Rebecca Baron


Rebecca Baron, Ted Serios in Detour De Force, 2014

Rebecca Baron has just completed her new film Detour De Force, a mesmerizing portrait of Ted Serios, a man who in the 1960s and 70s was allegedly able to project image / thoughts onto Polaroid film.  Serios’ talent as telepathic image maker places him within the history of spirit photography that blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Believing in his powers (or not) is a sort of litmus test of credulity and another example of how new visual technologies (Polaroid in this instance) are pushed to image the previously invisible.

I am a big fan of her 2005 film, How Little We Know of Our Neighbours, a meditation on photography, surveillance and an obscure group of photographers, writers and anthropologists who called themselves the ‘Mass Observation Movement’ who furtively studied working class behavior in post-war Britain.  The film’s female narrator speaks with a firm and slightly detached British accent. I had never spoken to Rebecca Baron before we met on a park bench in Federal Hill in Baltimore.  When we sat down, I was expecting that detached voice to respond to my questions, instead she answered with warm American enthusiasm. I think my expectation says something about the grip her film has on my imagination and how we often unconsciously interiorize cinematic experiences.

Rebecca Baron is a Los Angeles-based media artist known for her lyrical essay films concerned with the construction of history, with a particular interest in still photography and its relationship to the moving image.  Her work has screened widely at international film festivals and media venues including Documenta 12, New York Film Festival, Anthology Film Archive, Toronto Film Festival, London Film Festival, Pacific Film Archive, Flaherty Film Seminar and the Whitney Museum of American Art. She is the recipient of a 2002 Guggenheim Fellowship and a 2007 Fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. She has taught documentary and experimental film at Massachusetts College of Art, Harvard University, and since 2000 at California Institute of the Arts.

This conversation took place in late afternoon / early evening light overlooking Baltimore harbor on May 13, 2014.

MAD: I really love your film How Little We Know of Our Neighbours, which I would describe as a meditative documentary that explores the relationship between photography and surveillance, among other things. How did that film come about?

RB:  I saw the photographs of Humphrey Spender who was the primary photographer for the Mass Observation Movement and read an interview with him that expressed his discomfort with photographing people surreptitiously. I had never heard a photographer speak about this so candidly, even though he had perfected a method to accomplish it.  I have always been uncomfortable with filming people unawares. Most of my work has been made with archival materials, landscape, architecture, very little with people.  It took me a long time to figure out how to photograph people. For me, it nearly always has to involve some kind of collaboration or at least an acknowledgement of the camera.

So I was interested in Mass Observation and Spender when I met photo historian Colin Harding in Bradford, England at the Museum of Film, Television and Radio, (now the National Media Museum) who showed me trick cameras from the turn of the century. I began to think about when photography left the studio, how portability radically changed people’s relationship to the camera and what photography could do. Although the film is largely about Mass Observation and surveillance, the energy of the film comes from that moment when the camera became mobile and occupied public space.  And it’s not just about the terror of surveillance but also the pleasures of looking and watching.



Rebecca Baron, still from How Little We Know of Our Neighbours, 2005

MAD: Speaking of the pleasure of watching, I have seen your film several times and my experience of it is that you allow the viewer space and time to think while we observe, which I find is a rare experience in cinema, well, especially with commercial film.  So while I was watching your film I was also thinking about and feeling the seduction of watching.  It is a particular pleasure to perceive yourself perceiving, experiencing a kind of dual consciousness.

I was recently re-watching Chris Marker’s San Soleil and there is a scene with on docks in Guinea Bissau, people are boarding and disembarking boats, milling about, some look directly at the camera, while others turn away. The narrator says something like “Is there anything more stupid, like they tell you in film school, to avoid people looking into the camera”.  I was really struck by that because as you know much documentary film and photography is founded on this notion that the candid moment is the truth as if the photographer is an invisible observer.  And if people are aware of being photographed than somehow the purity of the moment is compromised.   I get that and I think that has some value, but there is something remarkable in the acknowledgement of the relationship between subject and viewer. When the subject returns the gaze, as if to say, “I know you are looking at me”, the moment is uncomfortable but honest in its own way.  In How Little We Know of Our Neighbours there are scenes of watching people and when they discover they are being watched, the camera does not shut off or turn away.  There is self-implicating power in that unflinching gaze.



