Invisible Evidence: Building a Case for Spirit Photography

Invisible Evidence: Building a Case for Spirit PhotographyWhat is spirit photography?

In his 1960 work The Encyclopaedia of Occultism, Lewis Spence describes spirit photography as "The production of photographs on which alleged spirit-forms are visible. When the plate is developed there appears, in addition to the likeness of the sitter, a shape resembling more or less distinctly the human form, which at the moment of exposure was imperceptible to normal vision."(pg. 379) Obviously, Spence was speaking of spirit photography in the 1800s, when an early camera called a "Daguerreotype" used tin plates bathed in various chemicals to produce still images of a posed subject. The progression of photographic technology since the 1800s has demanded that we broaden this definition to incorporate more modern methods of capturing ghost images, including the use of infrared films, stop-motion cameras, and digital video. Generally speaking, spirit photography is the attempt to capture on a photographic medium those things that cannot be observed with the naked eye, such as ghosts, spirits, and so on. It has only been in recent years that spirit photography has gained some credibility in the scientific community as a prospective tool for serious paranormal investigation.

Spirit Photography: A Brief History

Though alleged photographs of ghosts and spirits had been taken before the 1860s, it was an American photographer and engraver, William H. Mumler of Boston, who brought spirit photography to the public ("Occultism and Photography", Cheroux, Oxford Photography Encyclopedia). In 1862, Mumler offered to photograph clients in the company of one or more "ghosts". Though the ghosts would be invisible at the time the picture was taken, they would appear later during the development process. One of Mumler's most famous photographs was a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of assassinated president Abraham Lincoln. The alleged spirit of Abraham Lincoln can clearly be seen over the subject's shoulder (illus. 1). The popularity of the Spiritualism movement in America was largely to blame for Mumler's success, though he was suspected of forgery and fraud. Mumler resurfaced in New York in 1869, and in 1872 authorities attempted to prosecute him. Although many of his photographs were exposed as hoaxes, Mumler was acquitted of fraud due to a lack of evidence.

By this time, the practice of spirit photography had spread to England. Two popular spiritualist mediums, Mr. Samuel Guppy and his wife, Agnes Guppy-Volkert, had been attempting to duplicate Mumler's procedures on their own without success. At length, they called in a professional photographer, Frederick Hudson, for assistance. Hudson was successful in producing spirit photographs, and the ease of his success attracted the attention of noted skeptics and scientists including Trail Taylor, the editor of the British Journal of Photography ("Spirit Photography", online Occultism and Parapsychology Encyclopedia, Hudson reportedly allowed skeptics to view and document his entire photographing and developing processes, but no fraud could be determined. Other spirit photographers soon followed, including Edouard Jean Buguet of France, who appeared in London in 1874 and was ultimately tried and convicted of fraud by the French government. In spite of these setbacks, spirit photography continued to be popular, especially in the years immediately following the first world war. Fraud was rampant, attracting the attention of famous celebrities including former supporter P. T. Barnum and the illusionist Harry Houdini, who began a well-publicized personal crusade against fraud in spirit photography in the 1920s. He published the results of his investigations in the book A Magician Among the Spirits in 1924 (John Mulholland, "Houdini, Harry", World Book Encyclopedia, 1966).

Spirit Photography and the American Spiritualism Movement

Noting the impact of American spiritualism on the history of spirit photography is important. Spiritualism was a religious movement popular among middle and upper-class women from the 1840s – 1920s ("Spiritualism", Wikipedia online encyclopedia). Its main belief was that the souls of the departed could remain in this plane after death and could speak with a medium, a person believed to have the power to talk with the dead. The thing that spiritualists wanted most was undeniable proof of this otherworldly contact, and spirit photography seemed able to provide this proof. Fraud, however, was as widespread as skepticism, as evident in the trial of William Mumler and the subsequent conviction of Edouard Jean Buguet. Starting as early as the 1850s, investigators began exposing fraudulent spirit photographers both in America and abroad. By 1882, The Society for Psychical Research in England began investigating spiritualist claims, including spirit photography, both in their native country of England and in the United States. The movement's reputation was further damaged by a report from the Seybert Commission, in which Eleanor Sidgwick showed how even a trained investigator could be fooled by simple sleight of hand (No. 8, Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania, The Seybert Commission, 1887). In spite of the commission's findings and a subsequent outcry by religious officials, spirit photography remained a topic of interest to spiritualists, especially in England. Known today as "Survivalism", modern spiritualism has done away with the mysterious ceremony and carnival atmosphere of past years, relying instead on the observance of paranormal phenomenons that can be subjected to scientific investigation. Spirit photography, coupled with video, magnetic field meters, and electromagnetic voice recording, has become a tool with which the existence of the soul after death can be measured and studied.

