When cameras captured ghosts

The fascinating history of spirit photography.

woman reading possessed book
A modern day spirit photograph made at the Penumbra Foundation in New York City.Jolene Lupo

What happens after we die? It’s a question that seems to have a million answers, and one that has perplexed humans for thousands of years. In the early days of photography some believed that the camera could be used as a tool to connect with the spirit world.

Spirit photography began in the late 19th century, around the time that the the spiritualism movement was gaining traction across Europe and the United States. The photographers who practiced it claimed that they could capture images of a portrait subjects and their deceased loved ones in a single frame. The haunted images were a big hit and spirit photographers like William H. Mummler, who charged ten dollars for a photo—which was considered a huge amount of money at the time, thrived.

Ghost of Jim Stubbs
A ghostly figure appears to a couple eating their dinner in a country cottage, 1865.London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

"Photography was very new at the time and people didn't really understand how it worked," says Jolene Lupo, Manager of Manhattan's Penumbra Tintype Studio, a nonprofit dedicated to historical forms of photography. "They knew that it could see more than the human eye could, but they didn't understand the boundaries of the medium."

Sometimes ghosts would appear very realistic, with their arms draped around the living portrait sitter. In other images the spirits would appear as no more than cotton-like whisps. One of Mummler’s most well known images featured first lady Mary Todd Lincoln sitting with a translucent image of her husband Abraham Lincoln—five years after he was assassinated.

Guardian Angel
The ghost of a woman appears to a girl at prayer by her bedside,1865.London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

“Each photographer had their own trademark,” says Lupo. The haunted frames were obviously—at least to our modern minds—a result of some kind of manipulation: chemical, in-camera or something done in the darkroom. Every photographer seemed to have a few tricks for making the ghosts appear.

Eventually spirit photographers like Mummler were exposed as frauds, although in some cases it was difficult to pinpoint what exactly had been done to create the image. People began to understand that the ghost-like figures were created by the photographer, but the practice of spirit photography continued.

“It got a little campier, people were having fun with it,” says Lupo. “Édouard Isidore Buguet got caught and started calling them anti-spirit photographs.”

Dream Ghost
A spectral figure hovers over a sleeping baby in a crib, 1860.London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

At Penumbra Foundation you can still have your photo taken with a ghost. The nonprofit offers spirit photography portrait sessions and hands-on workshops on the artform. But like the spirit photographers that came before her, Lupo is tight-lipped about the techniques she uses to conjure the spirits in her frames.

“People book a session and they don’t know what is going to appear in the image,” she says. “They know that it’s probably not the ghost of a loved one, but it’s still just as exciting watching it appear for the first time.”

Guardian Angel
A ghostly apparition appears behind a young woman, who sits reading, oblivious to her spectral companion, circa 1925.FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
People cowering in fear at the sight of a ghost
People cowering in fear at the sight of a ghost, circa 1920.SSPL/Getty Images
Joe and Will Thomas and their grandmothers spirit
A photograph of Welsh mediums and brothers Joe and Will Thomas, taken by William Hope (1863-1933). The Thomas family claimed that the image superimposed over the sitters was the only photograph of their deceased grandmother in existence. Hope, however, would have used an existing photograph of a woman to create the illusion. Hope's spirit album photographs use multiple exposure techniques to render the appearance of ghostly apparitions. Hope founded the spiritualist society known as the Crewe Circle and his work was popular after World War One when many bereaved people were desperate to find evidence of loved ones living beyond the grave. Although his deception was publicly exposed by a private investigator in 1922, he continued to practice.SSPL/Getty Images
Mourning scene, c 1920.
A woman mourns for her husband in a Chapel of Rest, standing by his body which is wrapped in sheets and laden with flowers. The woman's son stands beside her. The image of a man's face has been superimposed over the original photograph. The spirit album notes that the family were Roman Catholics and believed in life after death. Hope used multiple exposure techniques to render the appearance of ghostly apparitions.SSPL/Getty Images
Elderly couple with a young female spirit
A young woman's face appears as if floating above the sitters, draped in a cloak. Hope may have already held her photograph in his studio, or he may have asked the couple to supply photographs of deceased relatives under the pretense of using the image to contact the spirit world.SSPL/Getty Images
Family group with two spirits
Two faces, that of a man and a girl, appear, surrounded in 'mist', above the group.SSPL/Getty Images
Two men with female spirit
The face of a younger woman appears between the men, surrounded in an ethereal-looking 'mist'.SSPL/Getty Images
Man with spirit of his deceased second wife
A woman's face appears in 'misty' drapes around the man. He was said to have been asked to sit for a photograph by a voice heard at a seance held on 6 May 1923. This man had also identified the 'spirit' of his deceased first wife in an earlier photograph. He now identified this 'spirit' as his deceased second wife.SSPL/Getty Images
Mrs Bentley and the spirit of her deceased sister
A photograph of Mrs Bentley, once the President of the British Spiritualists Lyceum Union, taken by Wylie. A superimposed image - that of Mrs Bentley's deceased sister's face - appears at the lower right of the photograph.SSPL/Getty Images
Couple with a spirit in their car
A photograph of a couple leaning against a car, taken by William Hope (1863-1933). Two of Hope's friends are seen with a figure - the couple's deceased son - at the wheel. Hope had suggested a photo opportunity for the 'chance' of obtaining a spirit impression. Hope's spirit album photographs use double and even triple exposure techniques to render the appearance of ghostly apparitions around the sitter.SSPL/Getty Images
girl holding haunted book
A current day spirit photograph taken in the Penumbra Foundation's tintype studio.Jolene Lupo
girl possessed by spirit
Ectoplasm spews from the mouth of a portrait sitter at Penumbra Foundation.Jolene Lupo
skeletal presence in photo
A skeleton appears behind a portrait sitter in this modern day spirit photograph.Jolene Lupo
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