(German, b. 1982; resides in Chicago, IL)
Barbara Diener’s series Phantom Power (2013–17) draws on her personal experience of mourning a close family member and a larger desire to investigate a past that will never be fully accessible in the present. Her photographs engage the mysterious forms the dead remain with us in barely tangible yet profound ways.
While exploring rural towns in Illinois in 2013, Diener met a woman named Kathy who is living on her husband's farm, which is believed to be haunted by his ancestors. Kathy regularly attempts to communicate with the ghosts using technological devices designed to penetrate beyond what is perceptible to the unaided senses. Feeling a special kindship with Kathy and her land, Diener began observing and photographing her new friend’s pursuits. An early photograph in the series, Tracing Spirits (Stairwell) (2015), searches directly for visible clues of the supernatural. A ghost-hunting tool called a laser grid casts green points of light across a forest scene. The eerie matrix foretells the device’s purpose: to detect the shadows of ghosts. Yet in the image, no ghost shadows appear. Like most images in the series, the photo contends with spectral forces obliquely as it captures a moment when the possibility of encountering a trace of the dead is ripe but not actually visible.
Phantom Power uses suggestive aberrations, double exposures, and camera tricks—hallmarks of ghost photography that can be easily explained by a trained photographer, but which have long been fodder for amateurs and pseudoscientists seeking to confirm the presence of the dead as something that lies just beyond human senses. By employing these methods, Diener draws on an expansive history of photographers who play on the medium’s unique relationship with the concept of truth.
Barbara Diener completed her MFA in Photography from Columbia College Chicago (2013) and BFA in Photography from California College of the Arts (2006). Her work has been included in numerous exhibited both nationally and internationally, such as at the Alibi Fine Art, Chicago, IL (2016, 2015); the Griffin Museum of Photography, Winchester, MA (2013); Lillstreet Art Center, Chicago, IL (2013); SOArt Gallery, Ruston, LA (2013); Pingyao Photo Festival, China (2012); and the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center, Philadelphia, PA (2012). Diener is a winner of the Flash Forward 2013 award and a recipient of the Albert P. Weisman award from Columbia College Chicago in both 2012 and 2013.
--This text is adapted from a larger text written by Allison Grant, Assistant professor of photography, Department of Art and Art History, University of Alabama and former assistant curator of education and exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College Chicago.