In the 1940s, science fiction fans were gripped by tales of an underworld of nefarious beings preying on the humans up above. The stories were serialized in the Amazing Stories pulp magazine from 1943 to 1948. However, their author, Richard Sharpe Shaver, considered them anything but fiction, and later in his life turned to painting and photography in an attempt to explain the ancient civilizations that came from the stars.
Near the end of his life in 1975, Shaver was living in Arkansas and wandering the terrain with an eye for “rock books.” These stones he believed to be tablets with information on the people of Atlantis that came before our current humanity, and he sliced them open to reveal their secrets, which he captured in photographs. One of these photos is currently part of the Morgan Library and Museum’s A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play that opened last month. This is the Morgan’s first exhibition organized by the museum’s new photography department and includes 80 works that connect in some way, with Shaver’s curious capture of a rock positioned quietly in a corner accompanied by his written explanation of the extraordinary origins in which he so fiercely believed.
In his lifetime, Shaver was better known for his stories than his art, which editor Ray Palmer avidly published in Amazing Stories. Known as the “Shaver Mysteries,” they were so popular that clubs dedicated to Shaver formed, and there were even those readers who sent in letter corroborating Shaver’s fantastic visions of the sinister Deros underground and the Teros on the surface. Palmer would later write The Secret World, published in 1975, on Shaver’s work, including examples of his art.
In recent years, however, it’s his art that has come to the surface, even though for Shaver it wasn’t the visual work in itself that compelled him, but the hidden history of the world he was attempting to convey. A 2002 exhibition at Christine Burgin in Chelsea (the gallery courteously supplied the images for this post) examined his “rockfogos” paintings, photographs, and handmade books in both the context of his alternative archaeology and as a fascinating visual work. As the gallery’s text states: “Slicing the rocks and photographing enlarged projections of their sections, Shaver zeroed in on their faces, nude women, frolicking mer-people, and prehistoric animals that were, to him, so obviously visible in the random patterns of the stones’ crystal compositions”
Shaver claimed that he first came in contact with this realm of vanished prehistory while working in a factory in the 1930s. His welding machine suddenly began transmitting voices (it’s widely believed that Shaver suffered from some mental illness). That was when he left that life behind and took on a lifelong role as messenger of the aliens that founded the human race. Unfortunately for his mission, not many people believed him, even with his visual evidence. As Brian Tucker wrote in a 2004 Cabinet magazine article on Shaver:
Shaver employed a toy opaque projector to enlarge the stone patterns onto a surface where he traced the rock imagery with paint, pastels, soap flakes, wax, and dyes. Discouraged by critics who charged that the figures pictured in his paintings were mere fabrications from his own imagination, he eventually abandoned painting in favor of the relative objectivity of photographic documentation.
The photograph in the Morgan Library is from a private collection, and many of his works have thus evaporated as a cohesive argument for Shaver’s ancient aliens. However, his science fiction did hugely influence alien conspiracy theories, as well as the writing of sci fi figures like Philip K. Dick. And as he slowly works through the art world, maybe he will finally get some of the visual influence he desired, even if it’s just a reminder to look closely at the world around you for what secrets it might hold.
A Collective Invention: Photographs at Play is on view at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Midtown East, Manhattan) through May 18.