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Spirit Photography

Spirit Photography was one of the first types of photography commissioned in the United States. Back in 1848, due to the photography of William Mulmer, people believed the images of the dead would appear next to them in a photograph. This was tied directly in with the Spiritualist movement, a religion that was around in the United States until the early 1900’s. Though we now know that all of the spirit photography created by Mulmer and other medium/spirit photographers of that time was a hoax, it is easy to see this early fascination of the possibility that images of the dead can be seen through the lens of a camera.

The Spiritualist movement started in 1848, when a woman claimed she and her sister could speak to a dead person through loud bangs in their home. This created a religion of people who believed in the after life, believed in speaking with the dead, and believed that psychics or mediums possessed the power to do so. Before the invention of photography little viable evidence was provided for this religion, however once photography was invented, the spiritualists embraced it. Not only because the means by which you develop film (in a dark room) was similar to the way they held their séance’s, but because photography was a new way that they could communicate with the dead, or so they felt.

William Mulmer: Portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln.

William Mulmer was the first Spirit Photographer, but there were many soon to follow, as it was a profitable business for its time. A grieving person in hopes of contacting their relative would come into the studio and either sit with a medium next to them, or have the medium actually take the photograph. When the patron would return probably weeks later to pick up their prints, there would be, usually multiple faces which seemed to be floating in an ectoplasm or mist. The grief stricken person would usually identify at least one of the faces, and the medium would explain that the unknown faces are your spirit guides manifesting themselves, and susceptible to any belief, the grieving person would usually be happy with the results. Mulmer and others claimed that Spirit Photography was able to promote faith in the after life, to validate a mediums power, and mostly to counter the dismissive claims of the Spiritualists, as in provide evidence to back their beliefs. Mulmers most famous work was the portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, in which a full figured Lincoln stands over her. He claims he had no idea who she was but that must be hard to believe considering she came to him within months of Lincoln’s death. Many photographers doubted Mulmer and came to watch him while he was in his darkroom, but no photographer ever came forward to say it was a hoax, no photographer ever caught Mulmer in the act, which is why when he was actually brought up on charges years later, they were dismissed.

By now your asking yourself, so how did they do it? How were they able to produce such seamless for their time, images of "apparitions?"

There were many different ways spirit photographers falsified their photos. One simple way was by the use of printed materials, magazines, other photographs, and to create a photo montage of them. This was discovered by F.W. Warwick who discovered that many spirit photographs when analyzed carefully contained lots of little dots to make up the image of the "spirit" and therefore that they came from printed materials. This can be seen in the famous "Fairies" image 1917.

(Frances Griffiths, The Cottingley Fairies, 1917)

Another way they did it was, as many photographers could guess, with the use of double negatives, and cutting and replacing pieces of negatives. Even etching in some sort of mist, which is another reason William Mulmer, "the engraver from", turned famous Spirit Photographer, was clearly using his engraving techniques when tampering with negatives.

In bedroom/office
LIPI members Paul Guarino and Amanda DeCarlo (right) at Private House Investigation in Lynbrook, NY.
(Note: Orb is dust)

In paranormal research today Photography is one of the most widely used tools; yet one with not as much conclusive evidence as everyone may believe. There are so many ways to disprove photographic anomalies including such simple answers as dust or moisture in the air. In the over 2000 photographs taken by the Long Island Paranormal Investigators, using both digital and 35mm cameras, there are only 15-20 that we consider to show possible paranormal activity. There are however many groups which consider orbs as evidence of the paranormal, which if we did would include hundreds of images which we truly don’t believe to be paranormal, if the explanation of dust or moisture could be the answer.

Conclusively the fascination of the possibility that the lens of a camera can see something we can not is not a new idea. In this day and age of digital images it is harder to believe what we are seeing to be paranormal due t the high-tech photography editing software made available. This is why we believe that for paranormal research, the use of a 35mm camera can provide less-disputable images, and provide us not only with an image to examine but the negative too. The most important part is analysis when it comes to photography of a possibly haunted location. You have to carefully examine all aspects of the photograph. For example, a camera which has a manual shutter might take a blurry, overly exposed image. This will have many odd light anomalies and people or objects look distorted. This is caused by movement of the camera while the shutter is open and is definitely not paranormal. The way in which Mulmer falsified his spirit photographs, is much different than what we encounter as paranormal researchers today. It is mostly just a lack of proper analysis. All aspects need to be accounted for such as the time of day, the cameras possibilities, moisture in the air, dust, hair, camera straps, I could go on forever, but you get the point.

Amanda takes 35mm photos at Eastern State Penitentiary
Amanda DeCarlo taking digital photos at Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia PA
(Yet another dust Orb)

We do, however, believe it is possible to capture paranormal phenomena, even full bodied apparitions through photography, and this is why even today it is still one of the most basic and important tools in paranormal research. Another reason photography is so valuable is that it is of course allows us to document all of our investigations. There is also a very aesthetic sense of beauty to be found in most of the places we research, be them historical or nature like, and artistic photography taken while on paranormal investigation, can really show a sense of peace and beauty in the abandoned.


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