Difference between revisions of "Spirit Photography"

From Dead Media Archive
Jump to: navigation, search
(Works Cited)
 
(7 intermediate revisions by 5 users not shown)
Line 1: Line 1:
'''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.
+
"Spirit Photography" refers to the use of photographic technology, with or without the use of a camera, to document the existence of the supernatural.  
 
[[image: asghsdf.jpg|thumb|right|400px|Welcome, spirits.]]
 
[[image: asghsdf.jpg|thumb|right|400px|Welcome, spirits.]]
  
==History==
+
==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.
+
  
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.
+
===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).
  
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.
+
===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.  
  
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.
+
===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).  
 +
 
 +
[[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.
+
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===
 
===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.
+
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.
+
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).
 
+
====The Trial of William Mumler====
+
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.
+
 
+
The trial also brought about the most in-depth analysis of the production of spirit photography.  As Gerry argues in his closing arguments, it is possible to impose an image onto a wet plate through a dry process, well in advance.  Then, when the second image is ready to be produced (i.e. that of the customer), the wet process is used and the two images come out together.
+
 
+
By the end of the trial and after a massive outpouring of debate from both sides into newspapers and journals, the Photography Section of the American Institute resolutely concluded that spirit photography was a "trickery" and the public eventually came to adopt this viewpoint.
+
 
+
====Europe====
+
[[image: ghosts2.jpg|thumb|right|150px|Early work of Frederick Hudson]]
+
 
+
Not long after Mumler's spirit photographs generated some fascination in Paris, Frederick Hudson, a London-based photographer, became famous for his spirit photographs after a clever couple attempted to create their own spirit images in his studio.  Although the young couple, the Guppys, were really the ones who had secretly figured out how to make the spirit photography, Hudson operated the camera and so he was credited with their invention in Europe.  Hudson's photographs differed mainly from Mumler's in that his spirits were mainly veiled and therefore could not be recognized as being relatives.  But as with Mumler's case, Hudson became the center of a major debate that pitted those who believed in spiritualism against those who didn't.
+
 
+
Much like Mumler and Hudson, a Parisian photographer named Edouard Isidore Buguet also got his moment in the spotlight by pioneering spirit photography.  But also much like the other two, his practices were questioned and eventually he was found to be a fraud.  Specifically with Buguet, critics discovered his images were produced by double exposure to the wet plate.  The three men, although in different parts of the world, saw the same progression from fame and fortune to fraud and disgrace.  The only difference in the three men's experience was the time period, which can be explained by their respective society's religious contexts.  For example, spirit photography in France began nearly ten years after it began in Britain, mainly because French society was still skeptical of the first reports they received about American and British spirit photographs.  They weren't yet ready to believe in the power of the photograph to document the occult.
+
  
 
===Photographs of Vital Forces===
 
===Photographs of Vital Forces===
 
[[image: hhhhhhhhh.jpg|thumb|left|200px|The first X-rays.]]
 
[[image: hhhhhhhhh.jpg|thumb|left|200px|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 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.
+
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.  
  
This type of spirit photography was the most public intriguing because it hides the most.  That is, in a simple way, the photographs of vital forces and fluids probe into our visceral belief that something must we unifying us all, an unseen liquid.  This was also the first time spirit photography began to dip into the realm of science.  The driving force for the many people who attempted to 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.  This was precisely the time when the term "X-ray" was coined by German physician Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen.  Because this type of spirit photography represents the connection between the origins of the medium and futuristic technologies, the types of photographs are extremely varied.  This was the time when people embraced spirit photography as a means of discovery and applied its use to many different things.  It was a time when people believed both in the practical application to a faith unseen.  This type of photography is best characterized by flux and crisis.
+
===Photographs of Mediums/Ectoplasm===
 
+
===Photographs of Spiritual Activities===
+
 
[[image: ectoplasm.jpg|thumb|right|150px|Typical ectoplasm.]]
 
[[image: ectoplasm.jpg|thumb|right|150px|Typical ectoplasm.]]
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 actsThis 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.
+
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).
  
