Apparitions of the Aperture

In the second half of the 19th Century, at the height of the Victorian Age, the union of photography and the supernatural spawned strange and enthralling results.

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Cased tintype spirit image by an unknown photographer, circa 1868. Jack and Beverly Wilgus Collection. (Unless otherwise noted, all images in this article are courtesy Jack and Beverly Wilgus.)

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.

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This English stereoview card from the early 1860s titled “The Ghost in the Stereoscope” noted that it was “kindly suggested by Sir David Brewster.”

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.

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The back of this 1875 carte de visite (CDV) states, “This picture was made December 25th, 1875, in Cincinnati by Jay J. Hartman under the most rigid test conditions, in a gallery he had never visited before … all manipulations of the plate being done by a skeptical photographer … and all the time closely watched by 16 respectable, intelligent gentlemen.”

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.”

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Mumler’s 1872 CDV of Mary Todd and the ghost of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. Courtesy Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection.

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.

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Two CDVs by William Mumler in the Wilgus Collection. Left: A young spirit girl holds a flower under the nose of Captain R. Montgomery of Hodgsdon Mills, Maine. The child was recognized as his dead daughter. Right: A ghostly cleric presents Henry C. Gordon, an American medium credited with levitation, with a crucifix of which he appears aware.

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.

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Buguet carbon prints, circa 1874. Left: “The Count de Medina Pomar with the spirit of his father, General the Count de Medina Pomar.” Right: “Sitters: Mons. Leymarie and Mons. C. Spirit: Edouard Poiret.”

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.

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A 1902 cabinet card of Robert Boursnell posed with spirit extras.

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:

“That we both may share
The hope in hearing
That we’re not just
Spirits disappearing.” Ω 

 

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There is no photographer’s name or studio on this circa-1895 cabinet card, but “Olivia Sheppard” is handwritten on the reverse. There are references in the literature of the period to a female dress reformer and spiritualist Olivia F. Shepard, and likely this is the same woman. The “spirits” surrounding her include two Caucasians, an Arab, and two American Indians.

Hidden Behind Time: A New Way to Recapture Lost Images

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This daguerreotype was thought lost to the ages until rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging analyzed the plate. Courtesy Western University of Ontario.

By University of Western Ontario

Art curators will be able to recover images on daguerreotypes, the earliest form of photography that used silver plates, after a team of scientists led by Western University learned how to use light to see through degradation that has occurred over time.

Research published in June 2018 in Scientific Reports—Nature includes two images from the National Gallery of Canada’s photography research unit that show photographs that were taken, perhaps as early as 1850, but were no longer visible because of tarnish and other damage. The retrieved images, one of a woman and the other of a man, were beyond recognition.

“It’s somewhat haunting because they are anonymous and yet it is striking at the same time,” said Madalena Kozachuk, a Ph.D. student in Western’s Department of Chemistry and lead author of the scientific paper.

“The image is totally unexpected because you don’t see it on the plate at all. It’s hidden behind time,” continues Kozachuk. “But then we see it and we can see such fine details: the eyes, the folds of the clothing, the detailed embroidered patterns of the tablecloth.”

The identities of the woman and the man are not known. It’s possible that the plates were produced in the United States, but they could be from Europe.

For the past three years, Kozachuk and an interdisciplinary team of scientists have been exploring how to use synchrotron technology to learn more about chemical changes that damage daguerreotypes.

Invented in 1839, daguerreotype images were created using a highly polished silver-coated copper plate that was sensitive to light when exposed to an iodine vapor. Subjects had to pose without moving for two to three minutes for the image to imprint on the plate, which was then developed as a photograph using a mercury vapor that was heated.

Kozachuk conducts much of her research at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) and previously published results in scientific journals in 2017 and earlier this year. In those articles, the team members identified the chemical composition of the tarnish and how it changed from one point to another on a daguerreotype.

“We compared degradation that looked like corrosion versus a cloudiness from the residue from products used during the rinsing of the photographs during production versus degradation from the cover glass. When you look at these degraded photographs, you don’t see one type of degradation,” says Ian Coulthard, a senior scientist at the CLS and one of Kozachuk’s co-supervisors. He is also a co-author on the research papers.

This preliminary research at the CLS led to today’s paper and the images Kozachuk collected at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source where she was able to analyze the daguerreotypes in their entirety.

