In 1839 a French artist by the name of Louis Daguerre invented the daguerreotype. It is considered the birth of photography. Photographic images had been produced earlier but required hours of exposure and the images didn’t always last.
At about the same time Spiritualism was born in Hydesville, New York. It was a belief in the practice of communication with spirits of deceased humans. These two developments would intertwine in 1861, when William Howard Mumler produced the first spirit photograph.
The art of photography and the religious movement called Spiritualism were both mysterious and very popular topics of conversation. In the 1840s the negative was invented that would allow for printing multiple images. This was the beginning of a wider use of cameras. It also offered the opportunity of double exposures. This would give photographers a great deal of creativity in revealing spirits in their photos.
The Development of Spiritualism and Spirit Photographs
Spiritualism started as a pastime rather than a religion. The Spiritualists believed the dead could communicate with the living. Because photography seemed to magically capture image and Spiritualism also involved unseen forces, people were attracted to both as recreational diversions. Metaphysical thinking, spiritual movements and science created philosophy that was moving nearer the twentieth century, but still having footholds in folklore and organized religious beliefs. Many countries still had areas that were non-industrial farmers that believed in concepts from the Middle Ages. Urban cultures were technically advanced with scientific advances pulling them toward a materialistic philosophy. Metaphysical thinking was in the middle. This would soon create a polarizing between spirituality and scientific research methods,
During and after the Civil War there were thousands of people in the United States that had lost loved ones. 620,000 men died in the Civil War, which is more than any other war in the history of the United States. Spiritualism gave the grieving a chance to communicate with the spirits of family members killed in battle. Though Spiritualism was not affiliated with any religion, it gave the faithful a feeling that the spirits of loved ones had not left them and were waiting in heaven. Spiritualists preyed on religious believers by using grief to the advantage of their theatrical events.
Victorian Spirit Photography
The concept of an afterlife and spirit world was not new. Neither is the idea of communicating with the dead. At dawn of history people have believed that a soul survives death. However, Spiritualists made this a form of public entertainment.
Lighting in the mid-19th Century was from gaslight. But there was a huge interest in electricity. The new science was a curiosity at the time. The power was known about long before. Many scientists were clamoring to see would be first to harness the energy. While some were competing to make electricity a tool for modern living, other used it as a theatrical event. People would sit in parlors and watch in amazement as electricity arched between two rods.
Franz Mesmer was developing a technique known as hypnotism. He performed by demonstrating that people could connect to the spirit world and receive messages from the dead. Often hypnotism accompanied a display of electricity on the bill of shows in upper class parlors. The two separate phenomena created a trend for seeking energy connections that linked different levels of consciousness. The life force, or ectoplasm, that flowed between people was like electricity. It made sense that this force could be captured by photography.
A New Century. A New War.
Forms of photography called spirit photography developed. It captured clouded images of ghosts hidden in portraits and other photographs. Through the end of the 19th Century Spiritualism and hypnotism continued to fascinated people. It was the birth of the investigation of paranormal and psychic phenomenon.
Major religious groups denounced Spiritualism as witchcraft. Scientists focused on the fakes. Then the first war in Europe in 100 years erupted and eventually involved the world. A change in trade, economics and technology came out of the destruction. At the end of WWI many people wanted to contact their lost loved ones. Just as after the Civil War, photography and Spiritualism became a method of healing grieving individuals.
Hope and Spiritualism
With the beginning of the 20th century, moving pictures were invented, electric lighting replaced gaslight and a young carpenter began to experiment with the new medium of photography. William Hope saw ghostly images floating in the backgrounds of some photos. He formed a group of Spirit Photographers. They became famous as mediums and photographers of spirits
Later Hope was shown to have faked several his photos. But the public still followed him, and a few famous people wrote in defense of him and Spirit Photography. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, was a staunch believer in Hope and spiritualism.
Doyle also defended the validity of the French medium Eva Carrière. Eva C. was said to have danced naked during seances and performed sexual acts on patrons. Some of the spirit ectoplasm that was seen at her shows were later shown to be pictures of people cut out of magazines. In the photo here, the image behind her looks like a poorly created cardboard cutout of a bearded man.
William Hope continued his photography in the 1920s. He carried on seances in which prayer and singing was combined with ghost watching. His photos were proven to be double exposure images. He remained popular with the public and his followers were unimpressed by skeptics.
It is estimated that 45% of people believe in ghosts. Often the reason is because people has had an experience that they couldn’t explain, involving a deceased person. Hope showed a client a photo including their dead loved one and they wanted to believe it was real. Also his work was produced as art and performance. He didn’t really make an effort to prove his work scientifically. He considered himself to be doing a service to grieving people. He probably was.
Modern Day Spirit Photography
In 1939 Semyon Kirlian developed a kind of photography that captured the aura of living objects. He attached a power source to an object and then placed it over film. The halo that was seen was understood by some to be the life force. He intended using this a diagnostic treatment. Many modern Spiritualists use Kirlian photography as part of their studies and healing model.
Ghost watchers, ghost busters, ghost whisperers and ghost catchers have all been the subjects of movies and television. Real life ghost busters make a business of helping people sell haunted houses. YouTube has a plethora of videos of ghost sightings. In the area of paranormal phenomena, the belief in ghosts is the most widely held mindsets.
In recent times Jim DeCaro has written articles about his experiences with Spirit Photography. DeCaro discovered he was psychic at and early age. He then began to photograph his experiences. The account is written on this website GhostVillage.com. It is a truly amazing experience that includes his camera being controlled by spirits at times. He also gives a great deal of further information regarding Spirit Photography in general.
There is a write-up regarding Virginia photographer John Milleker. He shoots portraits of people in vintage costumes that with an antique camera. His photo portraits are done in the style of William Howard Mumler. They carry on a tradition of portraiture with spirits attached that are visually captivating, entertaining and intriguing.
Modern Developments of Spirit Photography: The Veil Lifted is a paper written by Andrew Glendinning. In it he explains Spirit Photography and includes photographic plates to illustrate his research. You can find his paper on Amazon.com here.
Conclusion – Science and Spirit
Einstein’s law is that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only change form. Some say that the energy remaining after death is what can turn into a ghost. Scientists say there is no energy that stays behind when one dies. They say all energy dissipates back into the environment. Yet there may be an energetic force that scientists can’t see or measure.
Spirit Photography is still interesting historically whether one believes in the validity or not. The vintage portraits capture the feelings and character of the past. At a time, long before PhotoShop these photographers may have manipulated their work to fool people. That took a lot of creativity and ingenious production. Who can say they look at a photograph of a deceased loved one and don’t feel an energy flow from it? Is it just chemicals in our heads creating emotional responses? Or is it an aura that surrounds all living things? Can that aura remain after death and move from one dimension to another?
“Our feet are planted in the real world, but we dance with angels and ghosts”
– John Cameron Mitchell