In the digital age it is common knowledge that photographs can and often do lie. Whether it’s a photojournalist blending scenes of war to heighten tension or a fashion photographer enhancing a model’s natural beauty, we have learned to view photographs with a touch of skepticism. While digital photography and the software associated with its production has made manipulation easier to do and harder to detect, photo manipulation existed long before the CMOS sensor and Photoshop software. The Two ways of Life, 1857 and Henry Peach Robinson’s Fading Away, 1858, are early examples of the manipulation of the photographic process. While The Two Ways of Life, influenced Raphael’s School of Athens, was realized to be a fabrication utilizing actors, costumes, props and backdrops, Fading Away was perceived to be a scene from real life and as such was criticized as being in poor taste to represent so painful a scene (Newhall 60).



       Just a few years later engraver turned photographer, William H. Mumler, claimed to have the ability to record spirits of the departed along side his corporeal sitters.  When his story hit the tabloids people from all walks of life including eminent intellectuals representing the fields of religion, science and the arts viewed his photographs as evidence of contact with the spirit world, an event they had been anxiously anticipating (Harvey 7). 
         During the mid-nineteenth century religious revivals in America and Europe had spawned new religious movements. One of the most popular was Spiritualism, which was based on the writings of philosopher and clairvoyant Andrew Jackson Davis. Spiritualists insisted on the reality of spirits, life after death and tangible communication between the world of the spirit and the world of the living. Departing from Christian doctrine, Spiritualists believed the spirit left the body at the moment of death rather than on a final judgment day.  Spiritualism became a widespread social movement by allying itself to progressive reforms including women’s rights. It sought to reconcile science with religion and extolled the cosmic virtues of harmony and sympathy. Framing these aspects of Spiritualist belief is important to the understanding of the rise and flourishing of spirit photography (Kaplan 4).




      The socio-cultural circumstances in which spirit photography arose in the 1860’s and thrived until the 1920’s, were a culture of mourning and bereavement permeated by the doctrines of Spiritualism set against the backdrop of the civil war, high infant mortality rates, The French Revolution, World War I, and The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 (Kaplan 227). 
           A review of the testimony of the Spiritual photographic consumers cited in Mumler’s memoirs makes it very clear that these images helped them to cope with the loss of their loved ones and assisted them in the mourning and bereavement process.  Mumler wrote of a man who had visited his studio after the loss of his son, “Who can describe the joy that passed through this father’s heart when he realized his son was not dead? That in passing through the change he had become more closely allied! He felt that the gloom that surrounded him had been dissipated and looked forward with pleasure to the time when they should meet on the evergreen shore” (Kaplan 231). Mumler’s most celebrated photograph made in 1872 was of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her beloved husband, Abraham Lincoln and their son

Thaddeus. Even though it had been seven years since the assassination of the President, Mrs. Lincoln arrived clad in a black veil and other garb of mourning. Upon seeing the photograph Mrs. Lincoln experienced an emotional catharsis crying tears of joy. She asked Mumler’s wife who had assisted him as medium “How long before I will join them in their spirit home” (Kaplan 232)?

            During the late 19thcentury and early 20th century marvelous technological advances such as the telegraph and the wireless allowed people to communicate instantaneously over vast distances. Photographs taken through telescopes and microscopes as well as X rays revealed previously invisible things for the first time, ultraviolet light, invisible to humans, was discovered (Jolly 8). An expanding domain of empirical science and Darwinian theory was encroaching on the territory of traditional Christian belief. The id, defined in Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche was a concept as inchoate as ectoplasm. A spiritual void was opening up and many strange things rushed in to fill it, including photography (Rexer 18).


