National Media Museum blog

We explore the science, technology and art of the still and moving image, and its impact on our lives.

G is for ghosts… the birth and rise of spirit photography

For the next step in my alphabetical stroll through the National Photography Collection, I’m exploring the spooky world of photographic ghosts.

The very first ghost photographs

The first ‘ghost’ photographs were produced by accident and were a result of the long exposures required by the earliest photographic processes. If the subject moved during the exposure, they appeared in the finished photograph as a blurred, transparent, ghost-like figure.

Portrait of Prince Arthur, 1854, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

Portrait of Prince Arthur, 1854, Roger Fenton, The Royal Photographic Society Collection, National Media Museum

A portrait of one of Queen Victoria’s children, Prince Arthur, taken by Roger Fenton in 1854, clearly illustrates this effect. At the side of the young prince can be seen the ghost-like figure of his nurse who, obviously anxious that he might fall off the box on which he is posing, has moved into the frame part way through the exposure.

In 1856, the eminent scientist Sir David Brewster noted this unusual aspect of photography in his book The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory and Construction:

“For the purpose of amusement, the photographer may carry us even into the realms of the supernatural. His art…enables him to give a spiritual appearance to one or more of his figures, and to exhibit them as ‘thin air’ amid the solid realities of the stereoscopic picture. While a party is engaged with their whist or their gossip, a female figure appears in the midst of them with all the attributes of the supernatural. Her form is transparent, every object or person beyond her being seen in shadowy but distinct outline.”

Novelty ghost photographs

From the late 1850s onwards, ghost photographs were sold commercially, usually as stereocards. They were produced solely as novelties and amusements and no attempt was made to present them as genuine spirit photographs.

‘Ghost’ photographs were comparatively easy to produce and instructions on how to make them appeared in many publications, such as this example from Walter Woodbury’s book, Photographic Amusements.

Illustration from Walter Woodbury’s Photographic Amusements, 1896

Illustration from Walter Woodbury’s Photographic Amusements, 1896

“It is a very simple matter to make quite convincing ghost pictures…We must first prepare our ‘ghost’ by dressing someone in a white sheet. Then we pose the sitter and the ghost in appropriate attitudes and give part of the required exposure. Then, leaving everything else just as it is, we remove the ghost and complete the exposure. On developing the film, we find the sitter and the background properly exposed and only a rather faint image of the ghost, with objects behind it showing through on account of the double exposure.”

Ghost, c. 1935, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum

Ghost, c. 1935, Kodak Collection, National Media Museum

The rise of spirit photography

Unfortunately, the ease with which novelty ghost photographs could be made, meant that the technique was soon abused by fakes and charlatans who used it to prey on the gullible and the vulnerable by taking ‘spirit’ photographs of their deceased loved ones.

In the National Photography Collection we have an album of spirit photographs associated with William Hope and the ‘Crewe Circle’, unearthed in a second-hand bookshop by one of our curators.

This was the very first series of images that we uploaded to Flickr when we joined The Commons five years ago. Since then, our set of 23 spirit photographs has received a combined 1,227,347 views, with tags like ‘fraud’, ‘hoax’ and ‘fake’ added by Flickr members as frequently as ‘spiritualism’, ‘spectre’ and ‘paranormal’.

Elderly couple with a young female spirit

Elderly couple with a young female spirit, c. 1920, William Hope, National Media Museum Collection

See more spirit photographs by William Hope on Flickr.

Further reading and interesting links

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About Colin Harding

I am Curator of Photographic Technology at the National Media Museum. As well as looking after the camera collection I have curated many special exhibitions over the years.

4 comments on “G is for ghosts… the birth and rise of spirit photography

  1. ghostbusterbev
    May 21, 2013

    Thanks for this interesting post…the portrait of Prince Arthur would be especially convincing if the ‘trick’ photography was unknown.

  2. Malcolm Wakeman
    May 23, 2013

    Interesting article.

  3. Reblogged this on Illuminutti.

  4. smithphilomena
    March 27, 2014

    Reblogged this on Philly Visual Artist.

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