Proponents of various theories on life after death may have insufficient factual data to back their beliefs, but may find some support in photographic evidence of ghosts, also known as “spirit photography.” Spirit photography, which historically was believed to be the effect of radiation on photosensitive film, first started in the late 1800s when a Boston engraver named William Mumler stumbled upon a puzzling image while doing some experimental self-photographs. In one of his self-pictures, the form of a young woman appeared to be standing next to him. He recognized the figure as one of his late cousins.
Following this, Mumler ventured into spirit photography, which in those times was done using a glass plate coated with a film of collodion (gun cotton dissolved in ether), and containing iodide of potassium. To sensitize this glass plate, it was dipped into a silver nitrate bath immediately before taking a photograph.
Spiritualists and prominent photographers including William Black, a leading photographer in Boston and inventor of photography's acid nitrate bath, investigated Mumler's pictures and his methods, but was unable to find any evidence of fraud at the time.
But while there were fewer believers than skeptics, modern researchers like Alfred Russel Wallace, a co-developer of the theory of evolution, did express belief in the possibility that not all alleged spirit photos were fraudulent.
The British Journal of Photography in the 1870s made some references to spirit photography, and one of its editors, J. Traille Taylor, who was a skeptic, studied and experimented with it, using his own camera and assistants, and occasionally produced mysterious results.
Sir William Crookes, a chemist and physicist, studied psychic phenomenon, including spirit photography, and was convinced that it could exist, although his scientific colleagues in the Royal Society remained doubtful.
Famous Spirit Photographs
While William Mumler produced a number of spirit photographs during his time, none of them were as striking as his picture of Mary Lincoln with what appears to be the recognizable image of her late husband, Abraham Lincoln, standing behind her.
A mysterious photograph taken in 1895 at the Combermere Abbey in Cheshire, England, showed the image of a man seated in one of the chairs in the library of the house. The photograph was taken at a time when no one but the photographer was in the room. While the features of the man in the photo were hazy, many who saw it thought that it resembled Lord Combermere, who was deceased at the time the photo was taken.
In September 1936, Captain Provand, a professional photographer for Britain's Country Life magazine, took a series of photos of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England, one of which showed a female silhouette that Provand did not see at the time the photo was taken, descending a staircase. Experts examined this photograph, and they failed to provide a logical explanation for it. In fact, author and researcher Thurston Hopkins believed in its authenticity and said, “It may well be the most genuine ghost photograph we possess,” adding, “and no study of the supernatural is complete without a reference to it.”
Due to the nature of the subjects of spirit photography, there is an understandable doubt about its authenticity, although some photos have withstood scrutiny and allegations of fraud.
Modern Spirit Photography
With technological advances in photography equipment and methods, Chris Bailey of Grimstone, Inc., a scientific research organization specializing in investigation of paranormal activities, confirms that it is possible to capture spirits in pictures using digital cameras under certain conditions.
A drawback in using digital cameras for spirit photography, however, is that they do not furnish a negative, making it possible to enhance the photos. However, technology has become more advanced in revealing this type of manipulation. In its defense, digital photography does take away the argument that the ghostly appearances are related to the chemical reactions of the older film.