Friday, October 23, 2020

Shooting Ghosts


    No need to call the Ghostbusters, it’s not that kind of shooting! But would you be able to tell if you shot a ghost on film? It’s a question that has raged since the invention of the camera.

    Our ghostly story begins in 1860s Boston in the photography studio of William Mumler. The former ‘snake-oil’ salesman turned from selling homemade medical cures to try his hand at this new technology – photography. Allegedly, he was practicing self-portraits (the earliest selfies?) in his studio, alone, when he noticed something strange in the developed prints. Beside him was the ghostly image of a young girl! Local spiritualists (another craze during the period) confirmed it as a spirit captured on film!

Seeing dollar signs in his camera lens, Mumler took the opportunity to profit off the phenomenon.

Harry Gordon

Three for the price of one

Mrs. Tinkham

    As you can see in the images above, Mumler was prolific. But what did he really capture (spoiler alert: its probably not actually ghosts)? Even though it was still a new technology, and Photoshop was 120 years away, people had already figured out how to manipulate photographs. The simplest explanation is a double exposure of portraits to produce the ghostly effect. In one instance, a man recognized his wife (who was very much alive) in someone’s spirit photograph from Mumler. In fact, she had recently had her portrait taken in Mumler’s studio, fueling the double exposure theory.

    Like ghosts behind peoples’ shoulders, skepticism was never far from Mumler. Famed portrait photographer James Wallace Black and his assistant, on separate occasions, observed Mumler’s process. Both men left as believers, with Black even seeing his long-dead father! After relocating to New York City in 1869, Mumler was tried for fraud. His trial was sensational, drawing in famed showman P.T. Barnum – the man associated with the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute” – against Mumler. To show how spirit photography could have been done, Barnun commissioned a photograph of himself alongside the ghost of Abraham Lincoln:

Early Photoshop? 

    However, the court was unable to prove the Boston photographer was manipulating his prints. There was countless theories of how, but no proof he did. Still, believers flocked to Mumler’s studio.         Ironically, following P.T. Barnum’s photograph on Lincoln’s ghost, Mary Todd Lincoln, the 16th President’s widow, paid for a ‘spirit photograph’ by Mumler – with her late husband making an appearance! It would be the last photograph taken of the former-First Lady.

Mary, look behind you!

    A fascination with death, the afterlife, and all things spooky renewed following World War One. William Hope was an amateur photographer and member of the “Crew Circle Spiritualist” group in northern England. Similar to Mumler, Hope profited off peoples’ desires to capture the ghosts of a loved one and was attacked by skeptics.

An example of Hope's spirit photography


Another example of Hope's work. Spirits, take the wheel!

Another of Hope's photos that's definitely not nightmare inducing 

    While Mumler attracted P.T. Barnum and Mary Todd Lincoln, Hope drew none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ stories and noted spiritualist, and Harry Houdini, famed de-bunker of spiritualism, into a bitter feud .

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with a "spirit". 

    The illusionist waged a public campaign against all claims of supernatural abilities (including spirit photography), arguing instead that his feats were pure illusions – Doyle was unpersuaded. So, Houdini responded with a now-well established debunking tool – a photograph of himself alongside Lincoln’s ghost!

Lincoln's ghost got around

    Convinced yet? Neither am I. Yet whether you prescribe to the ‘spirit photography’ phenomenon or not, they remain in archives and museums as physical reminders of the Spiritualism Movement and its die-hard believers. This begs the new question – can digital cameras can capture ghosts too?

The author and the "spirit" of John Henry Livingston

No comments:

Post a Comment