Spirit Photography In The Victorian Age


Spirit photography was first used by William H. Mumler in the 1860s. He accidentally discovered the technique after he discovered a second person in a photograph he took of himself. He determined it was actually a double exposure. Seeing there was a market for it, Mumler started working as a medium. Another technique was the result of the long exposure time needed by early cameras. If someone moved, or another person stepped into the picture, a "ghost" was produced. Although the techniques were mostly unknown in those days, many photographers decided to "cash in" on the Victorians' obsession with the supernatural and many offered spirit photography to the general gullible public.

Family members were brought into the studio and placed in front of a camera already loaded with film that had previously been exposed to the image of an actor, object, doll, or even an old picture of a deceased loved one, and were told that the spirit of the dearly departed was in the room and could be captured by the "special camera." When the picture was developed, the family would be shocked that a spectral image would be in the photo with them.

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c. 1920, William Hope, National Media Museum Collection
An excerpt from Sir David Brewster's book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory and Construction noted: “For the purpose of amusement, the  photographer may carry us even into the realms of the supernatural. His art…enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his  figures, and to exhibit them as ‘thin air’ amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture. While a party is engaged with their whist or their gossip, a female figure appears in the midst of them with all the attributes of the supernatural. Her form is transparent, every object or person beyond her being seen in shadowy but distinct outline.”

Spirit photography remained popular through the 1880s and on into the early 20th century with many famous proponents such as Arthur Conan Doyle
and William Crookes. William Stainton Moses, another spiritualist, claimed that spirit photography operated by means of a fluid substance called
ectoplasm, which allowed the spirits to take form. Notable mediums at the time wrote books, such as Photographing the Invisible (1911) by James
Coates, and Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye (1892) by Georgiana Houghton. Authur
Conan Doyle wrote The Case for Spirit Photography (1922).

Psychical researcher Harry Price was determined to revealed to the world that the photographs of a well known spirit photographer, William Hope  were frauds. Price secretly marked Hope's photographic plates, also providing him with a packet of additional plates that had been secretly imprinted with the brand logo of the Imperial Dry Plate Co. Ltd. Any photo created with them would bear the logo. Unaware that Price had tampered with his supplies, Hope then attempted to produce a number of Spirit photographs. Although Hope produced several images of spirits, none of his materials contained the Imperial Dry Plate Co. Ltd logo, showing that the prepared plates had been exchanged for pre-prepared plates that Hope already had. Although he had been caught his staunch supporters, including Doyle, continued to support him.