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Did this bellboy have paranormal powers? No one can prove otherwise

Ted Serios was a bellboy at the Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, but he probably wasn’t the type of employee they expected. While working as a valet, he had a habit of enjoying rides in guests’ cars. He would take home a dollar or two while operating the cash registers. He occasionally ran to the police. He had a history of alcoholism and erratic behavior, and was declared schizophrenic during a brief stay at Chicago State Hospital.

He also claimed to have incredible powers.

Some said paranormal abilities.

He would stare sternly into a camera. He would stiffen, growl, twist his arms, distort his expression, and project an image from his mind onto the raw film, claiming to be focusing on his thoughts. At least that was his claim. “Come in, baby,” he whispered to the cameras. “Come on, you son of a bitch…” Then he would collapse into a chair, exhausted.

It was so dramatic, it was pretty easy to roll your eyes.

But Serios would do this with Polaroid instant film, a relatively new process. And produce instant results: foggy, abstract dreamscapes of the Art Institute, the Water Tower, Westminster Abbey, a bird’s-eye view of the Pentagon. Numerous journalists, photographers and even magicians came forward to explain that the whole thing was a scam; But 60 years later, it is still difficult to prove conclusively that Serios is a scam.

He certainly had some carnival in his blood—his father, a Greek immigrant, toured the Midwest as a professional wrestler and settled the family in Chicago when Serios was a child. Except for a few years spent in Denver, where Serios’s supposed talents were considered a renowned research laboratory, Serios spent most of his life in Illinois; He died in 2006 at the age of 88 while living in the small western town of Quincy on the Iowa border. He was a staple of C-list media in the 60s and a campfire story in the 90s. A 1999 Tribune article concluded with the writer wondering where Serios was and whether he was still studying the “science of thought”:

“What if you’re there, Ted?”

Twenty years later, the story took an interesting turn. Serious and generally paranormal photography, so common since the 19th century that it has become a kind of semi-photographic genre, is now admired by art historians and exhibited in major museums not for the miraculous qualities of the images but for their work. itself.

“I actually thank Ted Serios’ photographs for encouraging me to become interested in photography,” said Paul Roth, director of the Image Center photography museum at Toronto Metropolitan University, which exhibited a collection of Serios’ work earlier this year. As a child, Roth saw Serios’ mind photographs in a documentary about the paranormal and said, “Even though Ted never intended it, it really struck me how magical and full of magic photography could be in so many ways.” Of course, this is a feeling we all take for granted now. It seemed to show proof that you could travel inside your mind and put thoughts on film; an extraordinary statement about photography itself, long considered the true proof of authenticity. Ted was the purest metaphor for this idea; “It was like a fairground version of what we think about the internet now.”

The social media cliché goes like this: If there’s no photo, it didn’t happen.

Unless photography is more complicated than that.

The results of Ted Serios’ thoughtography have been part of exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie in Paris. There’s even a book accompanying his Toronto show this month called “Ted Serios: The Mind’s Eye.” Emily Hauver, who organized this exhibition, is a curator at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who began collecting Serios’ work in 2002. Hauver said that although her photos were not intended as art, they were “right on trend.” history of the medium. He notes that they came at the same time as Robert Frank’s “personal and poetic” black-and-white photographs from his book “The Americans” and that they somehow anticipated the “dreaminess, distortion, and uncertainty” of later photographers.

Ted Serios images published in the new book "Ted Serios: The Mind's Eye." No one has been able to prove that their images are fake or not of paranormal abilities.

Moreover, photographs “still remain relevant today in a culture where photography is ubiquitous. How many of us send a photo to a friend, aiming to convey all the thoughts? He also adds that Serios’ photographs appear “as if they emerged from the depths of someone’s unconscious.” After all, surrealist artists insisted that their works came through an unconscious, automatic hand.

Seriousos skipped the middleman.

In fact, in a way, it was unintentionally expanding our understanding of photography to see beyond the range of the human eye. By the end of the 19th century, photography could show “the different stages of the horse’s gallop, the crystalline structures found in human saliva, its interior,” said Katerina Korola, an art historian at the University of Minnesota and a lecturer at the University of Chicago. The image of the body revealed by X-rays. She said the photograph revealed so much that it “sparked speculation about what other hidden phenomena the photographic image might bring to light.”

Psychic photography was a difficult task, but so were X-rays once upon a time.

