While reading a selection of essays from Classics Essays on Photography edited by Alan Trachtenberg, I was surprised by the resistance against the newly emerging medium. For a very select few, they were interested in experimenting with capturing their surroundings; “From the Renaissance through the nineteenth century, Western man progressively developed techniques for making images to represent his visual experience of the world” (3).
For one of my graduate classes last spring, Core II: Research Methods for Writers, I spent the entire semester researching ghost hunting, and the most coveted and most difficult pieces of evidence investigators hunger after is a “spectral photograph,” or a picture of a ghost’s manifestation. As I read the above statement, I began to wonder when that desire of wanting to make images that represented the physical world switched to capturing evidence of the spiritual one.
The first forays into photography started in the 1820s with Joseph Nicephore Niepce and his brother Claude, and less than forty years later, the first spirit photograph was taken by W. Campbell in 1860(most people credit William Mumler was taking the first spirit photograph since W. Campbell was never able to reproduce the result).
This is the photo that is credited as the first “official” spirit photograph.
Mumler, when developing some of the film of his experimental self-portraits, discovered that the image of a woman was present in the picture. He claimed the woman was his cousin who had died twelve years earlier. Soon after he announced his discovery, people clamored for similar photographs. The desire for these pictures was so great that Mumler eventually left his position as an engraver for Bigelow Bros. and Kennard to completely devote his time to taking spirit photographs; and since this revelation came during the rise of the Spiritualist Movement, Mumler had plenty of business waiting for him. His most famous photograph is of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband standing behind her.
But it wasn’t until 1891 that what is still considered one of the best spirit photos was taken. The picture, taken by Sybell Corbett with an exposure time of one hour, is of an apparently empty library. The photograph says otherwise.
The man sitting in the chair was later identified by a relative as Lord Combermere, who had died in an accident five years earlier.
Since then, spirit photography and paranormal research has become enormously popular, and today this desire to document our connections with the spirit world has spread to include television shows, books, movies, and thousands of paranormal investigation groups who dedicate their time and resources to documenting their experiences with the spirit world.
I wonder where photography will lead us next.