Book talks for readers at Chisago Lakes Middle School.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Seer of Shadows by Avi

Did any of you hear this summer that the body of bigfoot was discovered in the state of Georgia? No, it wasn’t true, even though a police officer was one of those that claimed to have discovered it. (What are incidents like this called?)

How many of you have heard of the legendary magician, Harry Houdini? (Can we say that some of his famous magic tricks were hoaxes also? Why/Why not?)

One thing you may not know about Houdini is that for a period of time after his mother’s death he tried to expose the tricks of others. No, he wasn’t trying to reveal the secrets of his fellow magicians. What he was trying to do was to expose the lies of those who claimed they could communicate with the dead. One of the supposed methods that summoned the dead was called a séance. Those who had lost a loved one sometimes were desperate enough to try this. (Why would they believe it possible?)

Angry with mediums (those claiming they could summon the dead by holding a seance) because trickery was being used to take financial and emotional advantage of people grieving the loss of their loved ones, Houdini made it his mission in life to expose their deceptive practices.

Besides the rise in interest in communicating with the dead during the late 1800’s, a few unscrupulous photographers began to claim that they could capture spirit images of those that had died. The dubious practice of Spirit Photography unfortunately emerged. Spirit Photography was the practice of attempting to capture ghosts on film. Some of these photographers would use methods like double-exposures or other various touch-up techniques to make a ghostly image of someone’s lost loved one to faintly appear in the background of a picture portrait. Like mediums, these photographers also took financial advantage of people wishing to have contact with a departed family member.

Click on the following links to see a few examples of pictures taken by Spirit Photographers from the late 1800s:
Edward Wyllie
William Mumler
Frederick Hudson
There have been many ghost pictures that have been proven to be fakes, but there have also been a few that have stumped the experts even to this day. One such example is the famous picture of Freddy Jackson. If this subject interests you, I would recommend a popular book from last year called Encylopedia Horrifica by Joshua Gee.

In the book, The SEER of Shadows, by Avi, the story begins with 14-year-old Horace Carpetine, an apprentice for a photographer in New York City in the year 1872. Horace has learned the newly established techniques of developing film by washing photographic plates with various chemicals. But, what Horace really wants to do is to be the one taking the pictures instead of doing all the dirty work behind the scenes for his boss. Horace works for Mr. Enoch Middleditch, a mediocre and fairly lazy photographer who doesn’t really put in much effort to drum up business. Since there hasn’t been a steady flow of customers for some time it comes as a surprise to both when a black servant girl named Pegg arrives to inquire if Mr. Middleditch would be willing to bring his photographic equipment to the mansion of her mistress, Mrs. Frederick Von Macht, in order to take a photograph portrait of her. It's unusual for such a prominent citizen to deal with a photographer of Mr. Middleditch's calibre. Also unusual is the timing of this request. Mr. Middleditch and Horace learn that Eleanora, the teenage daughter of Mrs. Frederick Von Macht, has recently died.

Despite the unusual circumstances of the request, Mr. Middleditch is the type of character that doesn't see anything wrong with seizing an opportunity from someone else's misfortune. (Can you guess his scheme?) He slyly informs Horace that this is an opportune time for his apprentice to begin learning the craft of taking pictures. You can imagine Horace is excited about the news, but he detects something isn't quite right.

Well, they arrive at the mansion but Mr. Middleditch instructs Horace to hide a camera inside his shirt. This is not exactly how Horace imagined his first photography lesson would be like, but he has to go along with his boss's wishes. The plan Mr. Middleditch has concocted will have him taking portrait shots of Mrs. Von Macht while giving Horace time to sneak around the mansion to find a painting of Eleanora. Horace only finds one painting of Eleanora but it will be sufficient. Following orders, Horace uses his hidden camera to take a picture of the painting. (Why do you think Mr. Middleditch instructed Horace to take a picture of a painting hanging on a wall?)

Later, back at the shop, Mr. Middleditch develops a print using the double exposure method. In the developing room, as expected, a ghostly image of Eleanora, if ever so faint, appears next to Mrs. Von Macht. Except for a table and candlestick, a space had convienently been left open by Mr. Middleditch when the picture had been taken. Mr. Middleditch complements Horace for completing his part in the scheme, but to Horace there is something even worse than the fraud they have just committed. Imagine Horace’s hands trembling as he holds the final print before his eyes. In his own words he describes the greater horror:

“I took the image and gazed at it, my eyes immediately focusing on the vague face of Eleanora. …What I saw was not the picture I had taken, not the picture Mr. Middleditch had inserted , but a completely different face!” [have a student read]

What Horace was looking at wasn’t the trickery of a clever Spirit Photographer. The photo Horace had taken of the painting that was inserted by Mr. Middleditch to create the double exposure had transformed into a different face. The image looking back at him was the actual face of Eleanora Von Macht, not a painted image.

Without knowing how to tell his boss that the fake image had turned into an apparently real ghost image, Horace just continued to follow along with his boss’s scheme. According to the plan, Mr. Middleditch wanted to create another double exposure with Eleanora’s image on it and sell it to Mrs. Von Macht, but when Horace returned from the cemetary after taking a picture of what he thought was just Eleanora's gravestone, Horace's mind was troubled with the thought that Eleanora's spirit had returned.

Mr. Middleditch wouldn’t need to go to all that effort of creating another double exposure. After Horace took what he thought was just a picture by the gravestone, this [show cover] is the picture that came out of the camera.

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