Thus, throughout the 1960s, Serios was studied by researchers at the Field Museum and Art Institute, the Illinois Association for Psychical Research and the National Association of Hypnotists, the Borg-Warner Research Center in Des Plaines, the University of Virginia School of Medicine, and most extensively at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. is. He was later profiled in Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search of…” paranormal TV series and became the basis for an unproduced biopic of “X-Files” creator Chris Carter. It was also disavowed in a two-part exposé by Popular Photography magazine and called a fake by the late magician James “Amazing” Randi, who told the Tribune: “I always found Ted to be a kindly hustler.” But as Hauver and others note, no one has found solid evidence of fraud.

Or proof that he takes photos with his mind.

In the early 1970s, Serios was telling reporters that he was tired of being the party number.

Ted Serios images published in the new book "Ted Serios: The Mind's Eye."

“Was Ted smart enough to make this up?” asked. “Did he do this to avoid going to jail? Was it alcohol-related? A psychotic episode? If it was a scam, why didn’t he make money off of it? Why did he finally stop? I feel like we’ll never get to the end of this.”

Ted Serios actually intended to make money from this. A kind of. He got into psychic photography after a bellboy friend at the Hilton tried to hypnotize him and encourage him to paint locations far outside Chicago. His colleague asked Serios, who dropped out of school in the fifth grade, to use his skills to locate a 19th-century pirate’s treasure. Serios later said that when they practiced with a camera, they were shocked to see images appear on film; not exactly 19th century pirate gold, but Something appeared.

He submitted himself to tests by the Illinois Association for Psychical Research, which brought his findings to Fate, a long-running (now defunct) paranormal magazine based in Highland Park. Fate introduced Serios to Denver psychoanalyst Jule Eisenbaud, who was interested in paranormal events. When Eisenbaud visited Chicago on business, he met Serios at the Palmer Hotel and put Serios through various tests.

Eisenbaud was holding a Polaroid Ground Camera a few feet from Serios’ head. He asked Serios to paint various images. Saying that he works better when drunk, Serios put aside the amount of beer. At first the photos were blank. But hours later, Serios painted a painting of the Water Tower. He went on to take a few more photos, including blurry frames of Chicago. Sometimes Serios created images looking directly into the lens, but mostly the photos were filled with muted shadows that were closer to suggestions of place and object.

Serios would often roll a piece of cardboard or plastic into a tube and point it at the camera; He insisted on directing his thoughts better. Of course, although the tube was not always used by Serios, it became the focus of naysayers who thought Serios had managed to slide transparencies between its layers and somehow work his magic.

But Eisenbaud became a true believer.

Images published in Ted Serios' new book

He brought Serios to Denver and, after four years of testing, dressed him in overalls, tied him to chairs, tested him naked, and placed him in rooms away from the camera, sometimes outside the building. Eisenbaud even tested Serios in a Faraday cage to block electromagnetic fields and produced a trove of documents, most of which went to the University of Maryland collection, that determined the origins of some of the images Serios produced, including Field Museum dioramas. But by the late 1960s, Eisenbaud’s tests had spawned a best-selling book (“The World of Ted Serios: ‘Intellectual’ Studies of an Extraordinary Mind”) and an exhausted subject.

Ted Serios slowly faded away like an old Polaroid.

Those photos remain.

Prominent foreheads. Shaded coffee tables. Flashes of meaningless movement.

Almost all of them are ordinary, except for the method and some light. Not exactly art photography. It’s not foreign art. Barely representative. Rather, they resemble early photographic experiments. When I asked Blake Stimson, an art historian at the University of Illinois at Chicago, about early reactions to photography, he mentioned scholars who thought of photographs as “sun drawings” and Walt Whitman who thought of photographers as “sun drawings.” The sun falls around something helpless.” It looks like Serios’ images. But so is the use of the paranormal in photography, from 19th-century “spirit photography” that claimed to place the ghosts of dead Civil War soldiers in family portraits to more contemporary images that claimed to capture the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot.

But this is fraud.

Serios did not appear to have tampered with the film itself after the footage was shot. (Some insisted that he was working with previously shot films, but they still couldn’t prove it.) Serios wasn’t even the first person to try to photograph human thoughts; Japanese and French photographs had been tried decades before he started working as a bellboy. But Paul Roth sees much in Serios’ images: the imperfection of toy cameras and the images created by cracks in camera shells. “The aesthetic of Ted’s photographs resonates in so many different ways today that it doesn’t really matter to me whether Ted Serios is a fraud or a genius.

“I find it useless to even decide whether this is happening or not. it was a fraud. Once you do that, the joy of this story is sucked out of you. Whatever longing we had for other worlds is gone. “I prefer to think of Ted Serios’ story as a mystery wrapped in science, wrapped in carnival.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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