Rebecca Baron, still from How Little We Know of Our Neigbhbours, 2005

RB: I was talking about this with a photographer friend of mine and I was saying that I felt uncomfortable with the power dynamic and I don’t want people to feel that I am taking something from them, and she said “The discomfort is that you want something from them, but they can choose to give it to you or not”. I think she has a point. It is an encounter and potential collaboration or exchange even when it is not explicitly discussed. That is complex and interesting and How Little We Know of Our Neighbours taught me something about how to deal with my own discomfort and my own fascinations.

MAD:  The pleasures of observing are also a part of the new film Detour De Force about Ted Serios.  Could you first describe who Ted Serios was?

RB:  Ted Serios was a bellhop from Chicago who could produce Polaroid images of things that did not appear in the space they were taken.  He was called a ‘thoughtographer’, and was said to produce images from his mind.   He was taken under the wing of Dr. Jule Eisenbud, a well respected, published, Denver Freudian analyst interested in parapsychology, who basically staked his career on Ted Serios.   He spent years supporting him, housing him and studying him.  Ted was a charismatic, wild child, in the midst of a scientific community in Denver and produced hundreds of Polaroids of seemingly impossible images.

MAD:  Your film has no contemporary narrator; you allow the documents to speak for themselves, what voices we do hear come from the original archival material, the participants in the experiments, Ted Serios, Jule Eisenbud and others involved.  But there is careful and strategic editing so that certain ideas and themes become evident.  For me the film is a story about images, about what they mean, how we read and understand them.

RB:  At some level the film is about my encounter with the archival materials.  In much of my work there is a theme of the unspeakable or the unsayable.  Sometimes my experience with images from the past is beyond words and I wanted to recreate that sense of wonder and curiosity for the audience.  I didn’t want to make a biopic about Ted Serios, I wanted the film to be focused on what the materials were saying, but it was a hard film to figure out how to make because there is a limited amount of footage.  Initially I thought the film was going to be about the proximity of illusion and magic. I don’t mean magic tricks I mean real magic.  In the 16mm documents of Ted, you are witnessing the transference of something and no matter how many times you watch it, it appears and it’s inexplicable.  So what does it mean to have the camera there witnessing that transfer?

There is an interview with one of the doctors who says ‘If we assume that (photography) is a machine for the registration of energy transfer…”

MAD: My God! I wrote that down immediately! He proposes an entirely new definition of photography as if it were a matter of fact.

RB: Yes! It’s remarkable how Ted’s charisma and skills shaped the discussion around issues that he would not have been able to articulate himself.  I love that paradox.  Watching that group of men gravitate toward him is fascinating. Ted represents something to them that they yearn for: wildness, irrationality, abandon.  They surround him dressed in their tweed coats while massive amounts of alcohol are dripping from Ted’s shirt or bare chest. They want to hang with him because he is something they are not.  The social dynamics are every bit as interesting as the presence of the irrational.  In some ways, photography is not the primary subject of the film as I had anticipated. The social aspects became more and more prominent as I worked through the materials.



Rebecca Baron, Ted Serios in Detour De Force, 2014

MAD: In an odd way he is like an artist surrounded by dealers, curators and critics who don’t really understand what he is doing but are enthralled and want a piece of it, to shape it and present it to the world in a comprehensible manner.

RB:  I was doing some reading about magic and sleight of hand and it seems as if scientists and people who work in very rational contexts are more susceptible to sleight of hand than other people because they think if they cannot explain it then it must be real magic, and I think some of that is going on here. The film deliberately does not take a position on Ted Serios’ powers.

MAD: Yes, what would be the point of that? I have given talks about imagery and the paranormal and people often ask if Ted Serios’ ‘thoughtographs’ were real and how he did it.  My reply is usually, I don’t really know and I don’t really care, it’s not about that for me, it is more about the power dynamic between Ted and Eisenbud, and the use of photography’s evidentiary power to manufacture belief.

