The Creepy Yet Fascinating Art of Victorian ‘Spirit Photography’

Victorians had a unique way to understand and process death and Spirit Photography played a key role on it.

Isabel Cara

The creepy yet fascinating art of Victorian ‘spirit photography’

Filters in social media have revolutionized photography, making it a fun and sometimes creepy trend that will adorn our modern memories. Well, the idea of playing with filters in photography isn’t as new as we would like to think. As a matter of fact, ever since the creation of photography, creative people have managed to figure out how to create interesting effects.

Victorian people, mainly, were responsible for some of the eeriest and yet alluring photography effects. From headless portraits to people dancing with skeletons, Victorian folk really had a fascination with the obscure, and, in today’s cabinet of amusing horrors, we have the ‘Spirit Photography’ trend, which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly seen as a funny effect for those posing but a very profitable hustle for photographers.

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The 19th century was a time of progression and technological advances in some countries, but also a dangerous time where mortality rates were really high. Photography didn’t only offer a way to capture the image of beloved ones in life but took it to the other level with the infamous postmortem and spirit photos.

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What Is Spirit Photography and How Does it Work?

As it sounds spirit photography consisted of an exposure effect that imprinted a transparent figure in a common photograph. Photographers of the time promoted it as an opportunity for people to be photographed with the ghosts of their beloved ones, making it a really profitable business cemented on people’s grief.

The ‘trend’ started in the 1850s and, due to the quality of photography and the little knowledge people had about the craft, it soon got popularized both in the US and the UK. Through a double exposure effect and previously knowing the people their clients had lost, photographers managed to create shadows and ghastly figures behind them as if they were accompanying them. More gifted photographers even made it possible for the spirits to appear hugging those posing for the photo, making it even more realistic.

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The Rise of Spirit Photography in the US

It all started in the US right after the Civil War when most Americans were in grief with the loss of their relatives in the violent war. William Mumler, an opportunistic photographer, became one of the most renowned spirit photographers after promoting his spiritual abilities throughout the country. He started selling his pictures for 5 to 10 dollars, quite an important sum at the time, but people were so desperate to connect with their beloved ones that they would pay the price.

Mumler promoted his spirit photos exploiting that pain: “What joy to the troubled heart to know that our friends who have passed away can return.” He also presented himself as a medium capable of contacting with the spirits and capturing them on film. He would even insist that cameras could see what our eyes couldn’t, hence fooling thousands of clients. One of the most notable clients of Mumler, and one that sparked all sorts of theories and macabre stories, was Mary Todd Lincoln, who in an attempt to reconnect with her deceased husband and former president Abraham, tried spirit photography with Mumler.

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There were skeptics, of course, but the craze over spirit photography was way stronger, and eventually, it reached Victorian England, where people were obsessed with understanding death and were already quite familiar with macabre photography. The interests sparked immediately.

Victorian fascination with ghosts

Like Americans after the Civil War, England was also going through a hectic moment that the Industrial Revolution only made worse. New technologies and the urbanization of the country made life chaotic, but also made people question life itself, death, and, naturally, life after death. There was a huge craze over spiritualism and seances became quite a common practice; as mentioned, there was an obsession with ghosts and contacting them.

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The idea of being able to capture into an image what spirits looked like, thus, providing evidence of their existence, blew their minds, and photographers soon started to follow Mumler’s steps in the UK. Spirit photograph was even more successful in England also challenging photographers to create more and more realistic effects for clients desperate to connect with their beloved ones and others who simply wanted to feed their morbid curiosity.

As it had happened in the US, skeptics also tried to debunk spirit photography with all their might, and many would even point out that brooms and cables could be seen in some of the alleged photos, but despite the efforts, many still wanted to believe it was possible to see how the afterlife looked like. Still, by the end of the 19th century and the turning of the century, the trend started to fade down. That until the 1920s when William Hope, a British photographer, brought back the fascination over ghost photography.

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Spirit Photography’s Second Wave of Popularity

As it had happened with the Civil War after WWI most of Europe was in grief. As one of the most horrible wars in modern history (until then), people were anxious to connect with their dead ones. William Hope only had to look a bit in the past to come up with an answer to their sorrow. Having better technology than his Victorian predecessors, Hope managed to create clearer and more convincing ghost images.

It was the perfect timing, people full of hope and unwilling to move on would pay anything to have one last connection with their loved ones, and Hope had the technology, the wits, and the selling personality to fulfill those needs. Like Mumler, Hope also had important customers that included the celebrated author of the Sherlock Holmes saga, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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The latter was so excited about the results of the image that he even wrote a thorough report called The Case for Spirit Photography, in which he praised the experience and the opportunity to be pictured with the ghost of their beloved ones.

Now, the images as you can see are actual works of art considering the technology available at the time, but that doesn’t cancel the fact that these were mere hoaxes that took advantage of desperate people wanting to appease their grief. They might’ve brought comfort to them, but it was a plain hustle.

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