Returning to Spirit Photography

ghost month 2014

If you have been following HK on Facebook (and why are you not?) you’ll know that I promised to return to the subject of spirit photography.

I wrote about the practice of spirit photography a few years ago-the practice of manipulating photographic negatives to create double exposures involving images of the (actual) dead or people appearing to be dead (there were, at least according to Internet legend, cases where the ‘ghost’ was alive and kicking at the time of manipulation).

That entry was a very, very basic and shallow overview of the subject, because while I would love to give truly in-depth, JSTOR worthy examinations of subjects this is just not the venue for that time of research. And there are a few subjects that I should probably redo the research on, as I’ve heard hints that the sources may not be as solid as I thought. The sorrows of being a blogging social scientist, that you worry about such things in your free time.

This post will be looking at one thing in particular: our response to spirit photography, 100+ years ago. This will purely be me putting together my theories on the subject based on a couple of years of reading in passing-what I’m saying is that this is coming out of my theoretical imagination, and therefore, not backed up with sources.

(That’s how a sociologist says that they could be, and probably are, wrong.)

One of the main responses to spirit photography that you come across in the comments on Internet articles is speculation on the nature of belief. As in, these photos are so very, obviously faked that how did they manage to get past anyone at all?

There are two possible factors at play:

1. We are not taking our own lens into account

2. They didn’t. People knew they were faked right along-and didn’t care

1. Our own societal experiences

We forget that the technology of our time was not always a constant. I have already met people who can’t imagine a world without cell phones. I didn’t get my first cell phone until 2006. In the space of 8 years, less than a decade, the cell phone has gone from something that had no place in my life to being such a societal standard that it’s assumed that they’re eternal. Let’s not even touch the impact of the development of the Internet.

I have heard stories of the first motion pictures scaring people so badly they ran out of the theater. The actual presence of something on the screen, regardless of the lack of ‘true to life’ translation that we may or may not have today, may have been enough to panic people. This may or may not be a complete urban myth but I feel like it illustrates the point regardless.

We are looking at these photos with a lens that has trained us to expect more and more subtly in our photography. When we live in a world where computer manipulation is so prevalent that we implore people to remember that the photos in the media don’t actually look like the people they represent– it’s easy to forget that there was a time when we didn’t have that sophistication of semiotic understanding.

That is to say, there was  time when we didn’t know what to expect from a photograph, let alone what a faked one looked like.

2. The Presumption of Innocence

My suspicion is that this is much more at play than the first theory.

I read a book, and I do apologize for not remembering which one it was, that stated for the first time I had seen in print that people knew full well that classic era B-horror effects were terrible. As in, there was no escaping the fact that Harryhausen’s monsters were lizards with things strapped to their backs. They just didn’t care; the audience was willing to suspend disbelief for a lot less than a world full of computer driven effects.

This is where my money lies: there were plenty of people who were willing to place faith into Spiritualism. There were also a great number of people who rightly assumed that it all a hoax and the ectoplasm was cheesecloth. There were debunkers right along-in fact, the main spirit photographers barely made into the 20th century, if that long.

I’m not willing to go so far as to say that these photos were parlor games-if only because I’ve read enough to suggest that a great deal of money was conned out of people, so at least someone had to be putting weight into the reality of the art. I am, however, suggesting that it may not have been as many people in Western popular culture behind it as 2014 Internet culture seems to want to think there was.


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