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Photographic Amusements

Photographic Amusements

I CAN’T REMEMBER HOW I heard of this book. Probably it came up during my research into the history of photography, and it sounded so excellent that I had to track it down. It is really quite incredible. My copy is the 10th edition, “Revised and Enlarged” and published by the American Photographic Publishing Co. of Boston in 1931. The first edition was from 1896.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

It’s basically a how-to book for amateur photographers itching for a little photographic experimentation. Just look at that Table of Contents. Not only does this book have lessons in “Spirit Photography” and “Doubles” but also “Freak Pictures by Successive Exposures,” “Photographs on Apples and Eggs,” (that’s on apples and eggs, not of apples and eggs), and “Pictures with Eyes which Open and Close.” And don’t let me forget the always essential “A Man in a Bottle.” What did I do with myself before I owned this book?

Figures 6 and 7

So, let’s look at how one takes a spirit photo. The first method, say authors Frank R. Fraprie and Walter E. Woodbury, is to engineer a simple double exposure.

“Suppose we want to make a picture something like Fig. 6. We must first prepare our ‘ghost’ by dressing someone in the orthodox ghost style, by draping a figure in a white sheet…Then we pose the sitter and the ghost in appropriate attitudes and give part of the required exposure. Then, leaving everything else just as it is, we remove the ghost and complete the exposure. On developing the film, we find the sitter and the background properly exposed and only a rather faint image of the ghost, with objects behind it showing through on account of the double exposure.”

Another way to make ghost pictures, Fraprie and Woodbury tell me, is to take an underexposed picture of a spirit against a black background and then use the same film or plate another time for another photo. In this way, the sitter is not aware of the ghost picture while they are posing. I have also read that people dressed up as ghosts would sneak into the back of a picture without the sitter noticing. Kinda like when someone does “bunny ears” to some unaware person in a snapshot. But it seems unlikely that someone wouldn’t notice a person in a big ole sheet.

“Of course it is not necessary to dress up the ghost in a white sheet and we believe that far more convincing effects can be obtained by having the ghost dressed in the ordinary way.”

See figures 8 and 9, below, as lovely examples of dressing in the “ordinary way.”

Figures 8 and 9

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My Dead Models, Part II.

AND HERE, a promised follow-up to my previous post. My models for our more minor characters, no less beloved.


Mavis, the maid.

Mrs. Sullivan

Mrs. Sullivan, the Pritchett's cook.

Nate Dearborn

Nathaniel Dearborn, a wounded soldier with a secret.

Heinrich Geist

Heinrich Geist, spirit photographer.


Viviette, his housemaid and model.

Mr. Harding

Mr. Harding, to whom a spirit appears.

And a later post will address the Strange Case of baby Amelia Pritchett, 1855-1857. Hang on to your hats, folks.

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My Models Died Years Ago, Part I.

ALMOST EVERY CHARACTER in Picture the Dead has a real-life 19th century counterpart, unearthed from the archives of the Prints and Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. Here are some of my models and their correspondant illustrated selves.

Jennie Lovell

Our heroine, Jennie Lovell.

Tobias Lovell

Jennie's twin brother, Tobias.

William Pritchett

Jennie's fiancé, William Pritchett.

Quincy Pritchett

Will's brother, Quincy Pritchett.

Uncle Henry

Uncle Henry Pritchett.

And here a little side note regarding dear Aunt Clara. I honestly had trouble finding a model who was detestable enough to represent Clara in all her vile-ness. I was particularly keen to portray Adele’s incredible description of a “chin that wobbled like aspic.” Nobody during the Civil War era seemed to have such a chin. I tried concocting a composite from several existing portraits, but, in the end, I had to invent Clara out of whole cloth, sketching her out by hand. I gave her the requisite double chin, little girly ringlets, and an air of entitlement. Voila. Aunt Clara.

Here, at least, is an example of a model for her dress, expanded:

Aunt Clara

Aunt Clara Pritchett.

A later post will bring more models for more minor characters…

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Sitting Still

family portrait

Daguerreotype of the stiff-looking Clark sisters. Between 1840 and 1860. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

NOTICE HOW STIFF and strained these people are this photograph. I used to think that it was just really, really hard to live a life back then. In fact, when I was a kid my family took a novelty Ye Olde Photo and I convinced everyone to put on as dour a face as possible. So we could be authentic. See how angry we all look?

my family, looking pained

My family, looking pained.

It turns out the expressions were merely a result of the peculiar particulars of the photographic process. The very earliest photographs were daguerreotypes: images fixed by natural light onto individual sensitized copper plates. The exposure time for these pictures was excruciatingly long; one could sit for twenty minutes in blinding sunlight in order to get a decently bright exposure.

By the time during which Picture the Dead takes place, daguerreotypes were a thing of the not-so-distant past. Photographers were able to take glass plate negatives and print them onto albumen paper. The glass plates were far more sensitive to light than the daguerreotypes had been, and folks’ sit-perfectly-still times were shortened to a far more manageable thirty seconds (sunny weather permitting). More manageable, yes, but hardly comfortable. You try to sit completely still for a half a minute. Do you blink? Does your foot fall asleep? Do you begin to droop in your chair? Now imagine that there was some sort of metal stand clamped to the back of your neck in order to help you with the not-moving. Ugh. No wonder the portraits turned out like that.

