Phantoms, auras and images created by the mind. Those were some of the paranormal phenomena registered for uncountable photographs at the second half of 19th century. The highest point of the technological spiritualism brought fame to several studios thanks to the mediumistic powers of their photographers. Tricks or unexplainable happenings, what matters is that even Abraham Lincoln’s phantom was portrayed.
When, at the second half of 19th century, photography was accessible to great part of the audience at the great metropolis, alive and dead people ran to be portrayed at the top studios of that time. Phantoms, auras and even images created by the mind were habitués at those pictures.
These spiritualist images enriched many photographers, who boasted of being able to capture photographs of dear dead relatives for posterity. The portraits, which have survived to this day, are signs of the social and cultural history of that period, much time before Photoshop starts a revolution on our relationship with photography.
The first known spiritualist pictures date back to Boston, around 1862. There, William Mumler set up a medium/photographer studio, a place where he gave photographical life to deceased celebrities, friends and relatives of opulent clients. The Mumler’s most famous photograph portraits the Abraham Lincoln’s widow, Mary Todd, with her presumed husband’s phantom at the second plan. A simple photograph usually cost some dollar pennies — Mumler’s photograph cost 10 dollars each.
Some years later, despite many clients who confirmed that those who appeared at the back of the photographs were really their deceased relatives, Mumler was accused of fraud and taken to judgment. In default of evidences, he wasn’t declared guilty — but he never could get back his business again. The spiritualist photography phenomenon, lately fomented of several Mumler’s successors, achieved its top in the 19th century. Enthusiasm for spiritualism at the first half of that century, with some mediums put in social relief, and the novelty brought by the first photographic equipments made some studios specialized in spiritualist photography reach huge projection. Especially because of the North-American Civil War, that finished in 1865 and brought the will of see again those who perished.
Most part of the tricks used at that time is faced as simple an amateur by the eyes of our times. However, at 19th century, when many were astonished by the trusty images portrayed by the photographs, the techniques used by many of these photographers sustained the fright brought by new technologies and the creed at the presence of sprits among live people.
The simplest artifice consisted on using an assistant covered by a mantle, who sat for the picture on a second plan during few seconds. Once these first photographic equipments still needed a prolonged exposition, the assistant’s presence during 10 or 20 minutes was enough for creating a partial, translucent and phantasmagoric image. And the clients, focused on statically sit for the picture during 60 seconds approximately, didn’t notice the presence of the discrete assistant.
Other tricks concerned about double exposition of the same photographic film, mirrors and other techniques applied at the photography developing process. Even though, the presence of phantasmagoric elements in some of the photographs of that time remains unexplained.
While Mumler was ruined, a new specialist on spiritualist photography started to rise at the other side of the Atlantic. In London, Frederick A. Hudson, a professional photographer, started a partnership with a medium couple and convinced some of the prominent London citizens about the credibility of his pictures, including the British Journal of Photography’s editor.
The French Louis Darget is also portrayed at the history of this kind of photographs as, in the end of the 19t century, he started to produce photographs which pleadingly represented auras and human thoughts. The photographs of human radiations, like auras and other kinds of vital forces started to be common after the discovery of the X-Ray images. Nevertheless, the photographs which represent mentally created images had a great impact on the Japanese artistic creation. This stream, called nensha in Japanese, had some of most famous examples at the Tomokichi Fukurai studies, at the beginning of the 20th century.
One of the most enthusiastic followers of the paranormal photography was the Sherlock Holmes’creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The writer often manifested his support for the authenticity of this kind of images and was even the vice-president of the Society of the Study of Supernormal Pictures, a London association created in 1918.