Like photography of vital forces, the photography of the mediums themselves are quite varied.  Many photographs attempted to capture the medium at work with the spirits.  From all of the photographs, there emerge a few major clusters.  The first is photography of seances, which often just document the setting and people present.  Since many believed that seances conjured up the presence of spirits and not necessarily their visual existence, this type of photography was mainly used just to record the reactions of those present.  Another type was the documentation of activities of movement.  This includes levitation and any other kinds of movement that could be recorded with a camera.  The last major type is that of ectoplasms.  Ectoplasms were the most horrifying and outlandish type of spirit photography and are shocking even by today's standards.  They usually include a woman medium who is forced into varying degrees of displeasure by an internal disturbance.  She is often photographed vomiting, lactating, or otherwise excreting a mesh-like substance that is believed to be an unhealthy force.  Although the photographs make the expelled material look real, there was no physical evidence of it.  In fact, ectoplasms were so fascinating simply because they vividly documented something too fleeting or invisible for the human eye to see.
+
==Trials/Disproval==
 
+
==Public Consumption and Debate==
+
 
[[image: harpfull.jpg|thumb|right|300px|Harper's Weekly Spirit Photographs]]
 
[[image: harpfull.jpg|thumb|right|300px|Harper's Weekly Spirit Photographs]]
As mentioned above, the public debate about spirit photography manifested itself in many ways, including many journals, newspapers, and magazines.  Especially when the court cases of famous spirit photographers sprang up, people became absolutely obsessed with the debate about spirit photography.  The deeper message in reading the public's rhetoric is one about technology and society: the public can use a popular medium to investigate and uncover information about a sociological construct like religion. The public debate was not actually about the medium of spirit photography - few people wanted to debate about the specifics of taking a picture. Most wanted to argue about the existence or nonexistence of spirits and whether we could communicate with the dead.  Spirit photography was truly the "perfect medium" because it offered society a way on engaging in a living debate through the use of technology. In terms of technology, this situation is probably the most beneficial and significant of any type.
+
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.  
  
==Sociological Factors==
+
==1920s-Today==
Since spirit photography is an applied technology, it did not exist in a vacuum.  It relied heavily on the public's readiness to believe in and debate about spiritualism.  As mentioned above, different societies were ready at different times.  This depended on prevailing literature, scientific advancements, and political leaders.  A major factor was also war.  In America, the casualties of the Civil War rendered the American public willing to believe that they could somehow connect with those they lost.  Globally, spirit photography saw a resurgence following World War I when people would do anything to communicate with their dead relatives.  The rich complexity of these sociological factors proves even more the extent to which society adopted spirit photography.  Although in many cases it was not fully supported, the trends in society's belief still delineates a strong connection to external factors.
+
 
+
==Death==
+
When spirit photography began to be used for more experimental practices, a general adherence to the idea of empiricism began to eclipse the belief in spiritualism.  From the first X-rays, scientists began using photography for more objectively measurable purposes.  It could be argued that after so much public debate about the different famous spirit photographers, the public was ready to engage in advancements that could actually be documented.  Experimental research about the human body became a viable way to make measurable progress.  Even though the casualties of war tempted many to want to believe in the ability to communicate with spirits, people eventually understood that the best use of resources was to apply it to something much less controversial and linear.
+
 
+
==Future==
+
 
[[image: serios1.jpg|thumb|left|300px|Thoughtography]]
 
[[image: serios1.jpg|thumb|left|300px|Thoughtography]]
In many ways, the fascination with spirit photography is still present today.  We can see this in reality television shows about haunted houses and truth-or-dare-type shows in which people with cameras enter haunted places. But there are many instances of the more practical advancements of spirit photography.  The first is the scientific progression of medical photography. Just as spirit photography sought to photograph parts of the body unseen by the naked eye, many technologies that developed later extended this idea.  Modern day ultrasounds, MRIs, and X-rays all date back to spirit photography. But just as spirit photography gave birth to something quite concrete, it also perpetuated the belief in something less tangible but similarly unseen.  "Thoughtography" in the 1940s by Ted Serios in America is a more recent example of the same debate from spirit photography.  He attempted to document people's thoughts and emotions, but many people believed it was a hoax.  Seeing as thoughtography didn't involve a central conflict in society's religions, it obviously did not reach level of controversy that spirit photography originally did.  Still, Serios wasn't alone in his approach. Russian Semyon Kirlian in the 1940s also attempted to capture auras on film.  There could even be valid arguments about this idea in present day.  Since spirit photography was marked by the ripe intersection between a technology and a religious movement, it could be said that any fascination with the empiricism of religion is an extension of spirit photography.  A great example might be the debate about the Shroud of Turin, which is supposedly the actual shroud that Jesus' body was wrapped in when he was taken down from the Cross.  The shroud has engendered massive global debate and interest and in many ways this parallels the same aspects seen in spirit photography.
+
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.
 
