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The images are contextualized by a selection of notes and letters written by Serios's chief supporter, defender, champion, and sometime minder, a psychiatrist named Jule Eisenbud. Eisenbud (1908-99) was a clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado Medical School and a charter member of the Parapsychological Association; he wrote numerous articles on psychiatry and psychoanalysis based on his experiments with telepathy. However, his best-known (and only commercially successful) book was The World of Ted Serios: "Thoughtographic" Studies of an Extraordinary Mind (1967).
In this book, Eisenbud describes how he worked with Serios. Their method varied considerably, but it turned out that Serios was able to produce images using various kinds of cameras and in many different situations, sometimes under quite stringent test conditions. Most often, however, the two men would get no results at all. At other times they would get what Serios called "blackies," in which the film would look as though it had not been exposed at all, or "whities," in which the film would appear overexposed. In a few rare cases, however, bizarre images would emerge, perhaps in a fuzzy circle of light or a ghostly shape. Sometimes they would be quite clear, particularly when Serios was attempting to produce the image of a specific physical monument or building. Still, even the clearest images had an uncanny texture and quality. On occasion, volunteers were asked to attend the experiment with a photograph sealed in a cardboard-backed manila envelope; Serios then managed to reproduce the image with no prior knowledge of it.
The question most people will have about thoughtographs is whether they are fraudulent, and part of the exhibit addresses criticisms of the phenomenon. Suspicions were certainly aroused by the fact that Serios preferred to take his thoughtographs with the aid of what he referred to as a "gizmo"—something connecting his body to the camera. Normally, he used a small section of tubing fitted with a piece of photo squeegee, or a rolled-up piece of plastic from the Polaroid wrapper.
Critics claimed Serios may have used the "gizmo" to conceal a small marble with a photograph attached to it, or a piece of previously exposed film. There were occasions, however, on which Serios did not hold the camera or the "gizmo," both of which were in the hands of an investigator. He could produce an image on a camera that was some distance away from him (as far as 66 feet in one instance), and he even produced images when the camera was in another room altogether. He submitted to being strip-searched and even—on one occasion—was dressed in a rubber suit to rule out any photographic trick using magnetism. While many people, including Eisenbud himself, have produced similar images using gimmick lenses and transparencies, no one has been able to do so in an undetectable fashion.
Other images could have been obtained only as a result of knowledge or perspectives unavailable at the time. For example, after seeing magazine photographs taken from Voyager 2 of Ganymede, a moon of Jupiter, Eisenbud suddenly recognized some of Serios's previously unidentified thoughtographs as images of the moons of Jupiter. That made sense, as Serios had long been obsessed with Voyager 2; what did not make sense, however, was that those thoughtographs had been produced years before the Voyager 2 pictures were taken. He also occasionally produced pictures that would be possible only from a midair perspective, including an exposure showing part of Westminster Abbey, and an image of a Hilton hotel in Denver.
Strange as it may seem, such "thought" photographs do exist, and a selection of them are on display in an exhibition through March 27 at the Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.