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Psychic Photography: snaps of the spirit world

Halloween is here again, and ghouls and monsters will roam the streets tonight. In honour of this spookiest day of the year, today’s blog will explore the dark art of Psychic Photography, as revealed in Adam Matthew’s Victorian Popular Culture resource.

An anonymous Victorian photographer, c.1850 (via Wikimedia Commons).

An anonymous Victorian photographer, c.1850 (via Wikimedia Commons).

In the year 1911, James Coates published the intriguingly entitled book, Photographing the Invisible: Practical Studies in Spirit Photography, Spirit Portraiture, and other Rare but Allied Phenomena. In its opening pages, Coates outlines his spine-chilling hypothesis:

“Both from personal knowledge and a calm review of the testimony of reputable persons, I respectfully aver: That genuine photographs of departed persons have been taken”.

Indeed, if the recently invented X-ray machine could produce photographs of the insides of the human body, why shouldn’t a camera also reveal the unseen inhabitants of the spirit world? In Coates’ words: “To say that the invisible cannot be photographed, even on the material plane, would be to confess ignorance of facts”.

According to Coates, more and more photographers were starting to notice unexplainable “psychic extras” lurking in their photographs. For example, in the psychic photographs below, Mrs. Shaw is joined by the spirit of her late grandmother, and a gentleman is joined by the hovering ghost of his mother. In the third image, an oblivious Mr John Dewar poses wistfully alongside the ghost of his sister Janie.

Images © Senate House Library, University of London. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

  Images © Senate House Library, University of London. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

 Images © Senate House Library, University of London. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Yet this phenomenon wasn’t limited to deceased female relatives eager for one last family photo. Mrs. Lincoln’s late husband Abraham (the former President of America no less) appeared in one of her portraits, and Beethoven’s ghost was discovered posing alongside his biographer Mrs. Emma Britten. The evidence below is clear (ish):

Images © Senate House Library, University of London. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.  

Images © Senate House Library, University of London. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Of course, some might dismiss these ghostly images as a product of deliberate double exposure, and accuse the photographers of charlatanry. In theory, an unscrupulous cameraman might reproduce old photographs of sitters and incorporate them in to their new images. And yes, on inspection, these ghostly apparitions may bear more than a passing resemblance to portraits taken of the “spirit” pre-death. But, Coates can easily explain this:

“Some spirit people seem to find it very difficult to remember how they looked in earth-life, and refresh their memory by referring to a photograph or portrait. This they sometimes transfer, so undeserved suspicion is cast upon the unfortunate medium”.

Well, perhaps you’re still feeling a tad sceptical— but, who amongst us can be absolutely certain? Mr. Coates was certainly whole-heartedly convinced, and he appears to have been a very reasonable Victorian gentleman. So, I urge you, watch out for any unexplained “psychic extras” photobombing your fancy dress selfies tonight, you never know…

 

For more on this, and to learn more about the Victorians and their fascination with the spirit world, explore our Victorian Popular Culture resource. Full access is restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.





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