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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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One Response

  1. Photo graphing spirits are one of the best things that can happen sometimes the spirit is just a dot on the picture and other times the spirit is the full blown picture of what the spirit looks like. The thing about spirits is that when they want something done they talk to you in your sleep or in plain site.

    Voegele Dillon

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