Kozachuk used rapid-scanning micro-X-ray fluorescence imaging to analyze the plates, which are about 7.5 cm wide and identified where mercury was distributed on the plates. With an X-ray beam as small as 10×10 microns (a human scalp hair averages 75 microns across) and at an energy most sensitive to mercury absorption, the scan of each daguerreotype took about eight hours.

“Mercury is the major element that contributes to the imagery captured in these photographs. Even though the surface is tarnished, those image particles remain intact. By looking at the mercury, we can retrieve the image in great detail,” said Tsun-Kong Sham, Canada Research Chair in Materials and Synchrotron Radiation at Western University. He also is a co-author of the research and Kozachuk’s supervisor.

This research will contribute to improving how daguerreotype images are recovered when cleaning is possible and will provide a way to seeing what’s below the tarnish if cleaning is not possible.

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What scanning revealed: A Victorian beauty, now no longer forgotten. Courtesy Western University.

The prospect of improved conservation methods intrigues John P. McElhone, recently retired as the chief of Conservation and Technical Research at the Canadian Photography Institute of National Gallery of Canada. He provided the daguerreotypes from the Institute’s research collection.

“There are a lot of interesting questions that at this stage of our knowledge can only be answered by a sophisticated scientific approach,” said McElhone, another of the co-authors of today’s paper. “A conservator’s first step is to have a full and complete understanding of what the material is and how it is assembled on a microscopic and even nanoscale level. We want to find out how the chemicals are arranged on the surface and that understanding gives us access to theories about how degradation happens and how that degradation can possibly or possibly not be reversed.”

As the first commercialized photographic process, the daguerreotype is thought to be the first “true” visual representation of history. Unlike painters who could use “poetic license” in their work, the daguerreotype reflected precisely what was photographed.

Thousands and perhaps millions of daguerreotypes were created over 20 years in the 19th century before the process was replaced. The Canadian Photography Institute collection numbers more than 2,700, not including the daguerreotypes in the institute’s research collection.

By improving the process of restoring these centuries-old images, the scientists are contributing to the historical record. What was thought to be lost that showed the life and times of people from the 19th century can now be found. Ω

Comet Brooches: A Legacy of the 19th Century’s Sidereal Wanderers

“This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny.” —H.A. Howe

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Halley’s Comet brooch, 1835. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

This piece from my collection is an antique English, 9-carat gold comet mourning pin. It is beautifully made, with a hand-chased stylized tail, black enamel embellishment, and a glittering foiled paste stone in silver settings, clearly displaying a black spot to simulate the open culet of a diamond.

The unusual shape of the brooch commemorates the return of Halley’s Comet in 1835. Although this piece neither contains a loved one’s hair nor bears an inscription, the use of black enamel almost certainly associates it with loss during the comet pass year.

Halley’s Comet is named after English astronomer Edmond Halley, who studied previous sightings and correctly predicted its 1758 apparition. The comet returns every 75 years, with its last apparition in 1986 and its next to come in 2061. I will be 98, if I live to see it.

The first report of the comet is from its pass above China in 467 B.C. (Centuries later, during another apparition, the Chinese would call it by the beautifully evocative name, “Broom Star.”) The British Museum, London, holds other documentation in the form of cuneiform tablets describing the comet’s appearance over Babylonia in late September, 164 B.C.

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“At that time, throughout all England, a portent such as men had never seen before was seen in the heavens. Some declared that the star was a comet, which some call ‘the long-haired star’: it first appeared on the eve of the festival of Letania Maior, that is on 24 April, and shone every night for a week.”—The Anglo Saxon Chronicle, 1066. In this section of the Bayeux Tapestry, Halley’s Comet serves as an omen of Duke William’s victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. Above a group that points at the strange sight are the words “ISTI MIRANT STELLA”—”These men wonder at the star.”

Throughout history, the comet’s apparitions brought fear and awe to earthbound viewers, who saw comets as a predictors of great and potentially horrific events. In 218, for example, Roman historian Dio Cassius termed it “a very fearful star,” and of the 1456 comet pass, Bartolomeo Platina named it “a hairy and fiery star” that he heard would bring “grievous pestilence, dearth, and some great calamity.” Its 1066 apparition is commemorated by the Bayeux Tapestry—the great embroidered epic of the Norman Conquest—as a portent that Duke William of Normandy’s ascension to the throne of England was literally writ in the stars.

