Ghosts, apparitions, angels, spiritual visitations and views of the future The relationship between photography and the spirit world of ghosts, apparitions and angels during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was a blending of popular belief and scientific fraud. The lack of sophistication in the public in an age of deeply held religious values and the generally accepted belief that the camera recorded truth allowed the unscrupulous to exploit the situation for financial gain.
In popular culture we have numerous examples of literature where ghosts play a key part of the story: for example, the haunted house in Athens described by Pliny the Younger or the specter of Banquo in Shakespeare‘s Macbeth (1603-1606). By the Victorian period in Great Britain the ghost was an established character in the increasingly popular novel form with the spirit of Marly in the ever popular A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens first published on December 19, 1843. The mischievous Sir Simon haunts the Otis family in Oscar Wilde‘s The Canterville Ghost (1887), which remains a Christmas favorite, while in a far more malevolent form there are the much-interpreted appearances of Miss Jessel and Peter Quint in the The Turn of the Screw (1898) by Henry James . The literature of the nineteenth century was book ended with a mix of gothic fear of the supernatural starting with Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley (published anonymously in 1818) and ending with Bram Stokers‘ Dracula (1897).
During this period Spiritualism, which sought to contact the dead via communication through the assistance of people with second sight or mediums, was popular within North America and Europe. Popular practitioners such as the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York (USA), Cora L.V. Scott (1840–1923), Achsa W. Sprague (1827-1861) and Paschal Beverly Randolph (1825–75) entered trance-like states to extract information from the spirits of dead relatives during private séances and public lectures. The adherents of table-turning and automatic writing became celebrities and entertainers and the desire to communicate with the dead continues today within popular culture despite scientific rationalization and the many frauds revealed. The blend of sentimental lithographs of guardian angels, so popular in 19th century household furnishings, the acceptance of death as a common part of everyday existence and fervent religious belief in an afterlife allowed for photographic opportunities.
The opportunities can be divided up based upon the intentions, however known or unknown, of the photographers and their publishers. In some cases such as the early stereo cards of the Diableries the underworld was portrayed. Allusions to psychic connections were made by multiple exposures with stereocards showing angelic sculptures along with a good mix of grieving children. In other cases the spirit of a far away loved one was shown standing by a person reading a letter or looking at a picture giving the sense of a protective presence in spiritual form. Young women dreaming of their future lovers or their wedding day were also common as were couples dreaming of a happy future with contented and partially visible children.
Along with these relatively harmless portrayals of the spirit and religious worlds was the fraudulent world of séances with automatic writing, table-tilting, and ectoplasm excreted by mediums as a physical manifestation of a haunting. Charlatans took photographs of these events and so there are carte-de-visites (CDVs) of Mrs Lincoln with the spirit of her dead husband, tintypes of families with their passed-over relatives residing on the other shore - a euphemism for heaven in a post-Charon world. American photographers such as William Howard Mumler (1832-1884) and his wife Hannah were a curious blend of inventors and frauds and their spirit photography led to notable legal cases. Frederick Hudson in London was also notable for taking photographs with spirits.
This online exhibition explores the diverse interactions between mortals and the spiritual world and we welcome additional examples.
(October 25, 2008)