Photographing a miraculous apparition in fin-de-siècle France

Photographing a miraculous apparition in fin-de-siècle France

The apparition (engraving from a photograph of Jules Leprunier). From Gaston Méry, La voyante de la rue de Paradis et les apparitions de Tilly-sur-Seulles - quatrième fascicule (Paris, 1896), 225.

This paper is dedicated to the photographic coverage of the alleged miraculous apparitions, which occurred in the small French village of Tilly-sur-Seulles between 1896 and 1897. These photos, circulated as postcards and appearing in popular magazines of the time such as L’Illustration and Le Monde illustré, were presented – by virtue of the authority of the photographic as an indexical trace – as “authentic” testimonials of the supernatural events, though in fact neither recognized nor approved by the Catholic Church. These photographs used the already-known double exposure process of spirit photography, bringing these exotic visual materials into the tradition of religious “authentic fakes”. But more importantly, such images manifested the “visionary fervour” of late nineteenth-century France, that is, the growing desire of the modern crowd to see the invisible in more and more spectacular and convincing ways. Such a new spectatorial desire – that can also be found in the very successful genre of the photographs of the real bodies of mystics, saints, and seers – would be perfected by a whole series of contemporary forms and attractions, and finally, by cinematographic special effects.

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On the threshold of the birth of the mass consumer society, in late nineteenth century, photography had taken over not only the documentary account of the events, but, despite its more or less serious intentions, the visualization of the supernatural, increasingly inscribing it within the dense and effervescent fin-de-siècle spectacular landscape.
Reading time: 20 min.


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