Angela Deane Paints Playful Ghosts onto Vintage Family Photographs
Artist Angela Deane isn’t afraid of ghosts. According to her, they live among and within us. “I see memories as ghosts,” she explained, from her home in Baltimore. “Ghosts that travel with us as past experiences—moments from our lives.”
Deane’s spellbinding series of painted found pictures, “Ghost Photographs” (2012–19), embodies this concept. In one piece, she’s painted semi-translucent white cloaks onto five figures from a December 1965 snapshot; as a result, five little ghosts gather close together around a birthday cake, piped with white and pink frosting. Others show jaunty spirits lying supine on beaches, floating languidly in turquoise pool water, standing triumphantly atop mountains, or huddled together while spinning on Disneyland’s Teacup ride.
The images are intensely charming, a tinge eerie, and deliciously nostalgic. They’ve been used by Gucci to promote a new line of sweaters; graced the cover of singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers’s most recent album, Stranger in the Alps; and this coming April, they’ll all come together in Deane’s first artist book, The Ghosts Within.
Deane began the series in 2012, during an artist residency in a small New Mexico town quirkily named “Truth or Consequences.” During her stay, she’d planned on making collages from found photographs scavenged at garage sales and on eBay. But she mailed herself the wrong box of images, and after she spontaneously turned a vintage snapshot of a family vacation into a happy gathering of ghosts, a different project took shape. “Within a couple of hours, I was looking at around 40 of them,” she recalled. “They were simple paintings, but they had this evocative effect.”
Deane had already been interested in the power of old family photos to channel history and inspire nostalgia. Adding ghosts became a way to highlight these effects, and to allow viewers to imagine themselves or their ancestors as part of each image. “I wanted to find a way to have us all jump into the pictures,” she explained. “By taking away the specifics of who the people are, we feel a familiarity. This could be your memory, this could be mine. It’s open for another body to jump into these little ghosts and take part in the scenario.”
Deane’s images have the power to stoke old memories. One work shows a little ghost poised to swing a bat at a piñata, egged on by a crowd of surrounding spirits. Another group joyously rides a swingset, their white forms fluttering in the wind. Still another basks in a glittery patch of ocean, with one ghost squeezed into a bright orange pool float.
Deane only uses color photographs in the series; for her, their vivid hues embody the tenacity and strength of memory. Color also dashes any notion that her ghosts are ill-intentioned, or represent death alone. “I had experimented with black-and-white [images], but I found that they look very morbid,” she explained. “With color, it feels like the joy of life.”
But the images also tap into more complicated feelings of nostalgia and longing. When Deane was young, her father died, and her siblings, who were a decade older than her, left for college. “We kind of grew up in two different families. They had a full family, and I just had my mom,” she said. “I used to spend so much time going through the photo albums…looking at these family memories I hadn’t been born into; memories I’d try to inject myself into.” In a similar way, Deane hopes that viewers will see something of themselves in the friendly ghosts haunting her paintings—unidentified spirits for them “to project upon,” she said.
For her part, Deane returns most frequently to the images that picture bodies of water, where ghosts float under the sun, unencumbered by gravity. “There’s a freedom when the body is floating in water that connects to the idea of a spirit,” she explained. “There’s something about water that removes you from your ordinary life.” The same could be said about the experience of gazing at Deane’s ghosts: You leave your reality for a moment, and find yourself in the gauzy world of memories.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.