Posted by: mollyjoyce | October 19, 2021

Living Ghosts: Angela Deane and the Photographic Afterlife

Looking at Victorian post-mortem photography reminded me of the series “Ghost Photographs” by Angela Deane. From 2012 to the present, Deane has been taking found photographs, such as those from garage sales, and painting acrylic ghosts where humans once were. The bright, whimsical series seems to appear in stark contrast to the disturbing post-mortem photographs. And yet, “Ghost Photographs” could be considered post-mortems of a different sort – they’re depictions of individuals after their identities have been lost to time.

Photographs like these are usually found in family albums, often with identifying information written on the back – names, dates, locations. The titles Deane gives to these photographs describe the scenes themselves rather than the individuals depicted. The series pokes and prods at some of the most basic understandings of photography that we take for granted. We believe that photography is immorality, that our likenesses will remain long after we’re gone. But who would recognize the people in these photographs, even if their faces were unveiled? What could their physiognomy possibly tell us about who they were, what they liked, how they lived? These people are ghosts – with or without the painted sheets. In some photographs, the location is easily identifiable (see Rushmore, Castle Dreaming), which makes those images a bit spookier. They haunt that place: they have a presence that is both indubitable yet indeterminable.

Angela Deane, Rushmore, 2013

Angela Deane, Castle Dreaming, 2019

Despite its playfulness, the series highlights a somber issue of photography and privacy. Does our own image cease to be ours once it’s captured? To obtain and view personal images of a stranger brings you to a certain intimacy with them that they are completely unaware of. These images weren’t posted to Instagram, they were private photos likely meant to be shared only with family and friends. I feel that Deane’s paintings make the consumption of these images just slightly more ethical, as it reduces the potential for voyeurism. However, this is not to say that I find the series unproblematic. Deane sells prints of “Ghost Photographs” on her website for $150. How appropriate is it for her to profit off of private moments in other people’s lives? To what extent can she claim these photographs as her own? While Deane couldn’t possibly know who to credit, she sells her prints without acknowledging that the work belongs in part to another (albeit unknown) person. The dates are attributed to the year Deane painted the ghosts, but the photographs have a history of their own that predates her.

In the biography section of her website, Deane has written a statement about the series: 

“Found photographs.

Not necessarily lost but able to be found.

A history held within a snapshot,

Unknown.

I put paint to paper and in doing so turn the specific

into the abstract.

Face becomes ghost.

Person becomes vessel.

And vessel is open for possession.

(You may haunt these ghosts.)

Through this manipulation of the material,

the ghosts become us and we become the ghosts.

We become the ghosts of our everyday.”

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A few lines that stood out to me:

“The specific into the abstract” … “we become the ghosts.”

This brings up an interesting point about photography and identity. As soon as a photograph is taken it becomes an image of a moment passed. Is photography only able to capture ghosts of ourselves – versions that existed on a particular day, in a particular moment?

“Person becomes vessel. And vessel is open for possession.”

I’m not sure I agree with the supposed erasure of their individual identities. Their bodies don’t vanish from the frame completely – they’re merely covered with a sheet. Often Deane leaves arms and legs still visible (see Seeking). Occasionally human shadows can be seen behind the ghosts (see Shadow Puppets). I don’t think that the painted ghosts erase the individuals, but rather draw attention to all the questions about them that will go unanswered, whether their faces are visible or not.

Angela Deane, Seeking, 2019

Angela Deane, Shadow Puppets, 2019

You can find the full series here:

https://angeladeane.com/section/333599-Ghost-Photographs.html


Responses

  1. This is such an interesting art series and so wrapped up in ethical questions. Thank you for posting about it. I think it says so much about the afterlife of images, especially when there’s an excess of them as commodities. It also reminds me that photographs often only have meaning/value for the specific people in them. What happens to them after that value is gone?

    • That’s such an excellent point, thank you. Along that line of thinking, Deane is essentially rescuing these photographs from oblivion. She’s giving them a brand new meaning that will resonate with a wider audience.

      It’s kind of sobering and sad that shielding the individuals from view restores an implicit value that was lost when they got separated from the people depicted. But it’s also interesting that a mundane photograph, the type that millions of people across the world have similar versions of, can become a compelling work of art.


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