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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
Public Consumption and Debate
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.
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.
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.
Art & Invention
John Beattie in Britain following Hudson.