Eerie Photos Still Discussed Decades Later
By | August 26, 2021
Lady And Her Horse On A Snowy Day In 1899
What is it about haunting photos from the past that makes them so impossible to forget? Is it their dreamlike quality? Or is it the way in which they show a past that we don't see in history books? These rare photos from the past show not only a different time and place, but a different kind of world all together.
On first glance these chilling photos seem otherworldly, but look closer... Not only will you find an enchanting artistry in the following images but photos that will send tingles up your spine.
Millions, maybe even billions of photos are taken every day. However, the photos that manage to stick in our minds years later have an inherently hypnagogic quality. They show the way that the world really was in the past. Don't be afraid... look deeply and take a trip to the past.
This image of a woman chasing her horse through the snow is chilling, but not just because of the clearly frigid temperatures. Felix Thiollier captured a moment of unease and desire in this strange photo. Who is this woman, and why is she running through the snow with her horse?
It's likely that she's just training her horse, but the snow in this photo adds to its dream-like structure. The snapshot has the look of something that you would see moments before you wake up and shake the sleep from your eyes. It's a moment in time lost in a fog, no wonder it's so effecting to viewers.
Occasion for Diriment, 1962
Meatyard was known for arranging his family members alongside props like masks and dolls to create chilling images. Much of Meatyard's work is meant to be taken as comedy, but without context his photos are straight up nightmare fuel. That's why his images remain so startling to this day.
Jimmy “One Eye” Collins After Arraignment, 1946
Crime photography like the stark black and white snapshot here lets the viewer into the unseen places of the underworld. Not only does it allows the viewer to get close to the action without actually getting hurt, but it shows the real figures that keep the criminal underworld running. It takes a brave photographer to get so close to someone like this and capture them in such perfect focus.
Ducks gather as a boy watches from a distance
Félix Thiollier only started working as a photographer in his mid-30s, but his style was in place from earliest photos. Each of his snapshots feels like it's floating, as if it's pulled from the outer most reaches of memory. It's as if he had a direct line to his artistry, what a beautiful and chilling gift.
Pamplona, Spain—Carnival, 1972
Carnival may be a normal celebration to the people of Spain, but when viewed through Koudelka's lens it becomes something far more surreal. This image of children playing in the brick streets as men wearing giant heads march around them is chilling in spite of the laughing faces all around. Is it real or is it something else?
An early hipster with a cinched waist poses in front of the Eifel Tower
It's most likely that this woman didn't really cinch her waist the size of her neck with a piece of clothing. In all likelihood she (or a photo artist) manipulated the image to make the subject's waist look impossibly small. Look closely at the areas surrounding this woman's waist, the image is somewhat distorted and the legs of the Eifel Tower suddenly stop at her arm. It's well done early Photoshop, but not perfect.
At Shottery Brook, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 1890
Capturing water from a well or a nearby stream may sound easy but it's acually a time consuming chore. These women would have had to spend much of the morning gathering water to make sure that they had everything that was required for a full day of drinking, cooking, and bathing. It's a photo like this that reminds us not to take modern amenities for granted.
A thoughtful gargoyle looks over the Square Jean-XXIII, Paris
Aside from a beautiful garden, the square features a neo-Gothic fountain that makes it look like the smaller brother of the cathedral at Notre Dame. Stone creatures aren't only found on the cathedral, they adorn the fountain in the square. Three angels stand victorious on the fountain over a figure that represents heresy.
Figure contemplating the mountains of Menzenc
This photo looks like something from a dream. A world of fog and rock that only comes to you hours after you close your eyes and find yourself in a world that's both unreal and familiar. To think that this is a real place is absolutely fascinating.
A traveller and his horse, Romania, 1968
Koudelka eventually took a position with Magnum, but he was adamant about sticking to his choice of only photographing things that were interesting to him. He explained:
For fifteen years, I didn’t work for anybody. I never accepted any assignment, never photographed for money. I took photographs just for myself. I lived on the minimum. I didn’t need much: a good sleeping bag and some clothes – one pair of shoes, two pairs of socks and a pair of trousers for one year. One jacket and two shirts lasted me for three years.
An early drag queen strikes a pose
During the era of vaudeville female impersonation became a mainstay in theaters across the western world. Julian Eltinge was one of the most well known drag performers at the time, although it's not likely that he or any other performer of his ilk would have been able to take their performance to the next step. Drag continued to be an underground phenomenon until the 1990s when artists like RuPaul really helped bring this performance art into the mainstream.
Charles Sodokoff and Arthur Webber use their top hats to hide their faces, 1942
There's a darkness present in this photo. What did these men do? What was their crime? Fellig's photo doesn't judge, it only captures a fleeting moment in time. He once said of his work:
People are so wonderful that a photographer has only to wait for that breathless moment to capture what he wants on film… and when that split second of time is gone, it’s dead and can never be brought back.