+
==Art & Invention==
+
One of the most interesting larger issues in spirit photography is the way that it led to a fusion of art and science.  Although spirit photography can often be simplified to a fascination with the ability to manipulate images, it also gave rise to serious experiments.  On a grander scale, this shows the way that art and invention can actually work together.  One of the most important reasons we study dead media is to look at the ebbs and flows in technological advancements and how society reacts to it. It seems that we have a way of constantly affecting and altering this process.  While we may be inclined to think that technological advancement is confined to the work of scientists and academics, spirit photography demonstrates that outsiders can actually have a say in the process too.  Usually artistic endeavors are not usually constrained to a simple process - they're thought to be an ever-changing process of interactions.  But at some point in spirit photography's history, people began applying a more structure application to the its use.  John Beattie, for example, in London was one of the first to apply an experimentalist mindset to spirit photography by replicating the scientific method.  This is precisely the way that invention can be altered by artistic factors because as much as Mumler and Hudson and Buguet used the medium as a way of producing simple religious images, the same technology could also be used in the almost exact opposite way to attempt to uncover truths.  We can remember when the scientific method was first used and how it immediately contrasted with the church's doctrines.  And in spirit photography we see the very same dichotomy.
+
  
 
=Works Cited=
 
=Works Cited=
  
Montebello, Phillipe de and Jean-Luc Monterosso.  "Foreward."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
Brandon, Ruth The Spiritualists New York: Knopf, 1983.
 
+
Apraxine, Pierre and Sophie Schmit.  "Photography and the Occult."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
 
+
Cloutier, Crista.  "Mumler's Ghosts."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
 
+
Fischer, Andreas.  "A Photographer of Marvels: Frederick Hudson and the Beginnings of Spirit Photography in Europe."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
 
+
Cheroux, Clement.  "Ghost Dialectics."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
 
+
Cheroux, Clement.  "Photographs of Fluids."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
 
+
Fischer, Andreas.  "La Lune au Front."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
 
+
Braude, Stephen E.  "The Thoughtography of Ted Serios."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
  
Fischer, Andreas.  "The Reciprocal Adaptation of Optics and Phenomena."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
Chalfen, Richard “Shinrei Shashin: Photographs of Ghosts in Japanese Snapshots” Photography and Culture 1:1 (2008): 51-71.
  
Canguilhem, Denis.  "Monitoring the Phenomena." The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
Chéroux, Clément The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult New Haven, Conn. : Yale University Press, 2005.
  
Fischer, Andreas.  "The Most Disreputable Camera in the World."  The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  New York: 2004.
+
Coe, Brian The Birth of Photography: The Story of the Formative Years 1800-1900 New York: Taplinger, 1977.
  
Schoonover, Karl.  "Ectoplasms, Evanescence, and Photography."  Art Journal, vol. 62, no. 3.  2003.  pp. 31-43.
+
Green-Lewis, Jennifer Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996.
  
Lavrentiev, Alexander.  "Inventions from Photography: Light, Shadow, and Optical Transformations."  Leonardo, vol. 27, no. 5.  1994.  pp. 383-386.
+
Jolly, Martyn Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography The British Library: London, 2006.
  
Kaplan, Louis.  "Where the Paranoid Meets the Paranormal: Speculations on Spirit Photography."  Art Journal, vol. 62, no. 3.  2003.  pp. 19-29.
+
McGarry, Molly Ghosts of Futures Past: Spiritualism and the Cultural Politics of Nineteenth Century America UC California Press: Berkeley, 2008.
  
"The New Image-Makers."  Encyclopedia Britannica Online.
+
Schonover, Karl “Ectoplasms, Evanescence, and Photography” Art Journal 62:3 (2003): 30-43.
  
Walters, Ben.  "Shutter."  Sight and Sound, vol. 18, no. 7.  2008.  pp. 73-74.
+
[[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.

Error creating thumbnail: Unable to save thumbnail to destination
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.