The Failings of Early Photography

During the first days of spirit photography, photographic technology was still in its infancy. The first publicly available cameras, the "Daguerreotype", were introduced in 1839, but they were difficult to obtain and even more difficult to master. Photographs were made by cleaning and coating a metal plate, which was then placed inside a simple box camera with a focusing bellows. The subject was carefully posed, then the camera shutter was opened for the specified amount of time, sometimes up to a minute or more. The exposed plate was then developed in a series of chemical baths. This type of photography was not an exact science, often resulting in abnormalities or anomalies in the finished image. Each photograph taken was like an experiment, and results were difficult to reproduce consistently. The exceedingly long exposure times also made it easy to precipitate fraud. The subject posing for the photograph was required to remain perfectly still to ensure a clear image and was often seated in front of a curtain or background prop. A costumed "extra" could simply emerge from the background curtain, remain stationary for a few moments, and then move out of the frame, leaving behind the image of their "ghost" on the photographic plate. Another method of fraud was pre-exposing plates before the subject of the photo ever arrived, further reinforcing the idea that the resulting spirit photograph was genuine. A well-rehearsed hoaxer could even allow skeptics to observe and document his activities without ever giving away his secrets.

A Variety of Photographic Hoaxes

Transparent apparitions were not the only images captured by early spirit photographers. Another popular subject was "ectoplasm", which appeared to pour from the mouth, nose, and ears of a spirit medium during a trance. These flat, milky clouds were reported to be the material manifestations of spirits, but often, their presence in the photograph appears contrived (illus. 2). Other photographs reveal spectral appendages. These strange anomalies were believed to be the material apparatus of spirits for the purpose of "spirit-rapping", "table-turning", or other seance feats. Like the photographs of alleged ectoplasm, these images appear flat and two-dimensional, out of place next to the three-dimensional subject and defying the laws of natural physics (illus. 3). Another technique from the 1890s was effluviography, the camera less capture on a sensitized photographic plate of "fluids" emanating from a spirit medium. These odd, distorted images were believed to show the soul, vital forces, or even the thoughts and dreams of the medium being photographed. Also known as "thought-ography", effluviography later became the inspiration for Kerlian photography in the 1940s. One man in particular made a living from the propagation of photographic hoaxes. Known as "Dad", William Martin's hoax postcards were popular from 1905 – 1915. Based in Ottawa, Kansas, his "photographs" of giant vegetables, jackalopes, and monster fish only further prove the ease with which a photo could be faked and faked well. Another famous hoax was the Cottingley Fairy photograph, produced by two young sisters from Cottingley, England. In a manner similar to Martin, paper cutouts were posed and held in place with hatpins before being photographed. The beauty of this "photograph" was that it was created by children (Museum of Hoaxes, online gallery).

The Occult Revival

Though public interest in spiritualism died out in America in the 1920s, the interest in spirit photography did not. In the 1940s, Seymon Kerlian began experimenting with photographing subjects in the presence of varied electrical fields. The result was the subject surrounded by glowing, colored emanations, which were believed to be evidence of the "vital forces" which pervade all things. This process, originally called "electography", would later be renamed "Kerlian photography", after its inventor. In the 1960s, Kerlian photography found new popularity through the work of Ted Serios and Amanda Portugal. Kerlian photography was briefly featured in the movie The Omen (1976), written by David Seltzer and directed by Richard Donner. In the scene, Damien Thorn (Harvey Stephens) and his nanny Holly (Holly Palance) have a Kerlian photograph taken of themselves at a birthday party. The photo reveals sinister shadows reaching from the character of Damien toward his nanny accompanied by a creepy explanation by the photographer, earning it a moment of fame among the occult trappings of Hollywood horror. Now called "aura photography", Kerlian photography is still practiced commercially today, and photographic equipment or services can be purchased from many mail-order houses and web sites.

Starting in the 1960s – 1970s, interest in paranormal phenomenons experienced a revival, due in part to the introduction of eastern spiritualism. The philosophies of Buddhism and Hinduism played a large role, incorporating new ideas about death, ghosts, and reincarnation into the mainstream of occult thought. In later decades, the invention of new, more reliable photographic technology ended many problems that have plagued the field in the past. The old trappings of psychic mediums and seances were discarded and replaced by specialized equipment and the scientific method. Private research institutions and public organizations began conducting detailed experiments designed to study a paranormal phenomenon rather than exploit it. Media attention furthered the public's interest, which such notable examples as Poltergeist (1982), a film in which an ordinary family is terrorized by the spirits that haunt their home. The movie features a re-enactment of a paranormal investigation, complete with night-vision cameras, infrared photography, and magnetic field meters.

