The fantastic has been most economically defined as "the deliberate violation of consensus reality".(1) It could also be said that the fantastic is the result of an imaginative exercise in the creation of alternative realities, however fragmentary or inconsistent. Its expression, most usually in literary or artistic form, seeks above all to enchant or entertain; as such, and despite sharing some common ground in the supernatural, it should be distinguished from superstition and religious impulse of all kinds. This does not of course exclude the existence of hybrid forms; whereas the Egyptian Book of the Dead is a purely religious text, epics such as Gilgamesh or the Mahabharata appear to have both a sacred and a secular function, and could (or, in the case of the vast Indian cycle, still can) both instruct and entertain.
The same mixture of faith and delight in imaginative artistry is present in most sacred sculpture, from the temple carvings of India to the totem poles of the North West Pacific coast. With increasing sophistication, the difference between the sacred and the fantastic became more clear-cut: despite its immense influence, the Odyssey is unlikely to have ever been treated with the reverence due to scripture, while the Aenead or Beowulf are purely secular epics, underpinned by a nationalistic rather than religious rhetoric. Similarly, mythologicaly inspired sculpture from 2nd century BC Athens to the end of the Hellenistic period, to say nothing of its subsequent re-emergence in the Renaissance, clearly owes little to the sacred.
A hankering for the fantastic seems an inextricable part of human nature, rooted perhaps in an instinctive dissatisfaction with everyday reality, and it is constantly being satisfied in a wide variety of ways, from the folk tales which are a part of every society to such sophisticated cultural artefacts as Spencer's Faerie Queen and Wagner's Ring of the Nibelungen. Interestingly, the times of maximum public demand for the fantastic appear to have been periods of flux and uncertainty. One such was the chaotic Roman Empire of the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, which also saw the novel's first appearance in the west with Apuleius's Golden Ass and Heliodorus' extravagant Aethiopika. The second was Renaissance Europe of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, when Arthurian legends, medieval chansons de geste and fairy tales all contributed to the development of the complex fictional tapestries of Amadis of Gaul and Oggier the Dane, culminating with Ariosto's monumental Orlando Furioso, probably the most frequently plundered source of inspiration for poets, playwrights and composers since Homer.
The third and greatest consumer of the fantastic is of course our own time, which does so in an ever-increasing variety of ways. In literature, the success of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogies resulted in the wildfire growth of fantasy and science-fiction book departments and the recent unexpected rise to world-wide best-sellerdom of J.K. Rowling. Meanwhile, from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari and Murnau's Nosferatu to the international success of the Alien and Star Wars sagas, now being challenged by the orientalist fantasy of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the cinema became the 20th century's favourite escapist medium. Finally, a flood of interactive computer role-playing games of increasing complexity offer access to a popular if usually hackneyed variety of fantastic experience, as no doubt will virtually reality games in the not-too-distant future.
A systematic account of the fantastic in the visual arts lies beyond the scope of this essay, but it is worth stressing its continuous presence within the European tradition. It can be found in the most unexpected of places; for instance, in the Mozarabic-influenced illuminations of the Beatus Revelations commissioned by Ferdinand of Aragon at the beginning of the 10th century, but also in the mythological scenes of Poussin, the vegetable fantasies of Arcimboldo, the bizarre drawings of Tiepolo, the claustrophobic lines of Piranesi's Carceri prints, Blake's obsessive illustrations and the paintings of the German symbolists, all the way to the other-worldly surrealist landscapes of Dali, Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy.
For the critic Simon Watney, "such painters present us with an alternative and enigmatic face to our culture. They provide us with a curiously exact mirror of the anxieties and dreams of every epoch. Fantastic art constitutes an imaginative criticism of reality".(2) Though Watney makes no mention of the medium, it is for photography above all that this last statement holds true, condemned as it apparently was to little more than the reproduction of reality as faithfully as possible. This was not just a judgement imposed on photography from the outside, but one enthusiastically propounded by many of the medium's most influential pioneers and practitioners, from Fox Talbot to Cartier-Bresson.
