Book Review: Haunted Air A Collection of Anonymous Hallowe’en Photographs, America c.1875 – 1955 – Ossian Brown
With an introduction by David Lynch and an afterword by Geoff Cox
(Jonathan Cape) £25.00
Reviewed by Guy Sangster Adams
‘The one that scares you is Donnie,’ is the smudged, handwritten annotation on the deckle edge mount of the fading photograph of three boys, of different ages, perhaps brothers, playing on the swings in the yard of a weather-boarded, municipal looking building. From the clothes and the hairstyles it is probably the 1950s, though it might be ten, or even 20 years earlier. The youngest of the trio wears a grotesque mask which makes his head look out of proportion to his body. As do the handmade, decorated, grocery bag masks, with cut out eye- and mouth holes, over the heads of five little girls, photographed against the white weather-boarded side of a school or church or court house, wearing their best dresses and shoes, the stockings of each wrinkled at the knee. Maybe it’s these juxtapositions and the allusion to executioners’ hoods, belied or perhaps reinforced by their homemade-ness, but to appropriate the opening line of this paragraph, it is these butter wouldn’t melt girls of the scaffold that scare me.
All manner of costumes are here, from the expected witches and their black cat familiars, ghosts and skeletons, to pierrots, policemen, and a woman with dress intriguingly decorated with spoons and the legend, ‘won’t you come spoon with me’ emblazoned on her chest, all made gruesome with the addition of a mask.
Like the contradictory emotions of autumn leaves that bring fun and satisfaction when walked or run through, but also sadness that after a blaze of glory they are detached from the tree that bore, often to be thrown into the blaze of a bonfire, leafing through the pages of Haunted Air brings a mixture of fun, fascination, and melancholy. As Geoff Cox recounts in his afterword, the photographs in Ossian Brown’s collection were “torn from album pages, sold piecemeal for pennies and scattered, abandoned to melancholy chance and the hands of strangers.” These costumed portrayers of lost souls are now lost themselves, the hands that took the photographs now as anonymous as the subjects, detached from the family trees that bore them. But in this beautifully designed, cloth bound book, Ossian Brown has restored them to an album that not only celebrates these celebrants, but also provides an invaluable record of cultural traditions and photographic history.