Photographing the Invisible

During this lecture we spoke about photographing something that isn’t visible to the human eye.

Tom Gunning

  • 1850s, photography was associated with the supernatural (Felix Nadar- movement, blur = spirit and dead).
  • Ambiguity of how people thought about photography at the time.
  • Radiate something (onion skin) only so much you can give when being photographed.
  • Double of the sitter (ghostly double)

‘At the same time that the daguerreotype recorded the visual reality of material reality it also seemed to dematerialise it, to transform it into a ghostly double’.
Tom Gunning, ‘Phantom Images and Modern Manifestations’, in Patrice Petro (ed), Fugitive Images: From Photography to Video, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995, p.43.

Felix Nadar and his wife Ernestine, Self-portrait in a balloon, 1860s.

The Fox Sisters

  • In 1848 the Fox sisters began to hear ghostly knocks in the night (code).
  • They thought they were making a connection with the people/spirits who were making the noise.
  • Beginning of spirituality.
  • Came to the conclusion someone had dies there.
  • Religion emerged, routed from Christianity (dead come to life) based on main religion.
  • Religious movement.
  • Claimed to be modernity and science combined.
  • Photography provided support for spiritualism.
Anon., Margaret and Kate Fox, ca.1848.

Spirit photography

  • Began 1860s-1861

William Mumler

  • Produced photograph when they were using glass plates which you would clean after each use, but if you didn’t clean it properly there would be part of an image left on the plate. This was known knowledge at the time yet it was ignored and people still believed that what they were seeing was spirits.
  • His wife claimed to be a healer.
  • Spirits found in the photographs were beginning to be recognised, some of the people were still alive.
  • Authorities began to get concerned- Mumler was prosecuted (1809) for fraud but wasn’t convicted, it did however damage his reputation.
  • People tried to destroy spirit photography, condemned by scientists and photographers.
  • Wanted explanations for it but wouldn’t admit they put the ‘spirits’ in the images.
William Mumler, Portrait of Mrs Lincoln, with ‘extra’ of Abraham Lincoln, ca.1860s.
  • Each spirit photographer had their own style.
  • In the 1870’s spirit photography spread to Europe.

Britain (London) Frederick A. Hudson

  • Figures in sheets (iconography)
  • Collaborations began to happen, performance.
Frederick Hudson, Mrs Houghton and spirit of her aunt, 1872; Frederick Hudson, Mrs Houghton, Thomas Guppy and spirit of his grandmother, 1870s.

France spirit photography movement
Edouard Buguet

  • Incantations, very performative.
  • Psychology- why would they believe?
  • Praying on people in a vulnerable position- contacting dead relative.
  • Was taken to court- fined and imprisoned for a year- he admitted what he did.
  • People still insisted they were real, they were seeing what they wanted to.
Edouard Isidore Buguet, “Ketty King”. Florence Cook and Charles Blackburn, on a trip to Paris, 1874; M. Gueret recognises his drowned brother, n.d.
William Crookes, Portraits of ‘Katie King’, 1874.
  • Famous collaboration between scientist William Crookes and medium Katie King.
  • Scientists thought they might find something in spirit photography- still suspicious.
  • Spirit of Katie King in the picture.
  • William Crookes was a very important scientist and this is why people believed in his research and thought it was the best evidence.
  • Crookes never spoke of his earlier work, was knighted Sir William Crookes.

Clément Chéroux observes, ‘spirit photography had two faces’: ‘Like Janus, it was used for both mystification and demystification’.
Clément Chéroux, ‘Ghost Dialectics: spirit photography in entertainment and belief’, in The Perfect Medium, p.46.

  • Private investigators where always trying to catch spiritual photographers out.

John Lobb

  • Claimed in his book Talks with the Dead, 1906 that spirit photography was real.
  • X-rays etc. meant spiritual photography was authentic.

James Coates

  • Photographing the Invisible,
  • Just before WWI, tradition of mesmerism- explained through animal magnetism.
  • Mesmerism- dead and alive give this off- how it happened.

Jacob Von Narkiewicz-Jodko

  • Recording what we can’t see.
Jacob Von Narkiewicz-Jodko, Effluvia from an electrified hand resting on a photographic plate, 1896.

Louis Darget

  • Thoughts and dreams transmitting from their head.
Louis Darget, mental photographs and their interpretations. Left, portrait of Beethoven; right. Dream of an eagle.
  • WWI, social justification for spirit photography- when the soldiers returned as spirits.
  • Vulnerable state- nothing left for them, saw what they wanted to see, believe anything due to grief.
  • Spirit photography was affordable.
  • Critics were disgusted by spirit photography, how they pray on the vulnerable.

Raymond, by Sir Oliver J. Lodge

  • Wife convinced him to go.
  • Medium told them they would send them a photograph of their son they had not seen before and they did. This convinced him as the credibility of the photography was strong.
  • Wrote a book about his experience.
  • Judgement was clouded by grief.
  • During the great war there was a boom for spirit photography but it became less popular afterwards.

The Cenotaph

  • A national center for people to grieve- channel it.
The Cenotaph, Whitehall, London, design by Lutyens. Inaugurated in 1920.

Ada Deane

  • Claimed spirits of the dead soldiers returned during the ceremony.
  • Noticed they were soldiers at all but people such as footballers.
Ada Deane, Armistice Day ceremony, 1922.

Roland Barthes Camera Lucida

  • Central source- micro version of death- being photographed.
  • ‘a micro version of death’
  • ‘becoming a specter’
  • ‘The photograph’, says Barthes, ‘is literally an emanation of the referent. From a real body, which was there, proceed radiations which ultimately touch me, who am here …’

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, London: Jonathan Cape, 1982, p.14, 80 and 88.

William Hope

  • One of the best spirit photographers.
  • Shrouded figures.
  • Prayers, alternative form of religion.
  • Target for investigators, especially Harry Price who pretended to be someone else and managed to get a sitting.
  • Price used x-rays to prove he was switching the plates.

Psychic photography

  • Ghost stamp, how they were adding the ‘spirits’ to the photographs.


Essential reading: Sconce, Jeffrey, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, Durham and London: Duke University Press (2000) – see ch.1



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