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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
Photographs of Spiritual Activities
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.