Philosophy of Technology

Class Blog

Photography: The Magical Mirror

Magic to us lives everywhere around us, even in the modernly manufactured chemicals spreading on a black and white film. Through the precise optical designs and reflection mechanisms, the lights coming from a disenchanted and material world are being translated into the signals in chemistry for another beam of light to retrieve them in the future. And yet people sometimes perceive magic in a photo. Photographer Diane Arbus talks about her sensations of magic,”there’s a kind of magic power thing about the camera. You’re carrying some slight magic which does something to the subject.” Her work in photography, focusing on marginalized people in the society, has been described as “consisting of formal manipulation characterized by blatant sensationalism” (Diane Arbus Wiki Page). What forms such strong sensationalism is the fidelity in the bizarre and surreal scene that she captured, in other words, the underlying enchantment in the disenchantment. It thus poses a question — is the idea of disenchantment a myth?

Two Female Impersonators Backstage, N.Y.C., 1961. Diane Arbus.

A photo is an honest copy of a moment from a certain perspective and has a magical power stronger than seeing it in real life. In this sense, the camera is a magical mirror of the reality which keeps reminding us the shadow of magic is still casting upon us. Arbus’s magic turns the most familiar into the most exotic. She once described her subjects as “people who appear like metaphors somewhere further out than we do”. The uncanny metaphors in her photos are the uncertainty about the alleged disenchantment. The unveiling female impersonators, midgets, and hermaphrodites evoke something still occult among people to which neither modernity nor science has given good suggestions on our cognition of such, both culturally and ethically.

Hermaphrodite and a dog in a carnival trailer, Md., 1970. Diane Arbus.

The magic mirror sits in between the enchantment and the disenchantment. So did Fascism while challenging our belief in modernity. Josephson Storm claims that “Nazism could be positioned on either side of ‘the Enlightenment’ / ‘counter-Enlightenment’ divide”(311). The disenchantment is “self-refuting” (Storm 310) in the sense that it didn’t manage to divide all possible ideologies in binary. If taking disenchantment as the current paradigm for granted, there is a vast amount of practices borrow its excuse while selling occult ideas. If not, the hybrid would be justifiably named magic — the chaos in the gray area yet to be disenchanted.

Mental Hospital, Sichuan, 1990. Lu Nan.


In the exploration of the gray area of conceptions, Chinese photographer Lu Nan is another example. In his classic documentary photography project “the forgotten people”, he unveiled the magically realistic living conditions of patients suffering from mental disorders. What we have forgotten is not merely these people, but the fact that we are in the complete state of disenchantment. Such magic derives both wonders and fears — wonders of the overwhelming power of imaging and reality and fears of metaphorical doubts upon the present and the future.


« »

Philosophy of Technology at NYU Shanghai, a course by Anna Greenspan and Brad Weslake.