What I'm Reading: Spirit Photographs

The idea of being able to connect with the other side has always fascinated me. Not in the phony John Edwards kinda way but the way down-to-earth humans, on occasion, feel something special deep inside them.


Back in the early 2000s I went through a phase where I was into ghost hunter shows where grown men venture into old buildings with a bunch of equipment they built in their parent's garage. According to the manchildren this equipment would squeal and flash in the presence of specters however I quickly learned the squealing and flashing was dependent on the presence of a moron. Being many of these devices were handheld, they were constantly going off.


Maybe I'm being a bit harsh. Maybe in 100 years humanity will look back on the work of these ghost hunters and applaud them for their creativity and ability to create a spectacle where in fact there was nothing there to begin with. They were leveraging new technology to activate the imagination of their fellow humans. Similarly, a small group of earth dwellers in the late 1800s and early 1900s leveraged a new technology---photography---to transport the viewers conscious to the spirit world.


Much like some of humanities most lasting discoveries (I'm looking at you Sir Alexander Fleming), spirit photography came to be through a mistake. Unlike later days when single-use film and eventually digital were commonplace, the early days of photography were fueled by wet plates. Wet plate photography uses a reusable glass base to produce a negative image which is transferred to albumen paper to create what is commonly called a "silver print." Once the print was transferred, the wet plate could be cleaned and prepped for another image.


As you can imagine---much like the way you might wash dishes---sometimes the photographer didn't remove everything from the prior image. This resulted in subsequent images having artifacts from prior sittings. Rather quickly, some photographers took advantage of this phenomenon to intentionally create "spirit photographs."


One of the most prominent spirit photographers was Boston based William H. Mumler. Some say he even invented it. Here's the origin story:


One fine day Mr. Mumler was feeling extra fly and thought "I really need a selfie." Naturally, he took one. Hours later as he was developing his selfie, a ghostly apparition appeared in the background of the image----a young girl. After his initial fright, Mumler deducted it must have been an after-image of another sitter and shamed himself for not washing his photographic plates thoroughly. But on second glance, the apparition looked a lot like his dead cousin.


*Theramin plays in the background*


Knowing he had an opportunity, Mumler promoted his spirit photography services and influenced a generation of like-minded photographic charlatans. His most famous sitting came from none other than Mary Todd Lincoln. Is should come as no surprise that none other than Honest Abe appeared behind her, resting his hands on her shoulders.

While the ethics of his work remain in question, one can't help but think the work he did served as a comfort to those who believed the veil between this world and the next was permeable.

Washington, D.C., USA 

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©2019 by Taylor Mackay