it is only a coincidence that the last major spirit
photographer was a man named Hope.
And yet hope is what Spiritualism is all about. Look at
the faces of the believers in the spirit photographs (as
opposed to the mediums themselves) and you see ordinary
people with an extraordinary need to hope in the survival
of the spirit after death. This need, born of deep
emotional pain, led the great magician Harry Houdini into
"the realm of the spirits," searching in vain for a
single honest medium who could put him in touch with his
departed mother. Houdini never found what he was looking
for, although perhaps he himself never gave up
spirit photographers prided themselves on
"recognition," the production of a picture in which a
specific person's spirit could appear with sufficient
likeness to the deceased that friends and relatives would
recognize the features of the person portrayed. Many
tricks were employed-- the French spirit photographer
Buguet was caught with a series of dummies and 299
photographs of the heads of men, women and children. But
at his trial patrons rose to his defense, insisting that
Buguet had photographed their departed relatives exactly.
Often the use of stock head shots was obfuscated beneath
a concealing haze of "ectoplasm" or through blurry focus
and chemical stains. No matter--believers believed, and
recognized the faces they longed to see again.
it is difficult to comprehend the power of belief and
suggestion and hope that could turn a double-exposure
of a dummy in a sheet into a miraculous message from the
afterlife. Many of these images are crudely done, and
convey nothing of the spiritual force or personality that
we associate with a living, breathing human being.
take a moment to compare these two photographs. To
the left, an English spirit photograph made in the
studio of Frederick Hudson, and purporting to show
four ghosts. Even on close examination there is
nothing distinctive about these spirits that sets
them apart, and it is difficult to imagine how one
of them could have been "recognized" as the mother
of one of the people involved.
look at this daguerreotype--taken around 1854,
perhaps twenty years before the spirit
photograph. The only documentation is the names
pencilled on a piece of paper found with the
image: "Uncle Geo. & Gus." But from
this early portrait, we feel we know something
about these people and the bond between them.
Many who have viewed this picture have said they
feel the personalities of Uncle George and Gus
were captured by the daguerreotypist, to be
shared with us a century and a half later.
so it is possible to receive messages sent by
those who have been dead for many years. And it
is possible to feel their presence and to
sense they are still with us in some way. But for that to
happen, we require no person with supernormal powers to
put us in contact with another plane of existence, and
there needs to be no seance in a darkened room.
of a spirit medium, it is the medium of photography
itself that has within it this remarkable, mystical