“Parthenon” (1965), an image in the Jule Eisenbud Collection on Ted Serios and Thoughtographic Photography (courtesy the Photography Collections, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, copyright University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 2013)

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 of the photographs at the UMBC Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery, told Hyperallergic that the photographs are a sort of descendant of spirit photography, where ghosts were “captured” in 19th century photography, usually with multiple exposures or overlaid film.

A spirit photograph supposedly showing the ghost of Abraham Lincoln with Mary Lincoln by William H. Mumler (1869) (via Wikimedia)

A spirit photograph supposedly showing the ghost of Abraham Lincoln with Mary Lincoln by William H. Mumler (1869) (via Wikimedia)

“It falls into a long history of using the medium of photography to try to depict or capture or collect evidence of paranormal events,” Hauver says. “The case of Ted Serios is unique in that that he used Polaroid cameras to produce his imagery. Polaroid cameras produce original photographs on the spot, eliminating the opportunity for trickery to occur through printing techniques employed in the darkroom.”

Ted Serios spent three years working with Eisenbud, having moved to Denver just for the experiments. Holding a “gizmo” (a piece of paper rolled into a short tube at the start of each experimental session) to the lens of a Polaroid camera, Serios then aimed the camera at his forehead. The exposure was made upon a signal from Serios — a snap of the fingers or verbal command. 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, called “normals,” depict what one would expect all of the photographs to show —Ted’s face, shoulders, and sometimes portions of the room behind him. Other photographs strangely turned out totally black or white.

“Ted said that when making thoughtographs, he didn’t see the image in his mind or his imagination prior to making the exposure,” Hauver says. “He said that it was more akin to him being a kind of portal through which this information or imagery simply passed.”

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. “One approach within the movement of Surrealism, was to try to produce imagery by tapping into the unconscious mind. Based on Ted’s description of how he was making the images, he was working in a similar vein; his imagery came from his unconscious mind or at least passed 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.

“In addition to the paranormal photographs and ‘normals,’ the archive contains photographs that Dr. Eisenbud and others took to document the experimental sessions, as well as 16mm films of certain experimental sessions,” Hauver says. “If you don’t believe in the paranormal, these other materials depicting the rather compelling way in which Ted made his images, allow for appreciation of these events, at the very least, in terms of performance — an authentic, very powerful performance.”

Click here to view more images from the digitized Jule Eisenbud Collection on Ted Serios and Thoughtographic Photography at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and here to learn more about the collection. 

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print and online media since 2006. She moonlights...

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