Untitled, Josef Koudelka 1962-1968
Curator John Szarkowski said of Koudelka's work in Eastern Europe:
Koudelka’s pictures seem to concern themselves with prototypical rituals, and a theater of ancient and unchangeable fables. Their motive is perhaps not psychological but religious. Perhaps they describe not the small and cherished differences that distinguish each of us from all others, but the prevailing circumstance that encloses us.
Carnival in Olomouc, Czechoslovakia, 1968
In a retrospective of his work Koudelka explained that he didn't want a home to worry about, he just wanted to be on the road snapping photos of anything that struck his fancy. He explained:
I didn’t have a flat – I didn’t need one. On the contrary, I tried to avoid owning anything. I didn’t pay rent. I realized that I could travel on the money that I would have spent on a flat. What I needed most was to travel so that I could take photographs…I knew that I didn’t need much to function – some food and a good night’s sleep. I learned to sleep anywhere and under any circumstances. I had a rule: ‘Don’t worry where you are going to sleep, so far you’ve slept almost every night, you’ll sleep again tonight. And if you sleep outdoors, you have two choices – to be afraid that something might happen to you and then you won’t sleep well, or accept the fact that anything might happen and get a good night’s sleep,' which is the most important thing you need to function well the next day.
Woman riding side saddle, 19th century
As odd as this photo is, it gives us some insight into the history of horse riding in that during the 19th century women were expected to only ride side saddle. It was considered indecent for a woman to ride astride dating back to the 14th century. It wasn't until the early 20th century that society deemed it A-OK for a woman to break the tyranny of the side saddle.
Scherzo di Follia circa 1860s
The Countess loved to be photographed and this is just one of more than 700 photos taken of her by Pierson. Rather than allow the photographer to create a mise en scene the Countess would direct Pierson. She knew her angles, she knew her lighting, and she knew that photographs of her could make her more of a presence in society.
Landscape with Figure, circa 1880 - 1882
The photos of Félix Thiollier all feel like a fleeting memory wrapped in the fog of time. His ability to make the real feel like something imagined wasn't appreciated in his time, but today his photos make the past feel like something out of another dimension. He didn't so much as capture an accurate representation of his surroundings as he made the world around look the way it did in his head.
Two cowboys hold hands in sheep skin skirts
If you take a look around online you'll see plenty of theories, but there's no way to know if this was just a fad in the photography world of the 1890s. The sheepskin skirts are definitely the strangest part of this photo, what's their purpose beyond warmth? This shot is genuinely fascinating, mostly because we'll never know the exact circumstances surrounding it.
Shadow, New York City, 1966
In 2019, Friedlander explained why he was drawn to photography and his misconception of what he would actually be doing:
I always wanted to be a photographer. I was fascinated with the materials. But I never dreamed I would be having this much fun. I imagined something much less elusive, much more mundane.
The Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, County Mayo, Ireland, 1972
The whole thing began back in the 5th century when Saint Patrick made the climb and began a 40 day ritual of fasting and penance. While this story may sound apocryphal, an archaeological dig in the 1990s uncovered a chapel that may have been used by Patrick. It's a beautiful sight that inspires people to this day.
Decor for a fete or fair, Saint-Etienne
Taken years before photographs of industrial sites were seen as having artistic merit, Thiollier's work in the cityscapes paved the way for numerous photographers. At the time the photographer referred to his series of images of cityscapes as maps of "worthless" locations. These images show the empty, the desolate, and the dystopian.
Black dog in the snow, 1987
Taken by Josef Koudelka, this chilling photo was snapped after he took a position with Magnum Photography. Rather than take assignments for various jobs he traveled the world photographing life in the streets of Europe, cataloguing a life that no longer exists in the 21st century. While speaking about what drives him to take such stark and surreal photos of real life he explained:
I never accepted any assignment, never photographed for money. I took photographs just for myself.
Fog and sky, 19th century
Thiollier's obsessions weren't simply with portrait photography or capturing nature, but with the way that nature blended with the modern world. He created an aesthetic all to his own that was both dreamy and incredibly rustic. Unrecognized in his time, today Thiollier's work is incredibly influential.
Emma Thiollier painting on top of one of the towers of Notre Dame, 1907
As frightening as these creatures are they do serve a purpose. When it rains over Notre Dame water runs down the roof and off the gargoyles, keeping the walls from getting too much water damage. These ancient stone creatures don't just watch over France, they keep Notre Dame safe.
Covered car – Long Beach, California, 1955
When Frank came to America in the 1950s he found that the American automobile was as much a means of transport as it was a key to freedom. The poet Jack Kerouac wrote of this photo:
Car shrouded in fancy expensive designed tarpolian to keep soots of no-soot Malibu from falling on new simonize job as owner who is two-dollar-an-hour carpenter snoozes in house with wife, and TV, all under palm trees for nothing, in the cemeterial California night.
