The Dubious History of Spirit Photography

Published by: Joe Silver

Almost as long as the camera has been around, there have been reports of mysterious figures and images appearing in them. The spectral forms of relative’s long dead, curious orbs, and visits from figures from the history of the locations the pictures were taken, all these and more have made an appearance. But the question remains, are these figures truly appearing in the film? Or are there conmen and hucksters out there trying to take advantage of the mourning and gullible?

Where It All Started

Photography first started becoming common in the 1800’s, and in 1860 a man named William H Mumler noticed something off about a photo he had developed. A second figure had appeared in a photo he had recently taken out of the developer, and as he pondered this recent development he realized that he had double exposed the film, resulting in a spectral figure appearing on the image.

William Mumler, father of Spirit Photography

It took no time at all before he realized the marketing potential of this new photo technique, he coordinated with a medium and began doctoring photos with ‘spirits’ for their clients. Eventually his fraud was revealed, and he lost all credit as a spirit photographer. Spirit photography, however, was here to stay.

The Day Everything Changed

In 1936, nearly 70 years later, a story and a photograph came forth that would shake the foundations of 70 years of debunking and verifiable fraud. This photo was taken by two photographers from Country Life Magazine while taking images of Raynham Hall in Norfolk England. Unlike the photographs of their spiritual ancestors, the spectre that showed up in the image was seen previous to the photo being taken, and is in fact what prompted the shot.

Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

Research into the history of the site deduced that the woman in the shot, known colloquially as the brown lady, could be Lady Dorothy Townsend, thought to have haunted the location since she died of dubious causes in 1726. Even more disconcerting to those certain that spirit photography was a myth, was that the image was determined to be authentic when examined by photography expert and paranormal researcher Harry Price.

Since this day the practice and science of spirit photography has blossomed, with thousands of photos coming in with mysterious clouds of ectoplasm, mysterious and sometimes frightening figures, and recognizable figures appearing throughout. The ever increasing availability of inexpensive cameras throughout the years has done nothing to slow down the ever increasing teams of enthusiasts, ghost hunters, and most recently teams of people determined to prove it all a hoax.

Spirit Photography Techniques

While no one can tell you how to take pictures of real ghosts (though 10% of all ghost photos go unexplained or cannot be debunked) there are a number of techniques for those looking to generate their own scary photos to celebrate this time of year. What technique you use will depend heavily on what kind of equipment you have.

Prior to digital photography, the majority of spirits in photography were accomplished through one of two techniques. Double exposures and long exposures.

Double Exposure

When using Double exposures, all you have to do is take two photos over the same piece of film by not advancing the film. Typically one takes a picture of the ‘ghost’ subject first, and then has them move, and exposes the film again without moving the camera. To really pull this off requires a tri-pod, as the human hand simply isn’t that steady.

Long Exposures are a clever ploy, essentially you prepare to take an image in an area that is dimly lit, permitting you to use a longer exposure time on your film. All you have to do is have someone quickly move into frame, stay for a brief moment, and then leave the shot. The objects in the scene that didn’t move will be sharply in focus, while your subject will be seemingly transparent and ghostly as they were only briefly in front of the camera. Voila! Instant ghost!

Long Exposure

These days most faked spirit photography is done using the amazing powers of photoshop, which in the hands of a professional can make the dead seem alive or, as in spirit photography, the living seem dead. If you have a digital camera and a little time to learn some techniques, you’ll be able to produce spooky spectral images in no time at all!

Famous Spirit Photographers and Their Followers

After the father of it all, William H Mumler, started the sensation that was to become spirit photography, there were some notable people that followed in his wake. The famous creator of Sherlock Holmes was surprisingly among them, an avid spiritualist and follower of spirit photography. Other notables were William Hope, and the Archbishop Thomas Colley, showing that even the church got caught up in this craze.

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