In the following photos, look at the subjects’ feet, and you can see the bases of those neck-clamping-stands. Wuh.

girl with stand

Photograph from "Victorian Women's Fashion Photos," Dover Publications.

man with a stand

Daguerreotype of William Sidney Mount, also identified as Alfred Jones, engraver. Between 1853 and 1860. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

boy with a stand

Carte de visite of Charles H. Richards, 89th Regiment, NY. ca. 1863. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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Photographing Spirits

spirit photo

Woman with Daisies and Spirit, ca. 1875. By an unidentified Photographer. Copyright © 2000 The American Photography Museum, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

IMAGINE IT’S THE YEAR 1864, and you are living in the United States during a bloody, brutal civil war. You feel helpless in the face of all this death. Remember, it’s the middle of the 19th century. That’s before the discovery of penicillin. Before doctors realized that they needed to wash their hands. So death would have been a frequent visitor in your home, anyway. The war just increased the number of the deceased.

So how did you deal with all this psychological anguish? All this loss? Well, some people pointed a camera at it.

During the 1860s, some photographers claimed that they could photograph the spirits of the dead. Photographing the dead was just another in a long list of 19th century options for ghostly communication. Folks who believed that one could make contact with dead and gone loved ones were members of the Spiritualist Movement.

Spiritualism was a religious ideology popular from the mid-19th through the beginning of the 20th century. Its followers believed not only that people lived on after death, but could be contacted with the help of “mediums:” people who were unusually sensitive to communication with the spirit world.

To our jaded modern eyes, these photos look like simple double exposures or a bad photoshop cut and paste job. But photography was still a fairly newborn technology in the middle of the 1800s, kind of like what 3-d computer animation is to us. Many people were completely, utterly convinced that it was real.

What did these spirits look like? Well, sometimes they looked like semi-transparent versions of a dead and gone loved one, who appeared, oddly enough, in the same exact position as in some other photograph of them taken when they were alive. At other times, they seemed to be figures draped in ghostly sheets, also semi-transparent. Occasionally, a spirit would appear who wasn’t related to you at all; instead, it would be an image of a Native American (sort of a spirit “guide”) or simply some eerie looking lights and vapors. They didn’t always appear right away, either. It would often take several sittings (and several payments) to convince those spirits to manifest themselves. You can’t force a spirit to do anything that it doesn’t want to do.

At the beginning of my entry, I posted a photo of a woman from 1875 sitting across from a figure clad in appropriately creepy drapery. The sitter looks like she is in mourning, which is not a surprise.

And below, a photo of a man with what looks like a painting of a woman gesturing to him. And a later example, said to have been taken during a séance. Can you even imagine looking at that and thinking that those were real ghosts? It’s not even a realistic painting. It goes to show you the lengths that people will go to suspend their disbelief when faced with the death of a loved one.

Spirit Photo

Portrait of a man with a spirit form, 1872-75. By F.M. Parkes & Mr. Reeves. © 2008 The College of Psychic Studies, London.

Seance spirits

Spirit photograph by John K. Hallowell. S.W. Fallis, photographer. 1901. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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Ghosts in the White House

Carte de visite of "Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln," by William Mumler, 1870-75. ©2008 The College of Psychic Studies, London.

“Spiritualism, the accompaniment of long and wasting wars, was rampant in the capital in the third winter of conflict. People sat hand in hand around tables in the dark, to hear bells rung and drums thumped and banjos twanged.”

Reveille in Washington 1860-1865 by Margaret Leech

CAN YOU IMAGINE our First Lady of the United States hostessing a White House event that was held specifically for the purpose of communing with spirits? Pretty farfetched, right? But that is exactly what an inconsolable Mary Todd Lincoln did after her twelve-year-old son Willie died of typhoid fever in 1862.

Mrs. Lincoln, who had been fascinated by and in contact with Spiritualists during Lincoln’s tenure in Chicago, now used her power as first Lady to enlist the help of several famous mediums, including a young woman named Nettie Colburn, for whom Mrs. Lincoln went so far as to secure a job in the Department of the Interior so that Colburn could relocate permanently to Washington, D.C.

According to Colburn’s autobiography, Was Abraham Lincoln A Spiritualist? Lincoln himself was present at a number of her own séances, and the medium recalled an early meeting with the President where:

“…laying his hand upon my head, [he] uttered these words in a manner that I shall never forget: “My child, you possess a very singular gift; but that it is of God, I have no doubt. I thank you for coming here to-night. It is more important than perhaps any one present can understand. I must leave you all now; but I hope I shall see you again. He shook me kindly by the hand, bowed to the rest of the company, and was gone. We remained an hour longer, talking with Mrs. Lincoln and her friends, and then returned to Georgetown, Such was my first interview with Abraham Lincoln, and the memory of it is as clear and vivid as the evening on which it occurred.”

At home and abroad, however, Lincoln was criticized for his purported interest in Spiritualism, mediums, and séances, as it fostered rumors that he was using the occult to attempt to foretell the outcome of political and war-related events.

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