Nevertheless, a minority of photographers insisted on precisely such an imaginative subversion of reality, beginning with Hippolyte Bayard's famous Self-portrait as a Drowned Man, made in October 1840 - barely a year after his great rival, Daguerre, revealed the daguerreotype to the Institut de France. In 1857, Oscar Rejlander displayed his allegorical tableau The Two Ways of Life to the public of Manchester; each of the figures crowding the 41 x 79 cm contact print had been posed separately, with the final image made up of thirty individual negatives. Rejlander's technique of staged, composite prints was carried on into the next decade by Henry Peach Robinson and others, while in France, Disderi invented (and patented) photographic 'mosaics', composite carte de visite prints which traduced reality by combining large numbers of images into one: for instance, the legs of all the Opera dancers, or, according to Jean Sagne, "up to a thousand individual portraits, each no larger than a pinhead".(3)
One of the most widespread instances of fantastic photography in the 1860s and 1870s was spirit or ghost photography, enthusiastically ridiculed in this early account by the Boston physician and polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Some of our readers are aware that photographic operations are not confined to the delineation of material objects. There are certain establishments in which, for an extra consideration, [...] the spirits of the departed appear in the same picture which gives the surviving friends. The actinic influence of a ghost on a sensitive plate is not so strong as might be desired; but considering that spirits are so nearly immaterial, [...] the effect is perhaps as good as ought to be expected".(4)
Holmes may well have been referring to the activities of William H. Mumler, a Boston portraitist who produced images of the departed in the company of their grieving relatives. Such images depended either on straightforward darkroom chicanery by which two or more negatives were combined, or else on the fact that a reasonably convincing disembodied 'spirit' could be produced by exposing the slow photographic plate to a rapidly moving figure or object. At a time of increasing interest in spiritism and the supernatural, such lucrative operations were far from uncommon, and could even, as Heinz and Bridget Henisch recount, lead to poaching by other professions: "There was also room for [...] ghosts with a mission, produced to substantiate spiritualist theories and psychic phenomena, or to support religious sentiment, however shallow. In Prague, for instance, monks of the Monastery of Emmaus actually specialized in spirit photography, on the grounds that they, more than most practitioners, could claim a natural affinity with their subjects; ghosts would feel at ease in the company of their earthbound brethren. Neatly dressed in bed sheets, the spirits mingled with the monks to be photographed, a temporary lie in the service of eternal truth. These photographs were issued in 1878...".(5)
By the turn of the century, those photographers in search of both artistic status and what Ian Jeffrey calls "truths beyond appearance" had abandoned darkroom trickery in favour of impressionistic stagings: "Prior to 1890 declared artist-photographers were few in number; after that date they appear in quantity [...] For the most part these artist-cameramen were amateurs [...] These middle-class men of affairs were mainly landscape artists, who envisaged the British countryside in idyllic terms, inhabited - if at all - by pastoralists and sprites [...] The photographers dreamed likewise: dryads dance in the misty distance of Keighley's 'Fantasy' of 1913, and linger on the banks of any number of silent pools and tranquil rivers. For most of these gifted amateurs photography allowed a way out, into an imagined Old England or into other charmed worlds".(6)
The British pictorialist tradition was subsequently transplanted to the United States, where it survived for a while longer in the work of F. Holland Day, Frank Eugene and Anne Brigman. By the second decade of the new century, neo-pictorialist fictions had been decisively superseded by a number of modernist movements, including Dadaist photomontage with its deliberate artificiality, the more lyrical Czech version of constructivism and, above all, surrealism. Surrealism was the inspiration behind the most successful examples of fantastic photographic imagery up to that time, including the politically motivated photomontages of John Heartfield, the abstractions of Man Ray, the photograms of Moholy-Nagy, the multiple exposures of the Italian futurists Wanda Wulz and Giulio Bragaglia and the staged images of Claude Cahun and Carlo Mollina.
For Susan Sontag, it was photography of all the arts which was most attuned to the program of surrealism; to this endorsement, however, she added a rider to the effect that photographers "interfering with the supposedly superficial realism of the photograph were those who most narrowly conveyed photography's surreal properties". On the contrary, "a Surrealist manipulation or theatricalization of the real is unnecessary, if not actually redundant", since "Surrealism lies at the heart of the photographic enterprise".(7) It is this realisation that allows us to regard the unmanipulated images of photographers like Josef Sudek, Frederick Sommer and even, in some cases, of Cartier-Bresson himself, as depictions of the fantastic.
(1) Defined by Brian Attebery, "The Politics of Fantasy" in Modes of the Fantastic, ed. R.A. Latham & R.A. Collins, Greenwood Press, Westport 1995, p.2.
(2) Simon Watney, Fantastic Painters, Thames & Hudson, London 1977 (unpaginated).
(3) A New History of Photography, ed. Michel Frizot, Könemann Verlag, Köln 1998, p.112.
(4) Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Doings of the Sunbeam" (1863), in Photography: Essays & Images, ed. Beaumont Newhall, MOMA, New York 1980, p.76.
(5) Heinz K. Henisch & Bridget A. Henisch, The Photographic Experience, 1839-1914: Images and Attitudes, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park 1994, pp. 65-66.
(6) Ian Jeffrey, Photography: A Concise History, Thames & Hudson, London 1981, p.88.
(7) Susan Sontag, On Photography, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 1973, p.52.
The complete text of this essay is available in a fully illustrated 96-page monograph, including specially commissioned work by Joan Fontcuberta, Erasmus Schroeter, Mari Mahr, Nikos Panayotopoulos, Sean Kernan, Susan Trangmar, Eleni Maligoura, Burattoni & Abrioux and others. Available from the Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, P.O. Box 10532, Thessaloniki, Greece; www.thmphoto.gr