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What I Learned About the Art of Magic at the Magic Olympics
Photographing at the World Championship of Magic for National Geographic.
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I have never seen a magic trick nor met a magician, not until last July. By the end of that month, I found myself surrounded by hundreds of professional magicians and was exposed to more tricks and illusions than the Hogwarts curriculum. This cornucopia of wands, cards, coins, and an occasional dove, took place in Quebec, Canada, at the World Championship of Magic, held by the International Federation of Magic Societies (FISM). I spent a week documenting the wild event for National Geographic.
I have photographed many subcultures for Nat Geo in the past, but when I found out there is such a thing as the Magic Olympics, happiness bubbled up like champagne. The assignment had all the wild promise and mystery of catching the train at King Cross Station’s platform 9 3/4 (my final Harry Potter reference). The championship has been happening, without much American publicity, every three years since 1948 in major cities around the world. But this was the first time it came to North America and caught the attention of two magic-loving writers at National Geographic, Nina Strochlic and Michael Greshko. The three of us went to investigate.
Disappointment came quickly. On day two, I realized that magic is impossible to photograph. What the mind perceives as magic is an illusion defying the laws of physics — objects appear or disappear, transform, or move in unnatural trajectories. When the human eye is deceived by the absence of process and the brain is unable to decipher what’s happening in real time, a moment of wonder is created. A single card appearing in the hand, seemingly out of thin air, is enough to short-circuit the mind. Photography only captures the before and after, eliminating the sensation of a miracle altogether.
To photograph the story, I needed to understand magic better, so I immersed myself in the (mostly male) universe of self-proclaimed wizards. The news that National Geographic was at FISM got out quickly, and soon the writers and I had a line of magicians eager to show us miracles and educate us on the art of magic.
Here is what I learned.
The first magic trick you see is like first-time tripping on molly. No matter how great or mediocre, it is life-changing and soul-shattering. It stays and haunts you, and you crave more, but the more magic you see, the less your emotional response becomes. Chances are, you will never again reach the same euphoric heights as when seeing magic for the first time.
Magic can be tedious. I cried at some of the initial magic I’ve seen, overwhelmed by a sense of wonder I didn’t know was possible. That emotion surprised and invigorated me, and I expected to be floating in a cocoon of suspended belief and giddy joy the whole week. That evaporated when a magician insisted on showing me a card trick that involved picking a card, putting it back in the deck, then counting, spelling out words, counting again, and more spelling of the card’s suit and color. By the time I got to “E I G H T O F D I A M O N D S,” I was so bored that I didn’t care that my card was, indeed, triumphantly found. At that point, I wouldn’t care if it turned into a goldfinch and flew away. That’s when it dawned on me, that magic is just as much about the process as it is about the final effect. Nothing kills a miracle like a long-winded route to boredom.
Magic taste develops with time and context, just like any other art form. There are many styles of magic, from big stage illusions to close-up card magic to comedy magic and mentalism. FISM took me on a wild ride through all of these, and by day five I knew that I am indifferent to mentalism or comedy bits, which tend to skew dangerously close to a circus act (never liked me a circus) but love the intimacy of close-up illusions.
Good magic gets applause. Great magic draws laughter. Astounding magic elicits silence. Since I couldn’t photograph the very moment a miracle happened, I turned my attention to the audience, observing both their reaction and mine. When a Spanish magician, Javi Rufo, made two balls repeatedly appear and disappear, his hands moving in a slow ballet, the stunned silence in the room was broken only by occasional gasps (he did get a standing ovation in the end). If the magic is strong enough to create a glitch in perception, the brain is too flummoxed for enthusiasm.
Olympics is an accurate description for magic of the highest caliber. I never understood how much dexterity, practice, and manual strength are required to create a flawless illusion. Sleight of hand magicians operate in the sphere between gymnastics and dance. A single move can take a decade to perfect, with most of the time dedicated to making the action look effortless. The slower and more elegant the move, the greater the perception of magic becomes.
There is an overwhelming amount of testosterone in magic. Magic books and manuals use the “he” pronoun when addressing the reader. Women in magic have always been relegated to the role of the sexy assistant or an audience member who gets picked to go on stage. Finding professional female magicians at FISM was an exercise in futility. Out of hundreds of acts, there were just a few, and many of those were performed in a duo act with a man.
And speaking of picking on the audience. I have watched audience members sacrificed for the amusement of the group and treated like props by magicians who misinterpret their nervous, cry-for-help laughter as enjoyment. When a magic show relies too heavily on the embarrassment of someone unfortunate enough to be seated in the front row, any feeling of wonder gets replaced by discomfort. That is my least favorite thing about magic.
Developing a taste in magic has been a DeLorean-esque joy ride of discoveries and tiny epiphanies. Magic is not just about fooling the audience by guessing a card or making an object appear. It is a complex art form that layers theater, story, skill and emotion to construct a universe in which miracles are possible. When all these elements come together, magic has the ability to cause a rupture in our fixed perception of reality. The glitch is a high that turns people into magic fans and magic fans into magicians. In the process of photographing at FISM, I became addicted and fell deep down the magic rabbit hole. While photography can only scratch the surface of it all, I hope it hints at the possibilities of what magic can be. If the images leave the viewer curious, then I feel like I succeeded.
How does a magician trick other magicians? - fantastic National Geographic feature by Nina Strochlic and Michael Greshko.
Some of my favorite magicians who are on Instagram.
Javi Ruffo — My favorite FISM act.
Shane Cobalt — Beautiful, 19th century inspired sleight-of-hand.
Ekaterina — A virtuoso at making cards dance at her fingertips.
Magic Table Kyoto — Makes inanimate objects come to life.
Alex Boyce — Elegant, classic magic (and doves).
Jim Steinmeyer — The magician who makes elephants appear and buildings vanish. (that famous David Copperfield’s Statue of Liberty disappearance, that’s Jim’s invention)
I became obsessed with cards and started learning some moves. Here is me on TikTok attempting faro and table faro shuffles.