By Beverly Wilgus and Ann Longmore-Etheridge
Early in the practice of the photography, ghostlike images appeared on daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes. The explanation for them was not supernatural: Because of the need for long exposures, in some cases of more than a minute, anything that moved whilst the camera lens was open went either unrecorded or appeared transparent in the final product. In 1856, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), an important figure in photography’s evolution, described in his book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory, and Construction the method by which amusing extras could be created in photographs. Brewster advised that sitters should be posed and after the majority of the plate exposure was finished, a new person should move into the scene and stay for the final seconds. This would result in a “spirit” presence.
Whilst Brewster clearly promoted this method for what it was—a trick—others with an interest in the expanding religion of Spiritualism saw ghost images as proof of life after death. It should be noted that the Victorians were not the only folk taken in by the callow exploitation of technology they did not fully understand.
With the first affordable digital cameras in the 1990s came a veritable epidemic of “ghost orb,” “rod,” “vortex,” “portal,” and “skyfish” photos on the new World Wide Web. The promulgating of them, in some case, led to recognition and profit. These types of images were, and still are, the result of the compact distance between the flash and the lens of digital cameras illuminating dust, water droplets, bugs, camera straps, individual hairs, fingertips, human breath, and more. In 2018, we generally accept this explanation, but in 1995, the debates between believers and skeptics were as inflamed and impassioned as they were a century before, in the age of spirit photography.
William Mumler (1832-1884) of Boston is the best known of the many 19th-century American spirit photographers. Mumler claimed to have stumbled upon his miraculous ability by accident, but “as word spread, Mumler’s hobby became a lucrative business, and soon he was taking spirit photographs from dusk till dawn, summoning lost loves beneath his skylight, and dispensing solace to a public addled by the rising death toll of the Civil War,” wrote The New Yorker‘s Dan Piepenbring in an October 2017 review Peter Manseau’s book, The Apparitionists. “The images retain their intimate, macabre tint even now. His subjects assume stately, almost catatonic poses—the process required them to sit still for a full minute—their expressions pensive and inscrutable, their arms stiff and expectant. As for the spirits, they have the denatured texture of blighted leaves. Translucent smudges against a sooty backdrop, they sometimes coalesce into personhood only under scrutiny, in the same way that faces emerge from clouds. Stare at enough of them in sequence and you’ll fall into a loop of cognitive dissonance: they look so fake that they must be real, and then so real that they must be fake.”
Arguably, Mumler’s most famous image is of U.S. First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, wearing widow’s mourning, taken some seven years after the president was shot at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. Mumler claimed in his autobiography that he hadn’t recognized Mary Lincoln when she came to his studio wreathed in a black veil, yet he duly produced an image showing the president gazing lovingly upon his wife. Whilst 99.9-percent sure today that the image is a fake, we can hope without hypocrisy that it comforted Mary then.
Another notorious spirit photographer was Frenchman Edouard Isidore Buguet (1840-1901). Also a medium, Buguet rocketed to fame in the early 1870s, but his success was short-lived. Frank Podmore wrote in his 1902 book, Mediums of the 19th Century, Vol. II, that in June 1875, “Buguet was arrested and charged by the French Government with the fraudulent manufacture of spirit photographs. When put on trial Buguet made a full confession. The whole of his ‘spirit’ photographs were, he stated, produced by means of double exposure.”
A plethora of witnesses testified favorably about the photographer and when “these witnesses were confronted with Buguet, and heard him explain how the trick had been done, one after another they left the witness-box, protesting that they could not doubt the evidence of their own eyes. . . . [I]t came out in the evidence that a very clearly defined head … which had been claimed by M. Leymarie as the portrait of his almost lifelong friend, M. Poiret, was recognised by another witness as an excellent likeness of his father-in-law, still living at Dreux, and much annoyed at his premature introduction to the spirit world,” noted Podmore.
In his 1911 book Photographing The Invisible, James Coates devotes two chapters to English spirit photographer Robert Boursnell (1832-1909). The first begins, “It appears that before Mumler got his first picture in 1861, Mr. Boursnell got curious appearances on his plates, not only spoiling them but leading to disagreements with his employer, who accused him of not cleaning the glass properly. These splotches came at intervals. For a long time, there was a lull. Boursnell was a medium; that was the trouble.”
The lull Coates mentions lasted 40 years. When Boursnell again picked up photography as an older man, the same results allegedly manifested, leading to the appearance of spirit faces and figures. As a spirit photographer, “He was strikingly successful and in 1903 the spiritualists of London presented him with a signed testimonial and a purse of gold as a mark of their high esteem. A hundred chosen spirit photographs were put on exhibition in the rooms of the Psychological Society at Portman Square,” stated Nandor Fodor in 1934’s, An Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science.
“Like every other spirit-photographer, he also was accused of fraud,” Fodor continued, noting that evidence of the fraudulent production of Boursnell’s images was presented to the London Spiritualist Alliance. “Duplicates, triplicates, and quadruplicates of Boursnell’s spirit pictures were numerous. A tracing could be made from one form in one photograph to the form in another, and not the slightest difference in detail could be discovered.”
Despite this, Boursnell—like Buguet—never lost the faith of his followers and was still considered by Coates to have been a genuine medium. In one example, Coates’ argument against the swipe of Occam’s razor seems particularly tortured. During the first decade of the 20th Century, an Australian man called Barnes sat for Boursnell in London. One of the ghost extras in the resulting image was conclusively proven to be a blurry reprint of a published portrait of assassinated Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Instead of viewing this as evidence of fraud, Coates saw it as proof that mental images from human minds might appear in spirit photos. Barnes, Coates explained, had read a book with the same image as its frontispiece sometime before visiting Boursnell.
Both the Spiritualism and the technology of the 19th Century required faith. In the 20th Century, the late Arthur C. Clark professed, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For the average Victorian, the arcane processes of early photography were tantamount to paranormal occurrences. To today’s average folk, the Internet and technology-driven VR realms we inhabit are effectively the same. What is constant is this, as expressed by songwriter Roy Harper:
The hope in hearing
That we’re not just
Spirits disappearing.” Ω