Did you know that “ghost photography” was once a thing? Here’s how it was (probably) done
Regardless of one’s beliefs in spirits or the afterlife, we’d all like to feel a connection to those we’ve lost. In the mid-1800s, one of those connections was through the form of photography, thanks to photographer William H. Mulmer, an amateur photographer based in Boston who claimed to actually be able to photograph ghosts.
During the American Civil War, belief in spiritualism grew. People believed that through the use of a medium one could contact their dearly departed. So being able to capture them with a camera didn’t seem that far-fetched to many people at the time – including Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of assassinated American president, Abraham Lincoln.
This fascinating video from Vox takes a look at the history of “Ghost Photography” and how it relates to Mumler in particular. Other photographers knew it was just a trick but they couldn’t figure out how it was done. Othher photographers in Boston had some theories (which would immediately come to most of us, too), but they proved fruitless.
After fraud charges piled up, Mumler relocated to New York and was arrested on fraud charges, with a heavily sensationalized trial in the New York press. Even American circus showman, P.T. Barnum, was brought in to testify against Mumler, along with an example of how the image could be made. But after demonstrating the creation of a print in front of an audience, it disproved Barnum’s theory, nobody else could figure out how he did it, either and so Mumler was acquitted.
Taking advantage of the exposure that the New York press had provided him during the trial, his “ghost photography” was even more successful after the trial was over and he was free to continue with his business.
Of course, it was fake. Although, the exact method Mumler used was never revealed. It’s a secret he took to his grave. But the Vox team went to seek some help from Mark Osterman in Rochester, New York, who has been the photographic process historian at the George Eastman Museum for over 20 years, specialising in the technical evolution of photography.
Mark thinks he’s figured out how it might have been done in a way that allowed Mumler to fool other expert photographers right in front of their eyes. And in the video, he attempts to recreate that image of Mary Todd Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln and demonstrates exactly how Mumler might have done it.
A very cool look at not only a great historic photography process but also some early trick photography and perhaps a little sleight of hand that managed to fool other professionals of the day!
John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.