Spirited Away: A Brief History of Haunted Photography

Jacques Henri Lartigue_Zissou_as_a_ghost_Pont-de-l'Arche

Jacques Henri Lartigue “Zissou as a ghost Pont-de-l'Arche”, 1905

You could imagine it really: developing a photograph only to discover a ghostly apparition - a mysterious double, a whitish ephemera.  It could be enough to make you believe in ghosts if you knew it wasn't a hoax.  Could the apparition be a long lost relative? Could it actually be a ghost? They must have wondered. During the nascence of photography spirit photography was in vogue. Photography still held on to a sort of magical aura and to use it to communicate with the dead made photography a portal into the afterlife.  It was the 1860s - people had lost loved ones in the Civil War - death was omnipresent and gullibility was at an all time high.  One of the greatest spirit photographers was William H. Mumler. One day he developed a photograph that appeared to show a cousin that had been deceased for twelve years - it was actually a double exposure - and Mumler had inadvertently stumbled on to his calling. Like a vulture Mumler preyed on people's greif. One of Mumler's most famous photographs apparently shows Mary Todd Lincoln with the "ghost" of her husband, Abraham Lincoln. Mumler would eventually be tried in court as fraud.  He was acquitted, but his career was destroyed and he died penniless.  What are left of the spirit photographs today are haunting; some are ridiculous. We know now they weren't actual spirits, but they were symbolic, visual accountings of a zeitgeist - of humanity's willingness to exploit technology for our insatiable, lustful curiosity and material gain.

Albert von_Schrenck-Notzing_The_medium_Eva_C_with_a_materialization_on her_head

Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, "The medium Eva C. with a materialization on her head and a luminous apparition between her hands", May 1912


Anonymous, "Partial dematerialization of the medium Marguerite Beuttinger", 1920

Madge Donohoe_Skotograph

Madge Donohoe, "Skotograph", 1930


Anonymous, "Levitation of the medium Colin Evans, photographed in darkness using infrared, from the front", 1938

Albert von Schrenck-Notzing_The_medium_Stanislawa

Albert von Schrenck-Notzing, "The medium Stanislawa P: emission and resorption of an ectoplasmic substance through the mouth",  1913


Anonymous, "The ghost of Bernadette Soubirous", 1890, Albumen silver print


Thomas Glendenning Hamilton, "Mary M. with umbrella ectoplasm', 25 February 1934