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Spirit Photography Techniques
September 18, 2012 4:55 PM   Subscribe

Do we know how William Mumler created his images? If not, what are the most popular theories today, and what do we know about other spirit photographers?
posted by naturalog to Grab Bag (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
Most of the Mumler ones are clearly double exposures. The Lincoln one looks like the hand is crudely drawn on with bleach or something like that. This is what most of the old fakes were, but I've seen some that are literally some guy with a sheet over his head standing behind the sitter.

With flashes people started to figure out some techniques that still fool a lot of people.

Spirit Orbs are just dust fairly close to the camera caught in the flash (easily reproducible). I've seen some that look drawn on too.

Ectoplasm, as you can see, was a lot of times just some crap put on the subject. More deceptively it's smoke, mist, or a farther away dust cloud caught in a flash. Sometimes double exposures of some cloth or smoke does a convincing job.

I can't think of the term to get a good example, but you know those ghost photos that are a curved or wavy, bright streak? That's a hair held up close to the lens with a flash. It's really easy to make it look really good. Try it. There's also frequently a moving light source or a fast moving bug flying through the frame with a flash.

Those are all of the kinds I can think of that aren't outright staged, direct manipulations or just really, really reaching.
posted by cmoj at 5:28 PM on September 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Related: the Cottingley Fairies; the Hoax Photo Archive.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:39 PM on September 18, 2012


This article is excellent, and the Martyn Jolly book cited is a great read. The book specifically about Mumler and his trial is also supposed to be good.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:44 PM on September 18, 2012


And we absolutely know how Mumler created his images. People knew then; as referred to in the article I linked, P. T. Barnum had spoof images made with him in the Mrs. Lincoln pose and circulated them at the trial.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:46 PM on September 18, 2012


Many similar images at the time were created by simply reusing glass plates, and that was one of the common theories at the time, as written about in Louis Kaplan's The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. However, in the book I mentioned above, there are multiple accounts of people who brought unused (and marked) plates to Mumler, observed the whole process, and received their original plates back -- with both images intact. I'm not trying to suggest that there are actual spirits, but the testimonies given during his trial and at other times suggest that the process could have been something more complex than simply reusing plates. I'm wondering about those.
posted by naturalog at 6:04 PM on September 18, 2012


I don't know enough about old photography to speculate on any in-camera trickery, but the old catch-a-bullet-in-your-teeth trick is the same thing.

I don't know that anyone would know the specifics of his sleight of hand if that's what he did. Maybe look into what happened to his cameras?
posted by cmoj at 6:34 PM on September 18, 2012


However, in the book I mentioned above, there are multiple accounts of people who brought unused (and marked) plates to Mumler, observed the whole process, and received their original plates back -- with both images intact.

Same technique as "spirit slate" writing, only with photographic manipulation. To quote William Robinson (a/k/a Chung Ling Soo) from his book on spirit slate writing, "I wish to remark that, if any person tells you he took two slates of his own to a medium, thoroughly well tied or sealed, and that the slates never left his (the skeptic's) hands, and that there was writing obtained upon the interior surface of the slates under those conditions, he was sadly mistaken, and has failed to keep track of everything that actually took place at the time of the sitting."

If the Kaplan book is that credulous, I'm surprised (and faintly disappointed) that it was published by a university press, and that it has been so well reviewed. Now I don't want to read it after all!
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:08 PM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


the old catch-a-bullet-in-your-teeth trick is the same thing.

Note that Robinson a/k/a Chung was the person who popularized that very trick in the US and the UK.
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:09 PM on September 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


people who brought unused (and marked) plates to Mumler, observed the whole process, and received their original plates back

Yeah, honestly, my very first thought on reading this sentence was, "sleight of hand, misdirection and distraction."

Just from reading a bunch of books and articles on debunking & skepticism, it's just really, really, really common that people swear up and down that they observed an entire process, that things were marked in ways impossible to duplicate (especially quickly), that there was no way any trickery took place.

Then an experienced stage magician is asked to re-create the experience, and they do all that the "spiritualist" did and more, using some pretty simple "magic" techniques. Including getting people to sort of deny their own memory - like the magician actually leaves the room, and the observer will swear they "observed the whole process."

I get that you're more interested in cool camera trickery or interesting photo techniques, but I think it's really more likely that there were some fairly basic "magic tricks" at work here.
posted by soundguy99 at 8:10 PM on September 18, 2012


If the Kaplan book is that credulous, I'm surprised (and faintly disappointed) that it was published by a university press, and that it has been so well reviewed. Now I don't want to read it after all!

The Kaplan book is basically a collection of primary sources (excerpts from the press, Mumler's autobiography, P.T. Barnum's treatise on spirit photography, and some trial transcripts) with short essays by Kaplan at the beginning and the end. It's worth buying if you want to read the primary sources, but the essays (especially the last one, which is mostly him talking about Derrida without connecting it well to the topic at hand) are kind of lackluster.
posted by naturalog at 9:25 PM on September 18, 2012


I think I might have found part of the answer I was looking for -- albeit inadvertently while poking around on Google Books during class. In this selection from an 1869 issue of The Illlustrated Photographer, a photographer named as Cardinal gives his suggestion to how "the clever but unprincipled Mumler" might have created these images, using a technique he had figured out a few years earlier for taking photos of people with animal heads.

"First, provide some moderately-dense negatives of the heads of animals and birds, either from pictures of nature, on thin clear glass; while still damp, cut cleanly round the head with a penknife, and thoroughly clean the rest of the plate; then provide a plate-carrier of double the ordinary thickness, with the corners cut away till the back surface occupies the exact plane in the dark slide as the ordinary plate-holder. When posing the sitter take care the head occupies the same position on the ground-glass as was occupied by the heads of the animals and give fair warning that the camera has magical properties, and does not show sitters as they appear to the eye, but as they really are.

"While the plate is in the bath take the special holder (carrier) and place in the slide, and in that head negative adapted to the sitter, collodion side up, then small pieces of card on the corners (may be kept fastened to the negative), after which take the sensitized plate, place in the slide, and expose as usual, the result being the body of the sitter with the head of an animal, &c., printed upon it.

"With respect to the choice of heads that the 'ass' will be found very useful for mankind in general. For the ladies the goose, parrot, or magpie, or on very rare occasions the cat (I tremble while I write it) may be laid under contribution, but in truth they are all Ducks, are they not, Mr. Editor?

"I am aware the same effects can be produced by combination-printing, but the fun consists in its being done at the sitting, and without the sitter knowing it is done.

"I cannot clearly see how Mumler's spectral effects can be produced by the lens in the camera; and it seems to be the 'imposition of a positive upon the negative and the transmission of light through it in the bath' is simply ridiculous, as it must certainly produce 'London atmosphere,' while with a thin ghostly negative placed as I have indicated I have no doubt those effects can be produced. Of course, similarity of features are out of the question, this depending entirely on the imaginative power of the spectator."

My understanding of wet plate photography remains limited, but it sounds like this would have the desired effect without being immediately obvious to the person observing the process as something outside of the norm, particularly if they had a limited understanding of photography to begin with. The only remaining question (which I assume was something that contemporary photographers would have known) is whether this process also leaves an impression on the plate.
posted by naturalog at 11:45 AM on September 21, 2012


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