Spirit photography began in the late 19th century, around the time that the spiritualism movement was gaining traction across Europe and the United States. The photographers who practiced it claimed that they could capture images of portrait subjects and their deceased loved ones in a single frame.
These pictures of ghastly spirits were created by the London Stereoscopic Company and sold as stereographic cards which, when viewed through a special viewer, became three-dimensional images. The ghostly figures were achieved using double exposures and other photographic trickery.
The first ghosts in photographs were the result of accidents. During a long exposure, such as those required in photography’s infancy, a person who stood still would register as clearly as a building.
But a person who moved out of camera range after only a portion of the exposure was completed would instead appear as a see-through blur.
Sometimes ghosts would appear very realistic, with their arms draped around the living portrait sitter. In other images, the spirits would appear as no more than cotton-like whisps.
From the 1860s on, the spirit photographers were no longer using the long exposures and double images previously used but instead what looked like cut-out faces and bodies from magazines to represent disembodied figures.
By the 1880s, as more people owned cameras, spirit photography boomed. It didn’t start to decline until the 1920s after skeptics such as Harry Houdini tried to counteract spiritualistic fraud.
Paranormal investigator Joe Nickell makes a distinction between spirit photography and ghost photography in his book The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead, stating that spirit photography began in studios and eventually included ghosts photographed in séance rooms, whereas ghost photographs were taken in places that were considered haunted.
Nickell states “…whereas spirit photos were invariably charlatans’ productions, ghost photos could either be faked or appear inadvertently – as by reflection, accidental double exposure, or the like.” Once portable cameras became available to amateurs towards the end of the 1880s ghost photos became more frequent.
(Photo credit: London Stereoscopic Company / Getty Images Education / Picryl / Wikimedia Commons).