Haunted Histories by Corinne May Botz

Corinne May Botz
Corinne May Botz
The Roehrs House, Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. A woman visiting her father who lived in this now demolished house said, "All of a sudden, I got a very uneasy feeling that I should go to my daughter who was two at the time and sleeping upstairs. I heard her calling, “Momma, momma, momma.” I ran up the stairs and leaned over to pick her up. A pounding started coming from a little closet next to the chimney that was so loud. Bam! Bam! Bam! It was loud enough that there was reverberation through the walls and floors. I just grabbed her and went running out of there. I had the most horrible feeling. I’m not trying to embellish it. We spent the rest of the night on the first floor on the couch. Ever since that time I was never comfortable on the third floor again and I never made her sleep there. There was something there that was not kind. It was almost demonic it was not a good energy at all."

In her projects, Corinne May Botz reveals a dark obsession with domestic space and what lies behind closed doors. Often times the home is used as a stage to explore mysterious moments about life and fears of death. This is evidenced in her past series which include her book The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death (The Monacelli Press, 2004), where she photographed models of crime scenes based on actual homicides, suicides and accidental deaths created to train detectives to assess visual evidence. In the project Murder Objects, she photographed household items that were used as evidence in violent crimes, and in Parameters, she explores the homes where agoraphobics live. What eventually comes together in all of this work is an idea of how we use seeing to come to terms with something invisible like crimes we didn’t witness or fears that are unexplainable.

Her latest book Haunted Houses is no different and uses photography as a way of exploring an invisible history of the spaces we live in. Here, Botz tells TIME what inspired the project:

“The first thing that inspired the project were writers like Edith Wharton, Charlotte Bronte and even Toni Morrison. Often these ghost stories were written by women as a means of articulating domestic discontents. I was interested in the idea of a woman being trapped in the home or by domestic space and how this was expressed in history. That combined with the desire to travel led me to photographing the houses.

It has almost become a right of passage for photographer to go on a road trip like Robert Frank or Stephen Shore and traditionally it’s work about public spaces but this project is about private spaces. It’s amazing how many people let me into their homes.

A lot of time I would just show up and knock on the door. When I photographed in haunted houses, I tried to open myself to the invisible nuances of a space. I photographed using a large format camera, with exposures often ranging from a few seconds to a few hours. Though the medium of the visible, photography makes the invisible apparent. By collecting extensive evidence of the surface, one becomes aware of what is missing, and a space is provided for the viewer to imagine the invisible.

I worked on the project, on and off, for 10 years photographing over 100 houses and recording over 50 oral ghost histories. (You can listen to them here)

Unlike the majority of horror films where the ghosts arrive as a result of an inopportune death, or to right a wrong, the inhabitants of these houses are often at a loss for why the ghosts are there, and in some cases the ghost is considered a source of comfort.”

In terms of people…many of them like their ghosts and and the comfort of not being alone, they like these caretakers protecting the house and having these histories attached to their house. They like having their everyday life have some kind of surprise or mystery to it.”

Haunted Houses (The Monacelli Press) is available here. Corinne May Botz’s work is currently part of Crime Unseen at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, which is on display through Jan. 15.

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