Originally printed in The Occult Edition
Ghost or ‘spirit’ photography arose from an increasing interest in spiritualism during the 1860s, and as a result of early photographic experimentation. Usually taken at séances, ghost photographs often take the form of a portrait of a living person, attended by a ‘ghostly figure’ often resembling a deceased family member. Looking at the photographs now, the doctoring of most of these photographs seems extraordinarily obvious; cut outs from magazines, the use of cotton wool to create the illusion of ectoplasm, double exposures, and even swapping photographic plates during development were all common techniques to produce these haunted images.
The first well documented examples of ghost photos were taken by a man named William Mumler in 1861. A Boston engraver was experimenting with self-portraiture, but when it was developed, he discovered the image of a dead cousin standing behind him. Although now considered fakes, Mumler subsequently developed several more photographs with ghostly images of individuals, some recognizable as dead relatives and others as unknown people, the most famous example being a photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband Abraham Lincoln leaning over her. These images greatly increased the popularity of spirit photography, and led to a busy trade for ‘spiritual photographers’, who cashed in on people’s common desire to see some long lost relative. Among other prominent believers in the genuine nature of these ghost photographs was Arthur Conan Doyle, and in 1891, Alfred Russell Wallace (a scientist who helped to develop the theory of evolution) voiced his opinion that spirit photography should be taken seriously.
Extraordinary though it may seem, there are several unexplained mysteries which do in fact throw a proverbial spanner into the works of cynical thought. One of the best-known ghost photos is an image of Combermere Abbey library taken by Sybell Corbett in 1891. With an exposure of 15 minutes, the photograph displays a shadowy figure of an elderly man seated in a chair, despite the room being apparently unoccupied the entire time. The man was later identified as Lord Combermere, who had died in an accident five days before. Fred Getting’s book Ghosts in Photographs, published in 1978 and written with the intention of proving the genuine nature of so-called “spiritual materialism” also illustrates several photographic enigmas, notably Edward Wyllie’s photograph of a Mr J.R. Mercer with an image of his wife: “the likeness itself, which Mercer attested to, could not have been derived in such a way, as she had been buried for sixty-nine years, and no daguerreotype, painting or screened block could have been made of her during her lifetime.”
It is important to note that early cameras had very long exposures, during which the subject had to remain perfectly still. Thus it was fairly common for “ghostly” images to appear when a subject moved or left the frame before the exposure was complete. Also, general access to photographs was limited and so understanding of the development process was not fully understood by many people, especially during the early phases of spirit photography, and thus subtle errors or specks of dust could create the appearance of ghostly figures.
As photographical technology advanced, so too did the exposure of many ghost photographs as fake. And yet, many people still sit on the fence when it comes to the legitimacy of these images, and despite technological advances and an increasingly cynical society which believes in consumerism if anything at all, the ghost investigating phenomenon continues. Online forums offer advice on the best ghost hunting conditions and call for submissions of ‘genuine’ ghost photographs for examination; the London Fortean Society holds annual conferences on subjects such as ghosts in the underground or in hospitals and theatres, Sarah Sparkes’ has a blog detailing her investigations into the haunted Senate House in the University of London and ghost photo-editing apps mean anyone’s happy snaps can include an ‘extra’. The fact remains it is unclear with many older photographs what method was used; whether they are all fakes, or tricks of the light, or are they actually real?