A Ghost Story: Photographs

A Ghost Story: Photographs
Bret Curry
2021
A24 Films
Temper Books

8 × 11.5 in. closed
136 pages
Smythe-sewn hardcover
Offset inside with foil-stamped cover
Edition of 500

A Ghost Story: Photographs, front cover. A line drawing of a sheet ghost is foil-stamped on black bookcloth with silver glitter.

We expect ghost stories to scare us. Whether they’re shared on screen or around a campfire, we expect our surroundings to be dark, making the eeriness even creepier. Ghost stories should leave us looking over our shoulder, keeping all the lights on. But not this one. Curry presents a passive, spectating ghost that is the embodiment of the memory of a past life and relationship. As readers, we are invited to reflect on what ghostly memories are following us, and what role we have as spectators.

A Ghost Story: Photographs is a photobook that represents and documents the 2017 feature film A Ghost Story. In it, we get photographs of the set, crew and their equipment, cast both in and out of character, and stills from actual scenes, most of which are close-up or medium shots. The book can stand alone, but reading a short synopsis of the film provides helpful context to the characters. This tangible version of the film is heavy even for its coffee table size, but is relatively short. There is plenty of whitespace to show off the thick, semi-gloss paper. Interspersed are black pages with short quotations from Virginia Woolf’s A Haunted House. The only other text, besides a short introduction by the film’s director David Lowery, is a few single-page excerpts from the screenplay. The layouts vary, with one or two images per spread; some include a full page of whitespace and others feature images that reach over the gutter onto the second page.

A Ghost Story: Photographs, inside spread. Verso is blank. Recto shows a black and white photo of a man playing dead on the floor, wearing a T-shirt printed with the book's cover image.

Although the black cover is reminiscent of the darkness with which we surround ourselves to make ghost stories scarier, the playful cover image of a sheet ghost by Casey Affleck, who plays the ghost, and the glitter in the bookcloth hint at the tone of the book. Instead of jump scares and a violent backstory, this book reveals as its ghost a past companion that looks in on our protagonist with longing and love. I opened this book expecting a single ghost story. But the further I read, the more I felt myself to be the ghost, invisibly observing the contents of the photographs as if floating through the house myself alongside the protagonist’s deceased husband. Like the viewer, he watches the protagonist without being able to interact with her.

The calm domesticity of these images recalls the opening scenes of many haunted house movies, where the family (or, in this case, a single woman) moves into a perfectly lovely house and everything is going well until it isn’t. But Bret Curry’s photographs stay softly lit, devoid of the shadowy fears we expect from the genre. Even in the darker black-and-white images, the shadows serve more to enhance the lighted subjects. The domesticity of the images is further enhanced by Curry’s use of closeups; the intimate framing puts us right in the house with our protagonist. We become ghosts who watch her. A great haunting movie typically makes me dread all the unexplained sounds in my house, turning them into ghosts and ghouls creeping around the corner. Instead, after reading this book, the ghosts I see in my apartment are the memories I’ve made here. This book is no horror story, after all, but a romance between a ghost and his widow.

A Ghost Story: Photographs, inside spread. Verso is blank. Recto shows a warm-toned close-up photograph of a couple cuddling.

This one-sided relationship between the ghost and the protagonist is as painful as unrequited love, as the ghost is literally invisible to the person he desires. Still, his presence in the house is light and playful. In a typical ghost story, it is often guilt, greed, and abuse that haunt a home, but this ghost is the memory of a loving, gentle husband, a manifestation of a memory wrapped up in the sheets of the former marital bed.

The ghost itself is both serious and silly. The tone of the photographs — depicting closeups of abandoned objects and unsmiling subjects — is often serious. But the somewhat-cartoonish ghost is a fully-grown adult under a sheet with eye holes, much like the Peanuts characters out for Halloween. The death of the character is tragic, as are his forced passivity and disconnection as a ghost, but we can also see him as a person in costume, particularly when we see the film crew adjusting his sheet or otherwise interacting with the actor. Throughout the book, scenes from the movie are interrupted by scenes from its production, where equipment and crew members remind us that what we are seeing is staged.

A Ghost Story: Photographs, inside spread. Verso and recto show horizontal photographs of broken furniture and demolition detritus in a derelict indoor space, with ample white space above and below.

These crew members haunt the house more as poltergeists than as passive sheet ghosts. The film’s characters are fully unaware of these watchers, but they actually have control over the situation, manipulating not only their equipment, but the characters themselves. We sometimes see the crew, but more often see evidence of their presence: their equipment set up to better see and document the characters they control. The crew members’ invisibility then comes from their control over the situation instead of adding to their powerlessness. Like the sheet ghost, the crew is both serious and silly. The high value of their equipment and the detailed nature of the setup is juxtaposed against someone playing dead in a T-shirt printed with the cover drawing.

A Ghost Story: Photographs, inside spread. Verso is blank. Recto shows a photo taken through a doorway of two crew members adjusting the sheet on a sheet ghost.

As readers, we have only a small bit of control over our experience. We can flip back to various points in the book and decide how long to spend on each spread, but Curry dictates the book’s sequence — and its contents. In fact, we don’t even get page numbers to better orient ourselves within the book, and instead float through the pages almost timelessly.

What we are left with at the end of the book is a glimpse into production as well as a produced work of art in itself. After spending time between these pages, I cannot help but think of the memories in my life that have become ghosts following me around in my apartment, and whose houses the memory of me haunts.

One response to “A Ghost Story: Photographs”

  1. Phyllis Chiasson Avatar
    Phyllis Chiasson

    This is a well written book review that highlights the artistry of the book as well as its purpose.

    Like

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