Nicoletta Leonardi: Spiritualism and the material performance of cameraless photography: Notes on and around a séance with Eusapia Palladino

Print reproduction of cameraless glass negative showing the imprints of four fingers published in Cesare Lombroso, Ricerche sui fenomeni ipnotici e spiritici, 1909, p. 183. Museo di Antropologia criminale “Cesare Lombroso” dell’Università di Torino.

In this seminar, I will examine the role of photography within scientific investigations of mediumistic phenomena in Italy at the beginning of the twentieth century. More specifically, I will discuss the cameraless photographs revealing the imprints of four fingers obtained in Turin in February 1907 during the second of two séances with renowned medium Eusapia Palladino organized by physiologists Alberto Agazzotti, Carlo Foà and Amedeo Hertlizka at the house of Count and Countess Verdun. As I will try to demonstrate, these spiritualist cameraless negatives offer a productive case study for rethinking and reframing the photographic medium for different interconnected reasons. As part of the history of the material and visual cultures of science, they provide an example of the necessity of moving beyond the limiting boundaries of medium specific histories of photography and of looking at photographs from truly cross-disciplinary perspectives, locating them within integrated networks of different media, technologies, fields of knowledge, practices, materialities and imaginings. As off-camera proto-operational image-objects linked to fantasies of nonhuman agencies and produced well before the introduction of automation and the digital, they offer a tool for the historical reconceptualization of photography as a fluctuating and porous constellation of material and cultural practices that problematizes the dominant narrative of a revolutionary post-photographic era characterized by a new ontology of the medium resulting from the introduction of computers, digitalization and the internet. As low quality and scarcely appealing negative images of finger imprints certainly much less readable, recognizable and captivating than the positive prints depicting the more spectacular supernatural events allegedly taking place during séances, they have been often overlooked by a camera-centred historiography still largely focused on ‘successful’ positive printed images. As objects that are physically nowhere to be found, and that have reached us only in the form of their print reproductions in books, they call for inquiries that investigate photography’s remediation, that do not privilege presence over absence and that put more effort into trying to make sense of lacking or marginalized items within collections and archives.

Nicoletta Leonardi is a full professor at Brera Academy of Fine Arts (Milan), where she teaches photographic history and curates the photographic collection. She is also curator of the photographic collection at Albertina Academy of Fine Arts (Turin). Her work is based on the overcoming of the history of photography as a medium-specific discipline in favour of a systemic approach to the study of different media as an integrated field of technologies, networks, and artefacts. Her writings have been published extensively in exhibition catalogues, peer reviewed journals and edited volumes. She has authored two monographs, Il paesaggio americano dell’Ottocento: pittori, fotografi, pubblico (Donzelli 2003) and Fotografia e materialità in Italia: Vaccari, Guidi, Cresci, Ghirri (Postmedia 2013), and co-edited (with Simone Natale) Photography and Other Media in the Nineteenth Century (Penn State UP 2018). Before completing her PhD at UCL, she was a Fulbright Fellow at Columbia University.


14 February 2023, 11:00am

This will be a hybrid event.


Palazzo Grifoni Budini Gattai
Via dei Servi 51
50122 Firenze, Italia

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