Ted and Eisenbud produced hundreds of Polaroids, many of them are failed experiments, either all black or all white, some are just blurry images of Ted staring at the camera, while others are mysterious images of people and buildings, but still blurry, diaphanous and often vignetted.  I am reminded of the origins of photography, the first images of Neipce or Fox Talbot or even earlier. Before the invention of photography there had been camera obscuras for hundreds of years, the challenge was to find a process to fix the image the camera obscura produced.  There was a kind of alchemical passion to invent photography, Geoffrey Batchen writes about this in his book A Burning Desire….

RB: Geoff Batchen was the one who first told me about the Mass Observation Movement…(Laughter)

MAD: That’s great! So there is a deep connection here.  It’s like Ted, Eisenbud and all those other guys on the periphery are trying to reinvent or redefine photography.

RB: I thought a lot about the popularization of the Polaroid camera coinciding with the time of these experiments. The instant image, the fact that it all happens in front of your eyes is connected to our experience of magic, to the preference for Polaroid, as opposed to other photographic formats, is part of that.   The 16mm camera used to make the documentary footage is completely focused on the Polaroid cameras much more so than on Ted. As if the cameras needed to be watched. There is an obsession with the question of whether some trickery is happening with the device.

MAD: Yes, when Jane Marsching and I curated Blur of the Otherworldly: Contemporary Art, Technology and the Paranormal our guiding interest was how technology shapes our notions of the paranormal.  A famous historical example would be the Fox sisters who communicated with the dead through rapping or knocking patterns. This occurred with the advent of Morse code and the spread of the telegraph as a means of disembodied communication.  A hundred years later, the Polaroid becomes widely available to the public and it becomes a medium and witness to the paranormal.

RB: This is close to what Geoff Batchen talks about, that desire produces the technology. In this case it is the co-existence of desire and technology; photography produces a kind of desire in us and that desire produces a kind of imagery.  I think that is totally at work in Ted’s images.

MAD:  As you mentioned, Ted is surrounded by these men, men who want to be close to his wildness, his unexplainability.  They are cultured and civilized while he is working class, a kind of urban primitive.  Their relationship is so intimate, they sit close, they light his cigarettes, Ted is often shirtless……

RB:  There is a homosocial quality to the atmosphere. There are only two images that include women in Detour de Force and there are very few images of women in all the footage I encountered in the archive. There is a shot in which one of the doctor’s wives just pops into the image, I guess the camera had just been turned on, and its like one of those early trick films in which people suddenly appear, and it is so startling to have a woman appear briefly within this completely male environment.   There is a second woman, Dr. Marie Wormington who is the skeptic; she’s got her cigarette and cat’s eye glasses basically saying, “I don’t think so!” (Laughter).  Eisenbud blithely dismisses her as a doubter and a sourpuss.  Women have no place in this circle.


Rebecca Baron, Jule Eisenbud in Detour De Force, 2014

MAD:  There are also class issues – the educated scientists studying their impetuous guinea pig.  When Ted does not perform according to Eisenbud’s expectations, he is scolded like a child and his rewards, mostly in the form of bottles of beer, are withheld until he gets it together.

RB: I think they had more of a complex relationship than it might seem.  There is a lot of mutual dependence going on, Jule needs Ted to study and Ted needs Jule because he is supporting him.  I interviewed Eisenbud’s son Rick who admitted that when Ted lived in their house he created a kind of havoc, but he thought that Ted and his father were truly friends, that the power dynamics were not as unbalanced as they may seem.

MAD: One last observation about Detour de Force is the idea of the Ted as primitive trying to enchant technology.  That is an old story, an ancient story, and here we have it again in vivid black and white 16mm film from the mid 1960s in some suburban Denver living room.

RB: And that scene in which he produces images of a Neanderthal man couldn’t be more perfect.  I did not have that scene in the film for a long time because I thought it might be too over the top.

MAD: But it’s not like Ted visited the Stone Age in his telepathic travels, it was supposedly his memory of a diorama at the Chicago Field Museum, right?  But the fact that it is a memory of a diorama, which is basically, a three-dimensional image just adds to the weirdness of it.


Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin, Lossless #2 (Meshes of the Afternoon), 2008

MAD: I wanted to talk about your Lossless series, which deals with digital loss and corruption of moving images.  Earlier today in class I screened Todd Haynes film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. I have never seen the original film projected, in fact its illegal to do so. I have a DVD copy of an old VHS which itself was a copy of a copy of a copy.  I am sure that Haynes never intended this but its compromised resolution, the decay that it accrued through that many copies, is part of its esthetics now, part of its warmth and charm.  This makes me think of the materiality of the transfer of representation and I sense a similar concern in your Lossless project.

RB:  The whole series is about what happens to a film image when it is turned into digital information, literally what is happening to the image, color information, motion, light.  This is a collaborative project with my husband, Douglas Goodwin who is an artist and a computer programmer. We started with an image from the Wizard of Oz, which neither one of us had ever seen projected, we had only seen it on television.

Lossless began after a conversation with filmmaker Ken Kobland. We were visiting him in his studio in 2007, and he was excited to show us the results of the side-by-side test shots he had made with a 16mm film camera and a prosumer MiniDV camera. Looking over the video Ken pointed at the dark blocks rapidly filling one corner of the frame and wryly said, ‘We’re not supposed to be able to see that!’ We all laughed, but we started to think about how we could investigate these differences in a concerted way. Lossless takes at the look formal, technical, social and, to a certain extent political issues raised by the production, distribution and consumption of digital images and sounds derived from analog sources. It’s an on-going project, but at present there are five pieces – a 16 mm loop and 4 digital movies that make up the series.


Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin, Lossless #3 (The Searchers), 2008

MAD:  Another thing I was thinking while watching the Lossless series was this idea that the spectacle of cinema fills our eyes to such a degree that we are often blind to what is actually going on perceptually and psychologically.

RB: A lot has been written about the phenomenology of cinema, and what is it for the digital?  Because watching a digital projection is different from watching a projected analog film.  Most people may not care about that but it is a different experience and I wonder about that. Cinema as defined as light passing through celluloid is going away, so it’s almost a moot question but how do we talk about the phenomenology of digital?  We don’t know how to articulate it yet.

MAD: Well isn’t that what art is for? Aren’t you exploring that with your films?  Back to Chris Marker for a moment, I saw La Jetee years ago projected only once. Then I viewed in on VHS for years and now when I show it to my students it’s a DVD version.  There is that famous sequence in La Jetee when it goes from still to moving imagery and the woman opens her eyes and looks into the camera. Ostensibly she is looking at the protagonist of the film but phenomenologically she is looking at us, the audience sitting in the future.  The future is different depending on whether we watched that film under the flickering light of the projector or the cold light of the digital.

RB: Doug does a kind of lecture / performance that explores the question of whether ‘’thoughtography’ is possible today.

MAD: Well let’s attempt to mentally project an image into my iPhone right now! (Laughter) You just need to pass me the Budweiser.

RB: Yes, can there be thoughtography given the ubiquity of cameras.  Robin Kelsey has recently written about a dramatic shift in how we now use and think about photography as an ephemeral mode of communication, rather than a fixed document that needs to be preserved. We use images in social media as short hand – someone texts you ‘what are you doing?’ and you take a photo of your breakfast. The photograph does not mean anything except to quickly communicate something and that is a real shift in how images are made, used and understood.

MAD: I have often wondered why Ted Serios needed a camera at all. Why didn’t he just directly transmit the image to the film?  But again, thinking about these experiments as a kind of performance then the camera is a prop for the evidentiary power of photography.  I waver in my attitude towards Ted and the whole phenomenon, at times I am full of wonder at others I am very skeptical.  I can never properly decide – it’s as if I don’t want to believe it yet I don’t want to dismiss it, I want to leave the door open.

RB:  We interviewed Florie Lehrburger for the film. She is the daughter of one of the witnesses. When she was a child, Ted used to come to her house and produce thoughtographs.  She said that she would rather live in a world where Ted Serios is possible, and that says it all for me. I want that too.

MAD: Whether one believes in what Ted Serios was purported to do; he was possible. He lived, he intrigued many, and he raised questions about the untapped powers of the human mind.  We continue to talk about him almost 50 years later; his images test our credulity and sense of wonder. Ted lives.


Rebecca Baron