The coming together of photography and spirit allied modern technology to ancient belief and apparatus to apparitions, reconciling reason to religion and thereby confirming conviction. They also united two expressions of faith: one in the existence of invisible realities, the other in the cameras indifferent eye and unerring ability to arrest the truth (Harvey 7). A medium associated with transparencies, fluids, vapors and materializing images, photography and Spiritualism were kindred spirits, sharing a common goal, to create an enduring image. Whereas photography strove to create a permanent print, Spiritualists searched for a permanent paranormal object, the abiding evidence of ephemeral phenomena. In both the photographers’ darkroom and the darkroom of the séance, practitioners conducted business under ruby colored light. Red is a spectral wavelength believed to be conducive to concentrating the apparitional image both inside the shadowy chamber of the medium’s cabinet and onto the camera’s plate (Harvey 26). Could photography offer evidence of things unseen? Did it not possibly open doorways to the invisible (Rexer 19)?


         What is curious is that even after Spirit photography was put on trial, its methods exposed and admissions of fraud by several prominent spirit photographers many continued to believe it was still possible. Allan Kardec, leader of the French Spiritualist movement stated “ fake diamonds take nothing from the value of real diamonds; artificial flowers do not prevent there being natural flowers” (Cheroux et al. 53)


         In 1960 Dr. Eric Dingwall, research officer for The Society for Psychical Research, a society dedicated to the objective scientific investigation of paranormal phenomena, called their collection of spirit photographs which had been assembled forty years earlier, incontrovertible evidence, not of spirit return but of human stupidity. “The time wasted on spirit photography, the money thrown away and the violent emotions that have been engendered render the subject of more than passing interest to the student of human stupidity, credulity and superstition.” While fakes on one level they nonetheless remain powerful photographic evidence, on another level they now speak to us more strongly of faith, desire, loss and love. They raise new questions, not about whether they are fake or real, but about how and why they came to be made, and what they meant, emotionally, to the people who once treasured them. Their fakery seems crude and self-evident but if we keep looking what we see is the sitter’s ardent desire to see and touch a lost loved-one once more (Jolly 8).            



         Ninety years after the heyday of Spiritualism, the belief in spirit photography is now only maintained by a few of the most willfully credulous. While the general belief in the presence of ghostly appearances has not substantially diminished since the 1920’s the faith in photography as a foolproof way of positively recording them is now only found scattered at the outer limits of paranormal enthusiasm (Jolly 142). Comprehending the bogus, the accidental and the deeply weird, the subject is one of the most marginal in photography but it is rising from the shadows (Rexer 18). 


                                 Works Cited


Cheroux, Clement, et al. The Perfect Medium, Photography and the Occult. New             Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
Harvey, John. Photography and Spirit. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.
Jolly, Martyn. Faces of the Living Dead, The Belief in Spirit Photography. West New             York: Mark Batty Publisher, 2006.
Kaplan, Louis. The Strange Case of William Mumler Spirit Photographer.             Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Newhall, Beaumont. The History of Photography From 1839 to the Present Day.             New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1964.
Rexer, Lyle. “The Perfect Medium, Photography and the Occult.” Aperture, 181 (Winter 2005): 18-19.


Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida. New York: Hill and Wang, 1980.
 Cheroux, Clement, et al. The Perfect Medium, Photography and the Occult. New             Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
Gettings, Fred. Ghosts in Photographs, The Extraordinary Story of Spirit             Photography. New York: Harmony Books, 1978.           
Harvey, John. Photography and Spirit. London: Reaktion Books, 2007.
Jolly, Martyn. Faces of the Living Dead, The Belief in Spirit Photography. West New             York: Mark Batty Publisher, 2006.
Kaplan, Louis. The Strange Case of William Mumler Spirit Photographer.             Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
 Kochones, Steven. Digital Darkroom, The Art of 3D. 2012. Video. Annenberg Space for             Photography, Los Angeles.                         darkroom/3>
 Kunin, Claudia. Claudia Kunin Ghosts, Memories and Mirrors. 2012. Video. Annenberg             Space for Photography, Los Angeles. Web. 06 Jun 2012.                         darkroom/107>.

Kunin, Claudia. “Claudia Kunin On Her Debut At The Photography Space.” The Shot.             Annenberg Space for Photography, 08 mar 2012. Web. 04 Jun 2012.