In the 1960s, a Denver-based psychiatrist and a man who believed he could take photographs with his thoughts staged a series of experiments with Polaroid instant film. Dr. Jule Eisenbud and his test subject, Ted Serios, a former bellhop, were trying to prove that a psychic projection could manifest on film.
All of the photographs from the experiment are held in the Special Collections of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and have recently been digitized. Now anyone can browse the results of the experiments, and decide for themselves if they believe in “thoughtography.”
Curator of Exhibitions Emily Hauver, who organized a 2011 exhibition on the photographs at the UMBC Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery, told Hyperallergic that the photographs are a sort of descendent of spirit photography, where ghosts were “captured” in 19th century photography, usually with multiple exposures or overlaid film.
“It falls into a long history of using the medium of photography to try to depict or capture or make evidence of paranormal events,” Hauver says. “One of the things that was unique about Ted Serios is that they were using the Polaroid cameras. It eliminated the dark room and trickery there.”
Ted Serios spent three years working with Eisenbud, having moved to Denver just for the experiments, connecting a tube (which he called a “gizmo”) to a Polaroid camera which he held towards his forehead. Some of his “thoughtographs” purported to show images of an object or place that was not there (such as the one at the top of the post supposedly of the Parthenon in Athens). Others were “normals” where he tookphotographs of his own face through the tube. Other photographs strangely turned out totally black or white.
“Ted said when he was making these images, he didn’t see the image beforehand in his mind or his imagination or anything,” Hauver says. “He said that it was more akin to him kind of being a portal. It was just this information or imagery passed through him.”
Eisenbud later published his findings in a 1967 book called The World of Ted Serios: “Thoughtographic” Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. The book got Serios a lot of recognition, but that fame also attracted plenty of skeptics who didn’t quite share Eisenbud’s beliefs in thoughtography, even though he’d gone to great lengths to account for variables that might indicate a fraud.
Yet aside from their parapsychology interest, and disbelief, the photographs are also worth looking at for their connection to the history of 20th century art and the unconscious having a proclaimed role. “If you think about just the practice of Surrealism, one of the approaches of it was to try to tap into the unconscious mind, and so based on Ted’s description of how he’s making the images, it’s sort of coming from his unconscious mind or passing through it,” Hauver says.
So paranormal or not, the photographs with their strange murky images that emerge like a figure in a fog do have something strangely mesmerizing in their visuals.
“Within the group of we have the normals with photographs of Ted and there are also photographs that Dr. Eisenbud and others took that are documents of the experimental sessions, and there are also films of the experimental sessions,” Hauver says. “So if you look at those, there’s this really compelling aspect of what’s going on and to the way that Ted makes these images so you can appreciate it in terms of a performance, this authentic very powerful performance.”