner, as opposed to a relative immutability of the analog image.17 The truth, if we can speak of truth, lies outside the format, and it is something that has nothing to do with matter, but with its constitutive process.18 Images are not able to lie because thwey are digital, nor they bear the verb because they are analogous, they are only pacts, compromises with perception. The truth of the image is unstable and in redefinition as well as that of perception. On the other hand, for a blind and powerful instinct, as David Hume defined it, the human race is led to think that the images presented by (and to) the senses are external objects without the suspicion that those same images can only be a representation.19 A visual anthropocentrism which is essentially a form of blindness. A weakness on which the deception of the image is based and on which the contemporary factory is built. A space in which the will to believe one’s eyes is embodied in the motto of a very famous meme that circulates in quite different versions and which is essentially based on the conflict between the image of a product and its actual manufacture. In these memes –usually diptychs– the text “When You Order Something Online VS When It Arrives”, appears superimposed or commented on two images. The meme obviously plays on the disappointment of expectations in the object, but opens up a side question on the indexical relationship of the digital image. In fact, as the meme tells us, there is a painstaking construction of the photorealistic image that goes beyond the photograph of the image itself and which turns out to be close to a poor factual reality and without the “qualities” of that first representation. Behind the expecation20 suspended in midair, we find the factory that generates reality as we see it. A widespread space populated by deregulated workers who define the shading of surfaces by modeling everything according to the incident light with a wide range of texture mapping colors, able to simulate the bump and irregularities of the many materials. These workers spend their lunch breaks on the computer and often feel nostalgia for walks in the fresh air, then add distance fog filters to screensavers because no air is as ever clear as to be completely transparent.21 Shadows, projected shadows, soft shadows, partial shadows produced by extended light sources, reflection, specular or almost specular reflections, transparency, the transmission of light through an object, refraction, the deviation of light when passing through one medium to another, global illumination, the set of reflected light in a sequence: light source> object> camera; caustic lights, the accumulation of reflected or refracted light projected in characteristic shapes of other objects, the DoF (Depth of Field), simulation of the progressive blurring of objects placed at increasing distance, motion blur, simulation of the blur produced by moving objects, SSS (sub-surface scattering), simulation of the penetration of light into a translucent object, ambient occlusion, simulation of the behavior of light with occluded volumes and anisotropy, simulation of a material that reflects light in a different way. These are just some of the effects that are returned in a new photo-realistic simulation regime of the air in which we float. These workers produce ghosts. The ghosts that Mumler wanted to make appear in the photo are no longer there, on the background dominating and accompanying the subject. Over time, they have become the first plane of representation. The every-day-life that does not expect anything from reality, that does not loom but that embodies the real. The image has demanded its own desire and it doesn’t even know why she returned, yet this time it’s more than a body. A community of ghosts without a leader, like the spectres of bodies without a scope.

Traduzione: Juan Pablo Macías

  1. This is one of those cases in which the Italian language and culture do not offer adequate precision in the distinction between the different fields and possible definitions of image. In fact, it would be appropriate to define the difference between the idea of ​​representation and representations. To obviate this terminological overlap, we will try, when necessary, to define precisely the semantic and nomenclatory fields that are mentioned when the term image is mentioned. In English, the work of W. T. J. Mitchell and the difference between image and picture certainly helps to better define the existing nuances around the image. W. T. J. Mitchell, Four Fundamental Concepts of Image Science, in Pictorial Turn. Essays of visual culture, Duepunti, Palermo 2008, pp 5-17. 

  2. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Einaudi, Turin 2000, p. 49. 

  3. Ibid. p. 28. 

  4. Reference is made not only to Friedrich Schelling and the aestheticization of knowledge, but to the entire trend of idealism starting from the Platonic tripartite division of reality, ideas and the appearance of sensible things. 

  5. The hypothesis of a potential and non-materialized telophotia and therefore outside the technology of images, must not be confused with belinography or tele-photo, that is the system conceived and implemented by Édouard Belin who has allowed the transmission of images at a distance using the technique of phototelegraphy. 

  6. Among the protagonists of spirit photography, in addition to William Howard Mumler, are Fred A. Hudson and the English William Hope who, even after being publicly exposed, continued to enjoy illustrious favors and the public support of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. 

