The production of photographs on which alleged spirit forms are visible. When the plate or film is developed there sometimes appears, in addition to the likeness of the sitters at a séance, a shape resembling more or less distinctly the human form, which at the moment of exposure was imperceptible to normal vision.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Spiritualists asserted that there were photographs of spirits (the spirits of departed friends and relatives of the sitters) and that the presence of a medium was generally required to facilitate their production. Even though the main evidence in favor of spirit photography rests on recognition of the supposed spirit by the sitter and others, the "astral figure" is often very vague and indistinct, with the head and shoulders enveloped in close-clinging draperies.
The practice of "spirit photography" originated in the United States in the nineteenth century and enjoyed a fitful existence through the 1930s. It was first introduced in 1862 by William H. Mumler, a Boston photographer. A Dr. Gardner, of the same city, was photographed by Mumler, and on the plate appeared an image that the sitter identified as his cousin, who had died 12 years before. Gardner published his experience, and the new spirit photography was at once adopted by Spiritualists, who saw in it a means of proving their beliefs. In 1863, however, Gardner discovered that in at least two instances a living model was the subject of Mumler's "spirit" pictures. Although he continued to believe that some of the photographs might be genuine, his exposure of Mumler as fraudulent effectively checked the movement for a time.
After a lapse of six years, Mumler appeared in New York, where the authorities endeavored to prosecute him, but the evidence against him was insufficient to prove fraud, and he was acquitted.
Spirit photography had flourished in the United States for some ten years before it became known in Britain. Samuel Guppy and his wife, Agnes Guppy-Volckman, the well-known Spiritualist mediums, endeavored without success to produce spirit photographs in private, and at length called for the assistance of Frederick A. Hudson, a professional photographer. A photograph of Guppy revealed a dim, draped "spirit" form.
Hudson speedily became popular, and his studio was as largely patronized as Mumler's had been. He found support from several outside observers. Thomas Slater, a London optician, made careful observations of his process without being able to detect any fraud. John Beattie, a professional photographer and something of a skeptic, made the following statement concerning Hudson's performances: "They were not made by double exposure, nor by figures projected in space in any way; they were not the result of mirrors; they were not produced by any machinery in the background, behind it, above it, or below it, nor by any contrivance connected with the bath, the camera, or the camera-slide." Trail Taylor, editor of the British Journal of Photography, said that "at no time during the preparation, exposure, or development of the pictures was Mr. Hudson within ten feet of the camera or darkroom. Appearances of an abnormal kind did certainly appear on several plates."
Such testimonies as these from the lips of skilled and disinterested witnesses would naturally seem to raise spirit photography to the level of a genuine psychic phenomenon. But a careful analysis of the evidence, such as is given by Eleanor Sidgwick in her article "On Spirit Photographs …" in the Proceedings (no. 8, 1891) of the Society for Psychical Research shows how even a trained investigator can be deceived by sleight of hand. And it is notable that Beattie himself afterward pointed out instances of double exposure in Hudson's productions.
In spite of this, Hudson continued to practice, and various Spiritualist magazines continued to lend him their support, with the notable exception of the Spiritualist, whose editor, himself a practical photographer, had aided John Beattie in denouncing spirit photography. Another enthusiastic Spiritualist, Enmore Jones, who at first claimed to recognize a dead daughter in one of the pictured "spirits," afterward admitted that he had been mistaken.
Those who had pinned their faith to the genuineness of the photographic manifestations were naturally unwilling to relinquish their belief in what they considered sure proof of the reality of the spirit world, and ingenious explanations were offered to cover the circumstance of the apparent double exposures. The spirit aura, they said, differed from the natural atmosphere in its refracting power, and it was not to be wondered at that objects were sometimes duplicated. And so Hudson retained a considerable measure of popularity.
