Difference between revisions of "Spirit Photography"

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'''Spirit Photography''' refers to the use of photographic technology to document the existence of the occult.  While this topic necessarily includes the study of the photographic medium and occultism, spirit photography is characterized by the intersection of the two.  It can be defined more specifically as the recording of phenomena that may or may not be visible to the human eye using sensitive surfaces with or without the use of a camera.
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"Spirit Photography" refers to the use of photographic technology, with or without the use of a camera, to document the existence of the supernatural.
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[[image: asghsdf.jpg|thumb|right|400px|Welcome, spirits.]]
  
==History==
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==Beginnings==
The history of spirit photography owes to the history of both photography and occultism separately.  But both have deep, rich ancestry that can be rigorously studied separately.  The best understanding of spirit photography is that it is a societal application of a popular technology and thus, an extended look into the origins of either photography or occultism becomes increasingly irrelevant as the intersection of the two renders its own history more important.
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Photography was truly born in 1839, but the life of spirit photography occurred between 1860 and 1930.  This isn't to say there were never any instances before the invention of photography or after the death of spirit photography.  But this time period was the height of spiritual photography because it brought together the most severe factors from the technological and sociological aspects of the medium.
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===Photography===
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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, swept across America in the 1850s.  It was triggered by the claims of the Fox sisters in Hydesdale, New York, that they could communicate with the dead. From this one startling anecdote developed a full-fledged  movement of belief. Eventually, spiritualism became such a large force in society that it came to symbolize liberal-leaning political views. As this system of belief gained more attention, pioneers in photography took the opportunity to use the public's fascination to their advantage.  Their experimental documentations of the spiritual world helped to give credibility to the movement while the movement garnered even more interest in photography's role. In a sense, the two worked to foster the other's growth.
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===Spiritualism===
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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.  
  
William H Mumler is credited as being the first photographer to claim to capture an image with the company of a ghost or spirit. He worked in America in the 1860s. His work was followed by that of Frederick Hudson and Edouard Isidore Buguet in Europe a little later in the early 1870s. As was characteristic of early spirit photography, these men used it to document ghosts and spirits themselves.  But as time went on, people began using it for purposes of research. The greatest developments of experimental use of spirit photography came around the turn of the century with the work of Karl von Reichenbach.  But the history of spirit photography would not be complete without acknowledging the extensive documentation of famous mediums such as Florence Cook, Eusapia Palladino, and Marthe Beraud who used spirit photography as a way to record their practices and rituals more than evidence of the occult.
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===First Spirit Photographs===
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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).  
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[[image: ghosts2.jpg|thumb|right|150px|Early work of Frederick Hudson]]
  
 
==Types==
 
==Types==
Because spirit photography is a wide-ranging cluster of different media encompassing many different kinds of photographs and spirits, it is best categorized in the three types of photographic content, which happen to relate chronologically.
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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.  
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===Photographs of Spirits===
 
===Photographs of Spirits===
The very 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 deceased relatives in an attempt to communicate with the dead.
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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.  
  
This type was mainly brought about by profit-driven incentives.  William H. Mumler in Boston was the first to start producing spirit photographs for a profit. When he first began taking photography classes, he came upon a faint image of a young girl in one of his portraits when he was dealing with the sensitive wet plate.  He assumed it was due to his inexperience, but when he jokingly showed the photograph to a spiritualist friend, it was blown out of proportion and even ended up on two newspapers as evidence of the existence of spirits.  Realizing the demand for spirit photographs of dead relatives, Mumler began taking on well-to-do clients for sessions in which he would try to conjure up spirits. He professed to only be in the service of them, however, and clients had to return several times before seeing any spirits.  It is still not exactly known how Mumler performed his tricks, even though his manner was quite theatrical.  A prominent Boston photographer, James Wallace Black conducted a thorough investigation of Mumler by watching his work, cleaning the wet plate himself, and never keeping his eyes off Mumler or the plate.  Mumler somehow produced a spirit image in Black's photograph.
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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).
 
