History of Spirit Photography – Mumler

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This article features one of the most popular and most controversial spirit photographers of the 19th century, William H Mumler.

Mumler (1832 – 1884) was one of the first American spirit photographers based in New York and Boston. His first spirit capture was ‘accidentally’ discovered after developing a self-portrait. Mumler claimed that he had captured the spirit of his deceased cousin in the photograph. This discovery made him popular amongst the public, in particular those who lost relatives during the American Civil War.

Grieving families approached Mumler in order to capture the spirit of loves ones. As a result, Mumler left his job as a jewellery engraver to become a full time spirit photographer.

Mumler, W (Date unknown) Moses A Dow with the “ghost” of his assistant.

Mumler’s wife, Hannah Mumler, who was also a famous medium with her own business, assisted her husband in his career as a spirit photographer.

One of Mumler’s popular photographs is that of Mary Todd Lincoln with the spirit of her husband, Abraham Lincoln.

Mumler, W (1872) Mary Todd Lincoln with the “ghost” of Abraham Lincoln.

Throughout Mumler’s career, people started to notice that some of the people in his photographs were in fact amongst the living. He was accused of breaking into peoples homes to steal photographs in order to double expose them onto his images. Not only was he accused of theft, people accused him of taking advantage of grieving family members, in particular those who had lost loved ones during the American Civil War.

These accusations landed him in court, where he was tried for fraud. Mumler was however acquitted by the judge in a jury-less court, due to lack of evidence. Although acquitted, these accusations ruined his career and he died penniless.

Sucks to be him, right? Throughout my photographic career I have researched and experimented many creative ways to produce images, double exposure being one of them.

Double exposure can be created in many ways, not just in our trusted editing software such as Photoshop. I have been lucky enough to have access to dark rooms in order to experiment with traditional, dark room photography, and see if it is REALLY possible to create spirit apparitions such as those captured in Mumler’s photographs.

Mumler used the Wet Plate Collodion process to create his images. Now, I have not yet experimented with this process in particular, however I have managed to create similar results using traditional Medium Format and 35mm film.

Gretton-West, C (2016) Self-made apparition on stairs.
Mamiya Medium Format Camera. Film ISO400. 12 second darkroom exposure. Paper grade 4.

The above image was created within the camera itself. The camera was placed on a tripod to keep its stability. The first photograph was taken without anybody present. With the film still in place, the second photograph was then taken with the model present on top of the stairs. In this case, our fellow investigator, Lee. The end result being a double-exposed image with a transparent figure exposed onto the negative itself. This is then developed in the darkroom. Voila! The spirit of our Lee has made his presence known!

Gretton-West, C (2016) Self-made apparition on bed.
Mamiya Medium Format Camera. Film ISO400. 15 second darkroom exposure. Paper grade 4.

The images above and below were also created by double exposing directly onto the negative.

Gretton-West, C (2016) Self-made apparition in mirror.
Mamiya Medium Format Camera. Film ISO125. 5 second darkroom exposure. Paper grade 4.

The image below was created using a process called “dodging and burning”. A photograph is taken of an empty space, in this case, myself in bed in our old, ironically haunted house (see, I’m not a total sceptic as you will soon discover in my future articles). Before developing the negative in the darkroom, I cut out a very simple shape of a human. The photograph is then developed by exposing light through the film negative onto light sensitive photo paper. During this exposure, I blocked out some of the light being exposed onto the photo paper using the cardboard cut out, a process known as “dodging”. Once developed, the end result is a shadowy apparition.

Gretton-West, C (2016) Self-made apparition by bed.
Mamiya Medium Format Camera. Film ISO400. 6 second darkroom exposure. 2 second burn. Paper grade 4.

The wet plate collodion process is one that I am yet to experiment with, however there are some amazing tutorials online that show exactly how to double expose using this process. Once I get my hands on some kit, I promise I will post videos of my experiments!

In my opinion, Mumler’s apparent spirit captures appear too perfect to be genuine apparitions. His collection, which can be found online in the public domain are all very similar in style, pose and appear to be very staged. I wonder if the courts would rule in his favour today?

Thanks for reading, and thank you Lee Bullock of Lecor Paranormal for being such a fabulous, spooky model!

*Photographs by William H Mumler are courtesy of the public domain.