  7. The birth of Spirit Photography in the United States and Great Britain is directly connected to the emergence of forms of spiritualism not related to the apotropaic and propitiatory rites and traditions used in ritualized and non-industrialized societies. Nineteenth-century spiritualism is a pseudo-religious movement without a formal organization, something connected to the middle and upper classes of the bourgeois society of the new industrial powers that must be opposed to the concept of magic. Peter Manseau, The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln’s Ghost, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston 2017. 

  8. When we talk about the relationship between industry, visual culture and immateriality it is impossible not to refer to the US definition of motion picture industry referred to Hollywood and by extension to the entire film industry. An understanding that, while not entirely belonging to European culture where film production had a purely artistic connotation, has become a universal and hegemonic model capable of creating and disseminating easily recognizable products. An intangible and dissimilar industry to those of the west coast, which has been identified since its inception as a “dream factory”. Susan Hayward, Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts, Routledge, London 2006, p. 205. 

  9. The techniques of image reproduction and distribution such as cinema and photography have substantially contributed to the complexity and historical formation of contemporary visual culture, as the scholars Antonio Somaini and Andrea Pinotti underline in the volume Visual culture, Einaudi, Turin 2016. 

  10. Roberta Iannone, Oltre l’alienazione. Il malessere socio-psicologico ai tempi del capitalismo spirituale, in “Health and Society” n. 2, 2020, pp. 164-169. 

  11. Walter Benjamin, in Gesammelte Schriften (Capitalism as religion) addressed the constitutive condition of capitalism as a religion, that is, a doctrine not guided by a particular religious spirit as in the well-known Weberian syllogism between Protestantism and capitalism, but of something that has the same character of religion. For Benjamin’s text in Italian, see Dario Gentili, Mauro Ponzi, Elettra Stimilli (ed.), The cult of capital. Walter Benjamin: Capitalism and religion, Quodlibet, Macerata 2014, pp. 9-12. 

  12. Eve Chiapello, Luc Boltanski, The new spirit of capitalism, Mimesis, Milan Udine, 2014. 

  13. Gilles Lipovetsky, Jean Serroy, The Aestheticization of the World: Living in the Age of Artistic Capitalism, Sellerio, Palermo, 2017, pp. 41-113. 

  14. From the concept of operational image developed by Harun Farocki and conceived as a necessary tool for understanding the world, cine-perception of reality that excludes man through machines for machines, or simultaneous images that correspond to a plurality of but invisible glances, in my opinion, is a new productivity of the iconic. See among others; Aud Sissel Hoel, Operative Images. Inroads to a New Paradigm of Media Theory, in “Image - Action - Space” 2018, pp. 11–28.  

  15. Elsewhere I have defined this space as “multiverse”. Vincenzo Estremo,Teoria del lavoro reputazionale, Milieu, Milan 2020, pp. 110-112.  

  16. With the spread of modern digital technologies, the debate on the perception of the world mediated by images is opened up. The new modes of communication create what Jean Baudrillard defines as hyperréalité (hyperreality) that is, the simulation of something that never really existed. Jean Baudrillard, Simulacri e impostura. Bestie Beaubourg, apparenze e altri oggetti, Pgreco, Milan 2008.  

  17. On the concept of truth claim see Tom Gunning’s work, What’s the Point of an Index? Of, faking Photographs, in “Nordicom Review”, vol. 25, issue 1-2 Aug 2004, pp. 39-49.  

  18. With respect to the function of digital as a proof, I would like to mention the case and the analysis methodology of Forensic Architecture and Forensic Oceanography groups which are based on the double relationship between indexicality and visual accuracy of digital images. An anesthetic work in which a new dimension of digital factuality is built.  

  19. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Laterza, Bari 2004, p. 239. 

  20. Another variation of the meme is that of the diptych “Expectation VS Reality”. This version of the meme goes beyond the simple desire to purchase while remaining in the conflictual sphere of digital representation / imagination and factuality.  

  21. Leonardo da Vinci’s aerial perspective is one of the texts with the largest number of citations on online aphorism sites.