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Drawings of Comet Halley, 1836, by John Herschel. Gouache on black fabric mounted on paper. Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

The 1835 comet apparition predated photography by nearly a decade, but astronomical drawings were made by Sir John Frederick William Herschel from a position in South Africa. In the lead up to Halley’s Comet’s arrival, and during the months it graced the night sky, Georgians indulged their love of symbolism and used the shape of the comet, with its long tail, as the basis for generally singular, and relatively expensive, gold jewelry—although pinchbeck and gilt 1835 brooches can be found. These pieces commemorated the comet apparition in conjunction with the human events that transpired during its nightly reign, such as births, betrothals, marriages, and deaths.

My brooch fits the latter of these, but there are many stunning examples that evoke the joy and wonder felt by those with comet fever. For example, the lovely duo below, sold by Rowan & Rowan, are gold with a foiled citrine and garnets.

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Gold, citrine, and garnet 1835 Halley’s Comet brooches.
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This lovely gold 1835 comet brooch, which sold on eBay in 2016, features a saphiret glass stone that prong-set and cushion-cut.
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A gold, diamond, and pearl 1835 comet brooch.
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An English, 9-carat gold, chrysolite, and ruby 1835 comet brooch. Courtesy CJ Antiques.

Halley’s was not the only comet visible to those living in the 19th Century. Stuart L. Schneider, the author of Halley’s Comet: Memories of 1910, noted, “Most people who saw Halley’s comet in 1986 were disappointed with the comet’s showing. We were not as fortunate as the folks living in the 1800s…. In 1811 there was a beautiful comet with a tail 100,000,000 miles long. It was called the Great Comet of 1811 and was visible for 17 months. In 1843, a comet appeared … with a tail twice as long as that of the Great Comet of 1811. Abraham Lincoln commented on Donati’s Comet of 1858. It appeared during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Civil War soldiers saw the Comet of 1861, which had six or more tails. In 1874, Coggin’s Comet appeared in the skies, and in 1882 a comet appeared that was visible for 4 months.”

I own another comet brooch that may commemorate one or both of the century’s unexpected celestial visitors, Comet Tebbutt C/1881 K1, or the Great Comet of 1881, and the Great Comet of September 1882, C/1882 R1, which Schneider alluded to above.

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The September 1882 Comet photographed by Sir David Gill from the South African Astronomical Observatory.

Comet Tebbutt was visible during the summer and Autumn of 1881, finally becoming lost to observers in early 1882. It was followed later that year by another comet of such luminosity that, at its perihelion, it was visible next to the sun in the daytime sky.

After it was gone—“buried in the darkness of space”—Professor H. A. Howe of Denver University wrote in The Sidereal Messenger’s May 1884 issue, “This great comet has fled from the gaze of man, and thirty generations of astronomers will pass away before it will submit itself to human scrutiny. Then, perchance, it will again burst unexpectedly into view, to be firmly bound by the chains of mathematical analysis, which, more tenuous than gossamer, are stronger than steel.”

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Although this “French Jet” (black glass) comet brooch was likely produced in multiples, the design may have appealed to women who lost loved ones during the 1881-1882 comet apparitions. Ann Longmore-Etheridge Collection.

When Halley’s Comet returned in 1910, it brought age-old fears with it, as well as a new wave of comet jewelry. Author Christopher S. Cevasco, wrote that the 1910 apparition “came with its own doomsday predictions. One of the gases discovered in the tail through spectroscopic analysis was the toxic gas cyanogen, leading French astronomer Nicolas Camille Flammarion to predict that when the earth passed through the comet’s tail, the gas ‘would impregnate the atmosphere and possibly snuff out all life on the planet.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Monsieur Flammarion was not only an astronomer but an author of science fiction novels, and fortunately here it seems he let his imagination run away with him. Notwithstanding many panicked Earthlings running out to buy gas masks, anti-comet pills, and apparently even anti-comet umbrellas, the planet suffered no harm given how diffuse the gas was.”

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) also believed in the portents of comets. In 1909, he said, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Clemens died 21 April, 1910, just after the comet reached its brightest. Ω

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A brooch made for the 1910 Halley’s Comet apparition.
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A black opal comet brooch from 1910.
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A 1910 comet brooch of gold and pastes.