The current exhibition at the Guggenheim, "Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance" (through September 6), is a grab bag of works from the museum’s collection that left me wondering about the point of its title. Few of the pieces seem obviously haunted or haunting. On the contrary, anything manifesting too vividly the possibility of an unseen reality has been avoided, despite the fact that photography has been used to visualize the spirit world nearly since the invention of the camera, as we were reminded in 2005 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s cleverly titled exhibition "The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult." William Mumler made the first spirit photographs in the 1860s; the Cottingley Fairies that fooled Arthur Conan Doyle were photographed in 1917. And people are still arguing about the "thoughtographs" Ted Serios purportedly produced by purely psychic means in the 1960s.
You don’t need to be a spiritualist to be interested in photography’s affinity for ghosts, but it helps to be willing to imagine why someone might take the idea of spirits seriously. The curators of "Haunted," Jennifer Blessing and Nat Trotman, are unwilling to do that. Strangely, the art they prefer is mostly dry and theory-driven and doesn’t want to think too hard about the unknowable. Chronologically, the show begins with works from 1963 by Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Could JFK be the specter that haunts this show? Maybe, but section titles like "Appropriation and the Archive" and "Documentation and Reiteration" promise only another rehearsal of the post-Minimalist, post-Conceptual, academically approved mainstream of art since the ’60s. Not too many ghosts or fairies linger about the water towers that Bernd and Hilla Becher have photographed with such perfect clarity and detachment. The shadows in which weird folk might lurk have been banished. Nor does Sarah Charlesworth’s series "Herald Tribune November 1977"—twenty-six photographs of the newspaper’s front pages for the month, but with the text expunged, leaving only the banner and pictures—seem terribly otherworldly. A work of ideology critique, raising questions about how the news media use images to construct a mythology of the present, it doesn’t have much truck with the uncanny.
Meanwhile, a host of contemporary photographic and other art overtly concerned with the supernatural has been left out. I had expected to see all of Rachel Harrison’s "Perth Amboy Series" (2001), photographs of the window of a house in New Jersey where the image of the Virgin Mary was supposed to have appeared: hands reach out fervently to touch the miraculous pane of glass. And where are Francesca Woodman’s photographs of herself blurring into or out of her surroundings? I don’t think I’ve ever read a description of those pictures in which the writer has been able to avoid using the word "ghostly." "Haunted" may not be entirely bereft of anything numinous—the shadowy, downward-drifting wreckage in Paul Chan’s flash animation projection 6th Light (2007) is eerie enough to qualify—but the atmosphere is not conducive to its manifestation.
Blessing and Trotman see things differently. Of Charlesworth’s series, for instance, they write that today’s viewer "experiences a certain pathos in seeing the smiling faces of figures that are now long gone, symbolizing the collective loss of memory that occurs over time." It’s true that all photographs, insofar as they capture a slice of a determinate moment in time, present something that is always becoming increasingly lost to us even as we look at it, and that every portrait is the portrait of someone who will subsequently die. "In front of the photograph of my mother as a child," Roland Barthes famously wrote, "I tell myself: she is going to die." One could say the same of anyone whose face happens to have been featured on the front page in 1977. But by this criterion, all photographs are haunted, and to abide by it is to deny oneself any basis for curatorial judgment.