In 1874 the Paris photographer Édouard Buguet crossed over to London and commenced the practice of spirit photography. Many of the purported spirits in his pictures were recognized by his clients, and even when he had been tried by the French government and had admitted deception there were those who refused to regard his confession as spontaneous, inclining to believe that he had been bribed by "Jesuits" to confess to fraud of which he was innocent.
Other spirit photographers were F. M. Parkes, a contemporary of Hudson, and Richard Boursnell, who produced spirit pictures in London in later years.
The principal evidence in favor of spirit photography is undoubtedly the recognition of the spirits by their friends and relatives, but the unreliable nature of such a test has been seen time and again when a single "spirit" has been claimed by several persons as a near relative.
One of the most prominent defenders of the mediumistic photographers was W. Stainton Moses (who wrote under the pseudonym M. A. Oxon), who saw in them the best proof of the reality of Spiritualism. The same view was shared by Alfred Russel Wallace, who said (Arena, January 1891), "It is that which furnishes, perhaps, the most unassailable demonstration it is possible to obtain of the objective reality of spiritual forms."
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the whole idea of spirit photography was called into question by psychical researchers. In 1933 Fred Barlow and W. Rampling Rose presented the results of their research to the Society for Psychical Research and indicated that they had been unable to locate any spirit photographs not produced fraudulently. Their opinion has remained the consensus opinion of parapsychologists in the decades since. No set of photographs have been offered in recent decades for serious consideration as genuine spirit images.
"Spirits" are not the only paranormal effects claimed in psychic photography. Many photographs have been produced that allegedly show "spirit writing," some on photographic plates not exposed in a camera (see Skotograph ). In modern times, Ted Serios of Chicago has produced what appear to be "thought pictures" of distant scenes on Polaroid film. The Japanese investigator Tomobichi Fukurai used the term though-tography to denote "paranormal" images on photographic materials.
Barlow, Fred, and W. Rampling Rose. "Report on an Investigation into Spirit-Photography." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 41 (1933): 121-38.
Christopher, Milbourne. Mediums, Mystics, and the Occult. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975.
Coates, James. Photographing the Invisible: Practical Studies in Supernormal Photography, Script, and Other Allied Phenomena. London: L. N. Fowler, 1911. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1973.
Doyle, Arthur Conan. The Case for Spirit Photography. London: Hutchinson, 1922. Reprint, New York: George H. Doran, 1923.
Eisenbud, Jule. The World of Ted Serios: "Thoughtographic" Studies of an Extraordinary Mind. New York: William Morrow, 1967.
Fukurai, T. Clairvoyance and Thoughtography. London: Rider, 1931. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.
Glendinning, Andrew. The Veil Lifted: Modern Developments of Spirit Photography. London: Whittaker, 1894.
Houghton, Miss [Georgiana]. Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. London: E. W. Allen, 1882.
Mumler, William H. Personal Experiences of William H. Mumler in Spirit Photography. Boston, 1875.
Patrick, C. V. The Case Against Spirit Photography. London: Kegan Paul, 1921.
Patterson, Tom. 100 Years of Spirit Photography. London: Regency Press, 1965.
Permutt, Cyril. Beyond the Spectrum: A Survey of Supernormal Photography. Cambridge, England: Patrick Stephens, 1983.
Price, Harry. Confessions of a Ghost Hunter. 1936. Reprint, Causeway Books, 1974.
Sidgwick, Mrs. Henry [Eleanor]. "On Spirit Photographs, a reply to Mr. R. A. Wallace." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 8 (1891): 268-89.
Stead, Estelle W. Faces of the Living Dead. London, 1925.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.
Wilmot, T. S. Twenty Photographs of the Risen Dead. Birmingham, England: Midland Educational, 1894.
Term devised by a Japanese experimenter Tomobichi Fukurai for thought photography, the impressing of mental images on photographic plates. His researches were embodied in his book Clairvoyance and Thoughtography (1911, English translation 1930). Modern Japanese experimenters now use the term "Nengraphy."
Fukurai, Tomobichi. Clairvoyance and Thoughtography. London: Rider, 1930. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1975.