Now, brace yourself. Ever since technology has allowed people to capture pictures, photographers have been using photo-editing techniques to trick people. One of the most fascinating early examples is spirit photography.
Spirit photography was a trend in which a photographer edited pictures to make ghosts or spirit-like figures appear alongside the human subjects. These pictures were often made using a double exposure technique, where one exposure is layered on top of another. Customers believed that the spirits of lost loved ones were communicating with them through these photographs.
Communicating with the dead was important to Victorians because it seemed like death was all around them. In America, many lost people in the Civil War, and in other countries, mortality rates were generally high.
Diseases such as tuberculosis spread, and life for the growing urban working class was harsh in the pre-sanitary revolution era. The mid-to-late 1800s were also a time of rapid industrialization and progress, so connecting with the dead allowed people to feel tied to the past, and new religious movements incorporated spiritualism.
The first spirit photographer was William Mumler, who discovered a double exposure technique in the 1860s that made ghostlike figures appear in photographs. Mumler was a jewelry engraver and amateur photographer who was developing a self-portrait when he noticed an apparition that was supposedly his cousin who had died 12 years earlier.
Becoming a full-time spirit photographer, Mumler conducted his business alongside his wife, a well-known healing medium. He would take pictures of people and then alter the negatives using other pictures to make “spirits” appear with the living subjects.
He was also accused of breaking into people’s houses to steal photos of the deceased to put into the pictures.
In 1869, Mumler was tried for fraud. One critic who testified against him was circus founder (and hoax promoter) P.T. Barnum, who argued that Mumler was taking advantage of people whose judgment was clouded by grief. In the end, there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Mumler, however, his career was ruined in the aftermath of the scandal.
By the 1870s, spirit photography spread to Europe, where it took on an even more disturbing shape. Spirit photography was being endorsed by spiritual mediums, but also by some of society’s prominent scientists. Some claimed that spirits could take form through a substance called ectoplasm, a term that was coined by a Nobel prize-winning scientist no less, French physiologist, Charles Richet.
Clancy's comment: Morbid, eh? I guess you'd call this ghostography?