"Spirit Photography" refers to the use of photographic technology, with or without the use of a camera, to document the existence of the supernatural.
Modern photography traces its lineage to the January 7, 1839 announcement of the French Academy of Sciences that Louis Daguerre had perfected a new means of documenting reality through the use of silver coated plates made light sensitive by exposure to iodine vapors and developed with the fumes of heated mercury. The process immediately garnered widespread popularity (Coe 16-17). Throughout the United States and Europe, the new, seemingly magical medium was credited with unprecedented powers “…by the close of the century a photograph was regarded not just as a substitute for but as superior to unaided human vision” (Green-Lewis 231).
The American Spiritualist Movement, known commonly as Spiritualism is generally believed to have originated in 1848 when Kate and Margaret Fox of Hydesville, New York claimed the ability to communicate with the dead. The sisters gained widespread notoriety through the dissemination of pamphlets detailing their experiences and demonstrations of their communication with spirits from the afterlife (Brandon 4). Likely owing its popularity to pervasive grief from recent Civil War casualties, Spiritualism, or the belief that spirits of the dead residing in the afterlife can be contacted by human “mediums” became a fairly common belief in late nineteenth and early twentieth century America and later spread to Europe. By 1854 “fifteen thousand people signed a petition introduced by Illinois senator James Shields to the United States Congress, urging an official investigation of the new spiritual sensation” (McGarry 2). At the peak of its popularity Spiritualism may have had as many as eight million followers.
First Spirit Photographs
A lack of scientific understanding meant that the camera was often instilled with the mystic power of “seeing past material surfaces into a world of spirit” (Green-Lewis 228) even before the first formal spirit photograph was made known. Accounts from the 1850s describe the appearance of inexplicable transparent images on photographs purportedly representing the dead: however it was not until 1861 that the first official spirit photograph was made (Cheroux 15). An American, William H. Mumler, apparently took the first spirit photograph one day in his Boston studio while experimenting with self-portraiture. Mumler claimed that a translucent figure had magically appeared on the photographic plate beside his own figure and that the image resembled that of his cousin who had died thirteen years earlier (Jolly 16). Mumler’s first photograph appeared in numerous Spiritualist journals and he was soon charging the exorbitant rate of $10 for three cartes des visites at his studio in New York. His work was followed by that of Frederick Hudson in England and Edouard Buguet in France in the 1870s (Cheroux 20).
While the earliest and most popular spirit photographs combined portrait sitters with ghost images, spirit photography during its peak period (1860s-1920s) can be divided into three categories.
Photographs of Spirits
The first type of spirit photography sought to capture visual images of ghosts and spirits, usually alongside living subjects. In many cases, photographers attempted to “conjure” up images of the sitter’s deceased relatives in an attempt to communicate with the dead. Their creation was mainly profit driven as photographers charged large sums for “conjuring” sessions in their studios. The most famous of these is an early 1870s William Mumler photograph of a seated Mary Todd Lincoln with the hands of her dead husband resting on her shoulders.
The Cottingely Fairies series also belongs to this category. Cousins in Cottingley, England, 16-year-old Elsie Wright and 10-year-old Frances Griffiths took the photographs of themselves in a field with dancing fairies. Subsequently, some of the photographs were published in the Christmas 1920 issue of The Strand magazine accompanied by an article written by Sherlock Holmes author and spiritualist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about the true existence of fairies. Public reactions were mixed, but many believed the veracity of the photographs and Doyle’s claims at the time of publication (Green-Lewis 231).
Photographs of Vital Forces
During the last decades of the 19th century, photographs of “vital forces” became widely popular. Vital forces include anything from emotions and thoughts to “fluids emanating from a medium. This type of photography elicited the most heated public debate as it pitted spiritualists who believed that phenomena from beyond appeared to the medium against animists who believed the mediums themselves were responsible for supernatural phenomena (Cheroux 16). The driving force for many people who attempted to measure and document a “vital force” was the belief that there was a way to objectively measure and document the emission of bodily radiation. This could take the form of thoughts, emotions, or any amorphous universal fluid. These photographs coincide with the early X-rays taken by Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen.
Photographs of Mediums/Ectoplasm
Like photography of “vital forces” images of mediums themselves vary widely. Many photographs attempted to capture mediums at work with the spirits. From this category emerge a few major clusters. The first is photography of séances, which can simply document the setting and people present in attempts to contact the dead, but also depict levitation tables and ghostly clouds hovering over occult gatherings. The second type resemble normal photographs of spirits, but depict well known mediums like Ada Deane and Florence Cook with spirits or “spirit guides.” The last major type of these images displays female mediums with a white, mesh-like substance emanating from their nose, mouth, breast or genital region. This substance was referred to as “ectoplasm” and thought of as a sort of spirit matter or “life force” (Jolly 70). Ectoplasm photographs peaked in popularity after World War I and concentrate on documenting a spirit’s “physical impact on the body of a female psychic” (Schonover 30).
William Mumler was brought to trial in New York City against charges of fraud in 1869. The trial judge was convinced that Mumler’s photographs must have been the product of some trickery or deception, but was compelled to release Mumler due to lack of evidence (Jolly 14). Numerous professionals testified to the fact that Mumler could have photographically produced the spirits in his photographs in nine different ways, the most likely being a simple double exposure of the photographic plate. However, the prosecution eventually decided to attack the validity of spiritualist beliefs and their case fell apart. In 1875, the French spirit photographer Edouard Buguet was tried for fraud and immediately admitted that all his photographs had indeed been double exposures. Mumler himself admitted the same some years later (Jolly 16). Eventually most spirit photographs from their heyday were admitted to be fakes. The fairies in Cottingley were actually cardboard cutouts, ectoplasm was just white cotton muslin, and the ghosts that appeared in hundreds, if not thousands of photographs were only double exposures or chemical smudges. A lack of understanding of the recently invented photographic process along with a widespread belief in spiritualism meant that many had been easily fooled from the 1860s through the 1920s.
Far from having disappeared, spirit photography and similar practices have persisted throughout the 20th century. In the 1940s Russian Semyon Kirlian developed Kirlian photography believing he could capture the “auras” of living things through the use of film and an electrical current. Modern aura photography captures body heat and analyzes which colors appear around human subjects. In the 1960s American Ted Serios from Chicago apparently produced a number of photographs using “thoughtography” whereby he “thought” images onto Polaroid film while in another room (Cheroux 167). Originally gaining popularity in the 1950s and 60s, Electronic Voice Phenomena is the practice of picking up possibly paranormal communications in the white noise of recordings, an idea of trans-communication that has also been attempted with television and the Internet. Snapshots and videos throughout the world are often rumored to contain background ghosts, particularly in contemporary Japan (Chalfen 52). Modern spiritualists also practice automatic painting, a practice whereby a medium paints an image while supposedly possessed by a spirit from the afterlife.
Brandon, Ruth The Spiritualists New York: Knopf, 1983.
Chalfen, Richard “Shinrei Shashin: Photographs of Ghosts in Japanese Snapshots” Photography and Culture 1:1 (2008): 51-71.
Chéroux, Clément The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 2005.
Coe, Brian The Birth of Photography: The Story of the Formative Years 1800-1900 New York: Taplinger, 1977.
Green-Lewis, Jennifer Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
Jolly, Martyn Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography The British Library: London, 2006.
McGarry, Molly Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth Century America UC California Press: Berkeley, 2008.
Schonover, Karl “Ectoplasms, Evanescence, and Photography” Art Journal 62:3 (2003): 30-43.