Campus News

Picturing the Afterlife

Story posted October 28, 2003

The images of shadowy figures, ectoplasm, and bogeymen currently on exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art may be new to many museum guests, but they are part of a history of spirit-influenced photography that is nearly as old as photography itself.

In honor of The Disembodied Spirit, on exhibition at the museum until Dec. 7, John Jacobs, former director the Photographic Resource Center in Boston, recently spoke about spiritualism, photography and the nature of belief.

Jacobs spent four years working with the photographic archives at the American Society for Psychical Research, which boasts the oldest ongoing collection of material related to Psychic phenomenon. The primary goal of the ASPR was to gather facts about psychic phenomena.

"They accumulated material, they didn't necessarily study it," Jacobs said. If it were proved to be fraudulent, they discarded it, but otherwise, they kept it. So their resources are vast.

Jacobs is interested in the relationship between belief and photography.

"I've been trying for some years now to get at the notion of photographic experience," he said. The photographic experience assumes a transfer of information, but for that to happen a person has to accept the photograph as valid: he or she has to believe in the photograph. "The act of belief is always individually experienced," he said.

The relationship between photography and human belief is long. From the advent of photography the camera was presumed to be objective, so it became a valuable advocacy tool.

The development of photography also coincided with a renewed interest in spirituality, coming on the heels of the Second Great Awakening in American religious life. The most important interaction with photography in the 19th century, according to Jacobs, was its relationship to spiritualism, a movement characterized by a belief that spirits live on after death and can communicate through spirit mediums.

One of the earliest documented spiritualist encounters came in March of 1848 when two sisters communicated with a spirit by knocking on a wall. By the late 1890s spiritualism was a popular international movement. The spiritualists regarded their activities as scientific pursuits, and they embraced photography as a way to document their encounters with the spirit world.

This was the time of Anton Mesmer (from whom we get the word "mesmerized"), who introduced the idea of animal magnetism - a magnetic force present in all humans, the imbalance of which, Mesmer said, was the cause of illness.

It was the time of Baron Carl von Reichenback, a proponent in the belief of a different force he said emanated from all things and beings - a force he called "od." He documented it in odographs - photos created by placing photosensitive plates next to substances emitting od light. The images imprinted on the plates, Reichenback said, were created by the od.

It was the time of Hippolyte Baraduc, who believed that the body's radiant energy - its aura - could be captured in photography.

It was the time of thought photography.

"Thought photographers proposed that thought forms might be impressed on photographic plates," Jacobs said.

One such photographer was Darget of Tours, who held a photographic plate against his forehead while thinking of something and said that the images on the plates were manifestations of his thoughts. (Even as recently as 1964, a photographer claimed to be able to impress mental images onto unexposed Polaroids.)

Then, in 1861, the first real spirit photographs were taken: William Mumler, of Boston, produced a photograph of himself. In the corner was a faint image of a woman that he identified as his deceased cousin. He opened a shop and was charging $10 a session to photograph others with spirits of dead relatives or friends, and soon other spirit photographers hung out their shingles, as well.

At around this time, a photographer named John Beattie began hosting sťances at which he eventually took more than 700 photographs, 32 of which captured images of a personage identified by one of the mediums. Beattie became a believer and called these photographs proof of the existence of spirits.

"He believed absolutely that these photographs had shown spirit forms," Jacobs said. The photos weren't fraudulently created, he said, but there are explanations - other that spiritual - for how they were created.

A feature with which spirit photographers became familiar was ectoplasm - a mysterious substance that streamed from the orifices of entranced mediums. At first ectoplasm appeared in photographs as a mucousy goo, but by the 1870s images of faces and bodies were appearing as part of the ectoplasm.

By the end of the 19th century, there was a fully developed field of psychical research. In 1882, the Society for Psychical Research was founded in England, and in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded in Boston. The societies largely neglected the field of spirit photography, however, until about 1891. At that point, people were claiming that photographs proved the existence of spirits, so photography could no longer be ignored. Spirit photography became a battleground between believers in spiritualism and rationalist debunkers, the most famous of whom was Harry Houdini. Houdini began as a magician and escape artist, but at the end of his career he dedicated himself to exposing psychic fraud. Houdini acknowledged that many of the mediums were skilled illusionists, but felt that they were hoodwinking people who were vulnerable because of their desire to believe in spirit contact.

By 1918, the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures had also been formed to investigate claims of spirit photography. Its vice president was none other than Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of renowned sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was a believer in spiritualism, and he wrote a history of the movement.

In a rebuttal to photographic proof of psychic phenomena, a Mrs. Sedgwick, introduced the idea that photographs weren't entirely objective because a photo is the creation of the operator of the camera.

Early 20th century photography played a role in several psychical investigations:

Harry Price was a professional debunker, who in 1922 investigated spirit photographer William Hope. Hope was deeply religious and considered beyond reproach. To trap him, Price introduced plates that had been secretly marked and accused Hope of fraud when the plate with the photograph of the spirit didn't have the mark on it. Doyle published a defense of Hope.

One of the most famous and contentious investigations was into a medium known as Margery. She answered a call from "Scientific American" for a medium who would allow a scientific investigation of her gifts. The publication transferred the investigation to the American Society for Psychical Research, and Doyle and Houdini took opposite sides of the investigation. Their attacks and defenses of Margery, and each other, played out in the newspapers of the day.

The investigation of Margery so divided the ASPR that the organization split and Margery's detractors formed the Boston Society for Psychical Research. In 1930, it was revealed that the ASPR had repressed a report that someone had apparently suppressed the proof of Margery's fraudulence. In 1932 Margery was proven to be a fraud, and at about the same time, one of Hope's defenders retracted his statements, which essentially ended the era of scientific exploration of spirit photography.

Today, many have forgotten this era of combat between belief and science, and not a lot of documentation is left for scholars to study: Books on the topic published during the time are hard to come by, since they were considered useless by many libraries and destroyed to provide space for other books. One thing that fascinates Jacobs is that the mediums were never interviewed about their opinions of spiritualism or the investigation, so there are no records from their point of view. As a result, the mediums have basically vanished into obscurity.

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