Photography of Spirit captured loss, love, and longing

The way light can reflect off of the object and then back toward the camera indicates that photographs have been touched and leave traces of what was depicted. Researchers from fields ranging from the humanities and art historians have studied the relationship between photos and ghosts.

The association is amplified with spirit photography. They are the creation of images that visually reunite bereaved people with their loved ones. An event is due to the imaginative thinking of a Boston woman from 1861.

Modern readers are fascinated by the motivations and techniques of spirit photographers and their use of double exposure and combination printing, as well as modern digital manipulation to create translucent “apparitions.” But far more fascinating is the effect the photographs produced were able to have on the families of those who were the ones to commission the portraits. The Victorian fascination with spirit photography tells a story of loss, love, and longing.

Spirit of the age

Spirit photograph taken between 1862-1875. (The Paul J. Getty Museum)

Spirit photography was developed in the spiritualist movement, the 19th-century religious movement. Spiritualists believed that the soul’s existence continues after the death of a person and believed in the possibility of sustaining connections and communications between the deceased and the living.

In 1848, when two teenage women from Hydesville, N.Y., claimed to be able to discern the knocking of a dead peddler inside the house they lived inspiritualist ideas were already on the horizon.

The spiritualist artists of the 19th century believed that their work was the result of an unrealized presence. For instance, British artist and medium Georgianna Houghton made abstract watercolors, which she called”spirit paintings. “spirit drawings.” Similar to the two decades after photography’s use as a form of art was invented, spirits photographers began to attribute the work they created to external forces or a force that temporarily possessed or overpowered them. It was believed that the spiritual “extra” that appeared alongside the grieving in these photographs- sometimes clearly an image of a face and sometimes a form or a thing — was supposed to be taken as not created from the hands of humans.

Alongside the sorrow of grieving, the spirit photos had the potential to transform into intimate, personal memories.

Sustained bonds

Spirit photo is believed to have been from the late 1870s. (Wikimedia Commons)

Contrary to postmortem photography, which was the 19th-century practice of taking photographs of the dead, usually like they were sleeping spirits, photos didn’t lock the loved one within an instant after separation had been triggered by death. Instead, they offered an event that was beyond the end and thus the possibility of future times of sharing.

Spirit photography helped to facilitate the revival of the dead’s animating likeness. In a period when many technology options, such as the telephone, telegraph, and typewriter, were used to communicate with the deceased spi, rit photography provided an image of the communication.

In spirit photography, the loved ones rarely appeared in full transparency. Utilizing semi-translucence as a technique, spirit photographers show spirit figures as lively as well as “still with us.” However, the fact that they are just only half the way there has also been emphasized. This way, the photos of the spirit show the eternal presence of the lost loved one, just like it feels to grieving families.

Spirit photos weren’t the first photos to show ghostly visions. However, they were the first time in which the transparent “extras” were marketed as evidence of a connection with the dead.

As a form of service offered by the bereavement industry, photos of the deceased were to convey the sorrow of separation recorded by cameras -and not fabricated through an elaborate scheme of manipulation.

Spirits around the globe

The Veil of Saint Veronica oil artwork of Francisco de Zurbaran (1598-1664) Photograph taken at the National Museum of Fine Arts, Stockholm. (Ninara/Flickr), CC BY

Believers in the appearance of mystical images of faces and forms could be a new phenomenon in the latest technology and medium of photography. However, a more long-standing, time-tested tradition that seeks meaning and a sense of comfort in the appearance of faces can be found in Christian practices of veneration of holy relics like the Veil of Veronica that, in accordance with Catholic popular mythology and belief bears the resemblance of Christ’s face engraved on it prior to his death.

However, during the 18th century, the recognition of popular spirit photos was often considered to be akin to pareidolia, which is the ferocious human capacity to see patterns, faces, or objects like relics and random things.

In 1863, the physician and writer O.W. Holmes wrote in the Atlantic Monthly that for bereaved people who requested spirit photography, what the final image showed was not important:

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