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====The Trial of William Mumler====
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Mumler's career began to be questioned when several faithful followers realized that the spirits that appeared in their photographs were actually portraits of other living people, some who had just recently been photographed before.  Mumler was forced to retire to his previous job as a jewelry engraver, but he moved his family to New York to try to start anew.  Not long after, a major court case ensued that shook the roots of spirituality itself.  Chief Marshall Joseph H. Tooker went to Mumler's shop incognito and gathered evidence that he might be falsely producing spirit images.  There was a preliminary hearing as to whether Mumler should go before a grand jury in New York, but this hearing was treated as a full-scale trial, with the notable Elbridge T. Gerry arguing for the prosecution.  There were many, many notables on both sides of the case.  As the trial progressed, the very idea of spiritualism itself came into question and witness examinations included examining the Bible and the roots of spiritualism as it conflicted with Christian belief.  Gerry's closing arguments included a point-by-point refutation of spiritualism itself.  Although in the end Mumler was acquitted, the presiding judge was still convinced he had been pulling some sort of trick that the prosecution failed to prove.  Nonetheless, the trail served as one of the most poignant debates about spiritualism and spirit photography.
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===Photographs of Vital Forces===
 
===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 the medium. This type of photography elicited the most public debate because it pitted the spiritualists who believed in phenomena from the beyond against the animists who believed the mediums themselves were responsible for producing visual images.  This type of spirit photography gave rise to experimentalist ideas about the invisible and eventually led to the death of the medium.
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[[image: hhhhhhhhh.jpg|thumb|left|200px|The first X-rays.]]
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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.
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===Photographs of Mediums/Ectoplasm===
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[[image: ectoplasm.jpg|thumb|right|150px|Typical ectoplasm.]]
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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 gatheringsThe 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).
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==Trials/Disproval==
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[[image: harpfull.jpg|thumb|right|300px|Harper's Weekly Spirit Photographs]]
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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).
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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.
 +
 
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==1920s-Today==
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[[image: serios1.jpg|thumb|left|300px|Thoughtography]]
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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.
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=Works Cited=
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Brandon, Ruth The Spiritualists New York: Knopf, 1983.
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Chalfen, Richard “Shinrei Shashin: Photographs of Ghosts in Japanese Snapshots” Photography and Culture 1:1 (2008): 51-71.
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Chéroux, Clément  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 2005.
  
===Photographs of Spiritual Activities===
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Coe, Brian The Birth of Photography: The Story of the Formative Years 1800-1900 New York: Taplinger, 1977.
This last type actually occurred from the beginning of spirit photography's peak period until its end.  It includes any attempt by the medium to document himself or herself performing spiritualistic acts.  This could include levitation, seances, or transfiguration.  In this type, there is less emphasis on the occult itself or trying to prove the existence of an invisible occult than there is on the actual process of documenting the spiritualistic activities.
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==Public Consumption and Debate==
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Green-Lewis, Jennifer Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
  
==Sociological Factors==
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Jolly, Martyn Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography The British Library: London, 2006.
  
==Death==
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McGarry, Molly Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth Century America UC California Press: Berkeley, 2008.
  
==Future==
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Schonover, Karl “Ectoplasms, Evanescence, and Photography” Art Journal 62:3 (2003): 30-43.
  
==Art & Invention==
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[[Category:Dossier]][[category:Spiritualism]][[category:photography]][[category:visuality]]

Latest revision as of 17:13, 11 December 2010

"Spirit Photography" refers to the use of photographic technology, with or without the use of a camera, to document the existence of the supernatural.

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Welcome, spirits.

Beginnings

Photography

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).

Spiritualism

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).

Early work of Frederick Hudson

Types

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

The first X-rays.

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

Typical 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).

Trials/Disproval

Harper's Weekly Spirit Photographs

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.

1920s-Today

Thoughtography

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.

Works Cited

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.