It is not a place you would normally expect to find a curator preparing for a major photography show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. But a few summers ago, Pierre Apraxine was camped out on the third floor of a rambling town house on West 73rd Street near Central Park, the headquarters of the American Society for Psychical Research, a 120-year-old repository of the paranormal whose founders included the philosopher William James.
In the world of photo collecting and scholarship, Apraxine is nothing less than an institution. For almost two decades, he served as the eyes, ears and auction proxy for the philanthropist Howard Gilman, who built a collection -- recently acquired by the Met -- that is widely considered to be one of the most important in the world.
On this particular day, however, Apraxine was working in the service not of photography but of the sixth sense. He had folded his lanky 1.89m frame into a small, steel soundproof booth illuminated by a red lamp. Halves of pingpong balls were taped over his eyes and headphones hissing white noise were placed over his ears. In a room nearby sat a fellow curator and friend, Sophie Schmit, who was given a randomly selected image on a piece of paper. The goal was for Apraxine, sealed in his chamber -- lulled into a deeply relaxed condition known as a ganzfeld state -- to receive the image that Schmit was sending. As it turned out, he performed fairly well, describing several images that corresponded to the ones Schmit was holding.
When the positions were reversed, with Schmit in the chamber, the pair did even better -- Schmit described with sometimes eerie accuracy the image he was mentally willing her to see.
Apraxine grew up on a family estate in Estonia where supernatural goings on often seemed to be part of the natural course of the day. Does Apraxine, 70, really believe in things that go bump in the night? During lunch recently at the Met, Abraxine looked up from his plate and stared out into Central Park for a moment. "I have a formula, an answer for that that is ready-made," he said. "I believe you can see a ghost, but that doesn't mean I believe in ghosts."
He paused and elaborated. "I remain a noncommitted observer." But Apraxine has been a curious and open-minded observer almost all of his life, consulting psychics, undergoing hypnosis, reading books and magazines about the paranormal and, once, visiting a voodoo ceremony in Haiti. So his involvement in organizing the show at the Met -- The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, a fascinating survey of the ways in which photography has been used to try to prove the existence of the supernatural -- is more than just a professional or aesthetic exercise for him. At the least, it is one of those coincidences Apraxine says he decidedly does not believe in.
"There is nothing accidental -- at least in my life," he says. His early adult interest in occult photography grew out of his work as a collector, not a spiritual seeker, he said. In the early 1970s, when he began to work with Gilman to build a world-class photo collection, the strength of the Gilman holdings was in 20th-century work by photographers like Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Apraxine's mission was to start trolling backwards, buying good pictures from the 19th century, stretching all the way back to photography's infancy in the 1830s. To the surprise of both men, who had assumed that most of the best of 19th-century photography had already been bought by museums, masterpieces were still for sale around the world, and many were being sold for what now seem to be laughably small sums.