The “Inventing” of Supernatural Photography

If you are looking for a discussion of whether ghosts are real, this isn’t it.  Nor is this a discussion of whether spirits have ever been captured on film or other recording media.  How “spirit” photography became a genre, however, makes for an interesting story regardless of whether one believes in the supernatural.

By the 1840’s, photography had improved to where images previously requiring 20 minute exposures could now be created by a 20 second exposure.   Even at 20 seconds, any movement of the subject would cause blurring around the edges.  Child subjects with ants in their pants were no laughing matter.  Some reports suggest that  squirmy children could find themselves  in restraints for the duration of the session.  Historians also credit long exposure times as the reason that smiling in a photograph occurred infrequently until advances in the 1920a.

Historians credit the emergence of spirit photography to the “accidental” discovery of ghosting caused by slow shutter speeds and subject movement. Roger Fenton’s 1854 image of Prince Arthur (right) serves as perhaps the most famous example of  the effect.  he image to the right – a portrait of one of Queen Victoria’s children, Prince Arthur, taken by Roger Fenton in 1854.   The nanny entrusted with the safety of Queen Victoria’s son likely hovered nearby for part of the exposure to prevent the young boy from falling.

In the 1850’s and beyond, the sale of ghost photos served as a novelty, with no effort from most photographer’s to promote the image as anything for than it was.  In fact, is his 1856 book, 

 The Stereoscope: Its History, Theory and Construction, scientist David Brewster describes the effect to all:

“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.”

As is often the case, however, the lure of finacial gain and fame proved to strong to a few unscrupulous photographers trying to take advantage of anpther’s circumstances and grief.  That, however, is a story for another day.

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