Concerning the Spiritual in Photography

By Leslie K. Brown, PRC Curator

The title of this exhibition is a nod to the early-twentieth century painter Wassily Kandinsky's landmark book, Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911), in which he heralded artists as the leaders of a new spiritual age. A selection of vintage photographs of purported spirits, séances, and otherworldly phenomena traces and illuminates a specific episode in cultural history, while the contemporary work demonstrates that such concerns still haunt our minds. Broadly interpreting the idea of the "photographic," the uniting concept is how different practitioners, historical and present-day, utilize, exploit, and reference the inherent mechanics of light-sensitive media to achieve spiritual effects and allusions. Many of the makers are from New England or have ties to Boston, an area that gave rise to spirit photography itself as well as one of the most famous spirit mediums of all time. In this essay, I will briefly outline spiritualism's major tenets, concentrating mostly on the modern manifestations. It is my hope that this staging highlights what has been unique to photography since its invention: its simultaneous straddling of science, magic, and art.

The Medium is the Message

The seemingly strange phenomena of spiritualism and spirit photography can actually teach us a lot about how photography was and still is conceived. Interestingly enough, the language of photography's inventors and its "cultural reception," as historian Tom Gunning points out, was distinctly otherworldly. These two ontological roles of photography occurred simultaneously, without necessarily contradicting one another. Even today, photography continues to explore the farthest regions of the universe; our only proof of the existence of these objects or phenomena is photographs of things we could never "see" with our naked eyes.

Photography, spiritualism, and spirit photography all came into being within a mere twenty years (with the canonical birth years of 1839, 1848, and 1861 respectively). As many critics have noted, nineteenth and early-twentieth-century spiritualists clothed themselves in the language and trappings of modern advances in technology, such as wireless telegraphy, electricity, medicine, and chemistry. (Even the women's movement and politics had a voice in Spiritualism, as most mediums were females of the radical persuasion.) Mediums and spirit photographers followed the example of the dark chamber accordingly, mimicking and recasting various aspects of the photographic process in their actions and language. Indeed, there appears to be a photographic corollary for every clairvoyant component: from performing only in the dark to the psychic acting as a highly sensitized conduit.

Modern audiences and visitors, especially professional photographers, to this exhibition might ask: How can anyone take the historical images (most of which seem obvious products of double exposures) seriously? Notwithstanding, we could just as easily ask ourselves the same about our obsession with science fiction (as we go to press, the Disney film Haunted Mansion topped the box office). Even in the face of tremendous advances in science and technology, the human psyche is still entranced by the paranormal and its attendant proof., a website that chronicles urban legends, devotes a whole section to supernatural stories and faked photographs circulated on the Internet. In fact, such swirlings of prophetic photographs as well as an interest in the afterlife seem to proliferate after war or societal strife. It is no coincidence then that spirit photographs appeared during two of periods of extreme casualty and duress: the Civil War and the First World War. (One of the most famous spirit photographs was of Mary Todd Lincoln embraced by the specter of her assassinated husband.) September 11 saw its own series of manipulated images—the most infamous one being a tourist photograph supposedly taken seconds before one airplane hit the towers—a displaced attempt to comfort the masses and make sense of tragedy.

Spiritualism and Spirit Photography, A Short History

Spiritualism is not as old as one might think. Distinct from mysticism, spiritualism focused on the esoteric and occult side of the otherworldly and was a loosely organized doctrine based on communication with the dead. An American product of the modern age, its history is riddled with stars and starlets, reading much like a soap opera, with its supporters tried in court and governmental hearings. At the same time, it counted among its followers some of the finest minds of its day, well-known personalities, scientists, and authors. The movement that would eventually claim over 12 million followers had its beginning in the small upstate New York town of Hydesville. In 1848, two sisters, Katie and Margaret Fox, claimed to have communicated with the spirit of a murdered peddler buried under their house. Using an elaborate system of knockings (which one sister later explained were their toe joints cracking against the bedposts), they could answer "yes" and "no" to questions, a sort of spiritual version of Morse code. Soon after their fame, the sisters moved to Rochester—coincidentally, as one critic notes, the city that what would later become the home of two major imaging companies, Eastman Kodak and Xerox—and attracted even more believers.