Exiles by Josef Koudelka, taken August, 1968
Koudelka's photos of the Soviet invasion were the beginning of his "Exiles" series. In 2015, he explained his process and the drive to capture every moment of an event before moving on:
To be in exile is simply to have left one’s country and to be unable to return. Every exile is a different, personal experience. Myself, I wanted to see the world and photograph it. That’s forty-five years I’ve been travelling. I’ve never stayed anywhere more than three months. When I found no more to photograph, it was time to go.
In context, the photo is somewhat normal. There's nothing eerie about a girl running around an empty city, it's the way that the artist frames the subject with buildings towering over her and waiting to close in that make everything about this photo seem as if it's a snapshot of a nightmare. It's a one of a kind moment, one that audiences will never forget.
The lovers of the Bastille column, 1957
Ronis often captured photos of young lovers, even though he knew what his critics would say. He wrote in his journal:
'Photographing couples on the banks of the Seine in spring — what a cliché!’ But why deprive yourself of the pleasure? Every time I encounter lovers, my camera smiles; let it do its job.
Kids in a Box on the Street, New York City, 1942
The photography of Helen Levitt is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it perceives the worlds that exist in our own worlds. This photo shows the way that our youngest are able to make their own space in the center of the real world. It shows how we have the capability to create something new even if we lose that ability as we grow older.
Kids on the Street Playing Hide and Seek, New York City, 1942
In essence, there's nothing off about this photo. It's a game that people throughout the ages have played but the way its presented here is so strange, so eerie. It's a voyeuristic look at something so simple that it becomes a haunting take on a every day life in the suburbs.
A gargoyle looking over Paris
Architects were inspired by the models that they saw on the temples of Rome and Greece as well as figures from French folklore. Based on the story La Gargouille about a monster that breathed fire before its head was nailed to a church where it became a waterspout, these stone grotesques were born. By 1345, Notre Dame had whole flocks of limestone gargoyles plastered to its outside walls where they guard the building to this day.
Mining Landscape, Saint-Etienne circa 1895-1910
This photo captures the emptiness of the industrial revolution, a time when the western world was changing. Thiollier himself was a wealthy industrialist who put the world of machinery behind him to do nothing but work on his farm and take photographs. All of his work is stunning, but it's industrial images that capture the way in which mankind relates to the architectural landscapes of the day.
Stragglers walk across a mining Landscape, Saint-Etienne
Many photos from this era show the grit and the grime of the industrial revolution. They show the coal scrubbed into the concrete and the faces of the workers drenched in sweat after hours at the factory. But in this photo we see the industrial revolution as a dream on the verge of changing the world.
It's an understatement to say that mother nature is photogenic. Take a step into any national park and you'll be astounded by the grandeur of everything around you, but it's impossible to capture it on a phone or even a point and shoot camera. Thiollier's haunting images don't just come from his camera, they come from his eye, his hand, and his technology.
A quiet moment during the Prague Invasion, 1960s
Koudelka is quick to remind his viewers that he didn't take the photos to get a job or to win an award, he knew that the invasion had to be documented so that's what he did. He said:
The Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 concerned my life directly. It was my country. I took these photographs for myself, not for a magazine. It was only by chance that they were published. I wasn’t a reporter. I had never photographed anything that you would call ‘news’. Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was confronted with that kind of situation. I responded to it. I knew it was important to photograph, so I photographed. I didn’t think much about what I was doing.
Prague Spring begins in Czechoslovakia
Known as the Prague Spring, Dubcek's changes were celebrated across the country, but the happiness couldn't stick forever. In August 1968, the Soviet Army sent 600,000 troops into Prague devastating the small amount of resistance fighters they found in the city. A pro-Soviet government was put in place and the liberal reforms of the era were done away with.
The Verpilleux coking plant, near Saint-Etienne
The process is painfully hot and it can scorch anything that gets in its way, which is why this is such a haunting photo. How is that a process so volatile can make such a beautiful piece of art? That's the power that Thiollier had when there was a camera in his hands.
Two men tip a coal bin, 19th century
As England entered the Industrial Revolution the call for coal became louder and louder. Factories developed througought the country where men would travel hundreds of feet into the ground where they had to worry about dangerous gasses and pit collapses. Even the men who survived these fearful conditions had to worry about the dreaded black lung in the name of progress.
Undergrowth in Forez, 1870s
They favored places that had no human footprint, whether it be streams of cool water or the undergrowth that came up along the paths through the countryside. On these trips Thiollier decided that he wanted people to know the beauty of the landscapes that he saw all around him. Through his romanticism and use of sunset and sunrise Thiollier was able to give these images the romanticism that they needed.
Willow trees near the duck pond at Verrières, 19th century
It's hard to imagine a place like this existing in such an empty place today. Wouldn't it be overrun by selfie taking Instagrammers? That's what is so haunting about this image, it's a place that we'll never see in the same way again... unless we see it in our dreams.
A woman draped in a black shroud watches the day go by
It's most likely that this woman is in mourning. Her clothing jives with the traditional attire worn by the bereaved in the Victorian era, at the time widows were expected to wear traditional black clothing for at least two years. It's hard to tell how long she's been in mourning, but if we had to guess she's in the thick of it.