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Spirit Photography - New York ~ New Zealand


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Spirit Photography

The blurred negatives of early photography provided ample opportunities for Spiritualism; the appearance of phantoms in the background of photographs, next to viewers or behind them, sparked the imagination, even if their credibility quickly faded.

The trend began with William H. Mumler (1832-1884), a New York photographer, whose accidental double exposure (the double use of a negative on two or more photographs) blended a photograph of himself with a deceased cousin. Mumler proceeded to produce multiple portraits where sitters were joined by a ghostly apparition. The enterprise foundered after the recognition of some ‘ghosts’ as in fact living, but not before Mumler had a successful run as a medium, tapping into the fascination with the esoteric, and the undiscovered properties of that eminently scientific portraiture, photography.

The Psychic Research Society Scrapbook is replete with Spirit photographs, but none which Society members obtained. The methods of Mumler in the 1860s were hardly credible by the 1930s, but did enjoy a media ‘afterlife’ in popular magazines.
The Scrapbook boasts a letter describing a particular experience. A New Zealand connection is found in the undated story of a ‘Man in Bristol’, a New Zealand expatriate, who has his photograph taken to send home. When he comes to collect the print, the assistant apologises, telling him it was a double exposure. Seeing himself next to ‘a stout woman in period dress’ in the queue to the shop, he assumes the assistant’s story, but several more ‘mistakes’ leads him to think otherwise, wondering if the woman in the queue was a ghost.

https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/exhibition/southern-spirits/site_graphics/Spirit%20Photography%20I.JPGEdgar Lovell-Smith appeared in a Spirit Photograph himself: dated to Saturday, 11 September 1941. A worried-looking Lovell-Smith looks up to a blurred, inflated head, with the reassuring caption underneath that no one else was present. The photographer, Stanley Edlin, is named overtly, to maintain a trusted presence. Edlin’s sister appears in two subsequent images, unaware of the misty personages hovering beside her...

Extensive coverage is also given to overseas coverage of spirit photography. Mrs William Clavert of Bank St, Battyeford, Mirfield, Yorkshire, photographed daughter Margaret by the grave of older daughter Eleanor. In the exposure, Eleanor’s miniature face appears on the arm of Margaret. Mrs Clavert claims not to have been a spiritualist, or have even heard of them. The experts, the article says excitedly, are sure it is not a double negative, but an original. Spirit photography from a stately home in Yorkshire also appears, although the ‘spirit’ on the stairs appears to be little more than a ray of light, or a bleached patch on the paper.

Most striking is a photograph claiming to be of Christ, with the caption underneath that it was not taken on earth. Excluding all questions of exactly how such a production was assembled, this work would be, to the spiritualist, the ultimate in spirit photography, where not only the sitter but the photographer is disembodied. More are promised in the future, bringing people back to faith in God. It is the most extreme example of a longstanding urge to blend the spiritual with the scientific, and the attempt to create a religious experience by the credible standards of its day.

Scrapbook of the Christchurch Psychical Research Society Inc., Macmillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury Manuscript 165, 44

Ibid., 46-48

Ibid., 86, 173

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