Contemporary Spirit Photography: An Overview

The reputation of spirit photography suffered much during the decline of the American spiritualism movement, but that is not to say that the idea is without merit. Though most spirit photographs from earlier eras are fraudulent, there remain those photographs that still defy explanation. These photographs, like The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, continue to be enigmatic reminders of the truer intentions of earlier, more credible, spiritualists. Today, the process of spirit photography is approached scientifically, following a strict set of guidelines and using a variety of specialized equipment. Light gathering lenses eliminate the need for flash photography, effectively removing anomalies caused by the glare of flash bulbs. Infrared films can be used to capture temperature variations and show the presence of the unseen when there is no light at all. Automatic film advancing has virtually eliminated the problem of double exposures, and faster shutter speeds help to eliminate unidentifiable blurs caused by movement, either of the subject or the camera. Photographic film itself has advanced as well. Unlike the tin plates and chemicals of the 1800s, today's camera films are stable and consistently reliable. Standardized developing processes have helped to eliminate grainy anomalies caused by improper developing.

Spirit photography has also been aided by the addition of newer and more advanced technologies. These include the hand-held video camera, which can produce full color images and sound moving in real time, as compared to the vague images of most static photographs. Digital technology provides instant results and many images, resulting in a larger base of reference material for study. Affordability has also been a determining factor, and today's cameras offer most features at a reasonable price, providing the public at large with the opportunity to become spirit photographers themselves. Internet sources like and private organizations like The American Ghost Hunter's Society offer advice and training in the field of spirit photography. Public forums and blogs allow diverse peoples to share their photographs and personal experiences, providing a worldwide database of research materials.

Types of Spirit Photographs

Different classifications of spirit photographs have been determined based on the specific characteristics of the anomaly being photographed. The most common type of spirit photograph is the orb. An orb appears as a ball of light that may vary in size or seem to move of its own will. They are most often observed around cemeteries and structures, and are believed to be the manifestations of the souls of the departed. Other, less common manifestations include ectoplasm, mist-like clouds that may appear to move without wind or form into faintly recognizable shapes (illus. 4), and vortexes, swirling, light-colored clouds that appear as ribbons or threads.

The least common type of spirit photograph is that of an apparition, a ghostly form that appears as a recognizable human shape, often with frightening detail. One famous photograph is that of The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (illus. 5). The image, captured in 1936 by professional photographers Captain Provand and Indre Shira, shows a ghostly figure descending a staircase (D. Parkinson, "The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall", Mysterious Britain). A similar photo is that of the Greenwich Ghost, taken by Rev. Ralph Hardy inside the Queen's House section of the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England in 1966 ("Paranormal Phenomenon", This famous ghost photograph reveals a very human arm and torso climbing the Tulip Staircase. Both photographs have been featured in many publications, including The Fortean Times ("The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall", September 2006).

Standard Spirit Photography Equipment

The most important piece of equipment for a spirit photographer is the camera. For some, the camera of choice is the Polaroid. It produces a reliable image in a few minutes and is considered more difficult to fake. While the camera itself can be inexpensive, the instant film is not, and certain mechanical drawbacks of using the film decrease its reliability. A more common choice is the 35mm SLR, or single lens reflex camera. It uses standard film and is considered a bit more reliable than the instant camera. Optional infrared films and interchangeable lenses along with a variable shutter speed increase the camera's usefulness as a scientific tool. However, like the Polaroid, it requires film that must be transported and often loaded in adverse conditions such as rain, heavy dust, or high humidity. These factors can contribute to a film or camera failure, resulting in the reproduction of an image with a false anomaly. The alternate choice to the standard 35mm is the digital camera, which requires no film, is easy to operate, and is available with the same options as the SLR. However, digital cameras are more prone to picking up particulates in the air, resulting in a larger number of false images.

Video is considered the most reliable evidence of spirit activity. Spirit photographers use a variety of video recording equipment, both standard and digital. Video footage not only provides a view of the alleged ghost activity, but also records sounds made by the phenomenon and the reactions of other witnesses. Cameras that operate in low light conditions can provide definitive material for study, even when no witnesses are present, and can operate independently of the photographer by means of timers and other remote controls. Just as with cameras, however, video recorders can be prone to recording false images, whether due to environmental conditions, accidents, or mechanical failures.

Other items aiding the spirit photographer include micro cassette recorders, which are used to record "an EVP", or electromagnetic voice phenomenon. Thermometers are used to track atmospheric disturbances, and specialized sensors detect changes in ambient magnetic and electrical fields. While these items cannot determine if a spirit is present, they can expose unusual anomalies. What is more important is that they create reliable data that can be measured and studied.