Although spiritualism took on a variety of guises, its main foci were the medium and the séance. Another pair of siblings, the Davenport Brothers introduced what was to become the major accouterment of séances in their traveling act of the 1860s. The psychic cabinet, a sort of spiritual camera obscura, was a prop that mediums (and later magicians) all over the world added to their vocabulary. While the brothers were tied within the dark cabinet, hands would appear, instruments would levitate, and other inexplicable happenings would occur. Later developments—slate and spirit writing, ectoplasm and full body materializations—brought spiritualist occurrences into the physical realm, literally. Each new feat was duly captured in photographic form in order to provide scientific and visual proof. Such effects brought the photography parallel full circle, as Gunning has observed: "Spirits are not simply captured in pictures; they communicate by some sort of picture language. The medium herself became a sort of camera, her spiritual negativity bodying forth positive image, as the human body behaves like an uncanny photomat, dispensing images from its orifices."

In 1861, a Boston engraver William Mumler while alone in a room took a self-portrait, which after development showed the likeness of another figure. This episode launched what would become known as spirit photography, which lasted in popularity until the 1930s. Mumler later moved to New York City, where he established a successful practice, charging as much as $10 and guaranteeing results. (He was eventually accused of fraud and destroyed most of his images.) In this exhibition, a small selection of historical photographs from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Spirit Photography collection from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin focuses on the case of the Boston Medium, Mina (Margery) Crandon, who in 1924 accepted Scientific American's and Harry Houdini's challenge to show proof of psychic ability. With the author of Sherlock Holmes on one side and the famous escape artist on the other, the heated debate over Margery's powers played out in the press and was documented photographically. Conan Doyle, a member of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, collected photographs from psychic circles and actively promoted spiritualism. Houdini, initially interested in contacting his deceased mother, realized that many mediums used the same slight of hand as he did in his magic act. He subsequently created a touring exposé and several books and pamphlets debunking them. While Margery was never awarded the monetary prize, her story continues to fascinate.

Spirit photography still finds an audience today as evidenced by the hundreds of amateur ghost hunter websites showcasing various ethereal looking blobs, streaks, orbs and vortexes. Indeed, many of us have yielded something similar on a roll of film, usually explained away as light leaks, x-rayed film, an errant camera strap, or even mist or smoke in the air. As Mark Alice Durant notes, photography professors often attempt to interpret enigmatic effects often created, intentionally or not, by students. "But sometimes I am baffled myself," he writes, "I may be teaching Beginning Photography, but I feel at times that I am an inept ghost buster, an incompetent debunker of the inherent mysteries of the medium."

Spiritualist Suggestions in the Twenty-First Century
The contemporary responses highlighted here reflect on photography itself and, much like the vintage works, the whole spectrum of the photographic process. Acting like 21st century mediums, they conjure ghosts of photography's past and future for a modern audience. The concept of "film" functions on a variety of levels—the chemically treated film and paper on which light imprints a latent image as well as a symbolic membrane between material and spiritual worlds. Many of the works on paper are thus created very simply using some of the earliest forms of photography, sometimes without a camera (photograms and cliché verres) or with elemental technical aspects (focus and motion blur). Some pieces utilize different forms of "light" often associated with the spiritual (aura and the x-ray) and others utilize darkroom trickery (double exposure, compositing, retouching, and toning). These tricks of the trade, mistakes, or chemical aberrations could equally have applied to spirit photographs, but are instead used here for a different, artistic purpose.
Originally published in the Photographic Resource Center's January/February 2004 in the loupe.

Selected Bibliography:

  • Art Journal , Themed Issue: Photography and the Paranormal, including essays by Mark Alice Durant, Louis Kaplan, Karl Schoonover, Alison Ferris, and Jane D. Marsching, College Art Association, Fall 2003
  • Ferris, Alison, The Disembodied Spirit , exhibition catalogue, with essays by Tom Gunning, Pamela Thurschwell, and Ferris, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, 2003
  • Gamwell, Lynn, Exploring the Invisible: Art, Science, and the Spiritual , Princeton University Press, 2002
  • Gunning, Tom, "Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations: Spirit Photography, Magic Theater, Trick Films, and Photography's Uncanny," Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video , edited by Patrice Petro, Indian University Press, 1995
  • Houdini, Harry, A Magician Among the Spirits , 1924
  • Krauss, Rolf H., Beyond Light and Shadow, The Role of Photography in Certain Paranormal Phenomena: An Historical Survey , Nazraeli Press, 1994
  • Polidoro, Massimo, Final Séance, The Strange Friendship Between Houdini and Conan Doyle , Prometheus Books, 2001
  • Tietze, Thomas R., Margery , Harper & Row Publishers, 1973
  • Tuchman, Maurice, The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985 , exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Abbeville Press, 1986

Copyright © 2002, Photographic Resource Center, Inc.