Faces of the Living Dead

‘Faces of the Living Dead’, paper, Junk Writing Conference, University College Worcester, UK, 2002,  7 — 9 August.

In the aftermath of the World War One spirit photography became extraordinarily popular in Britain and Australia. Among its high profile advocates was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the famous creator of that arch rationalist Sherlock Holmes. In 1919 Doyle went to Britain’s most famous spirit photographer, William Hope, to try to obtain a photograph of his son who had died as a result of wounds received in the war. He published the resulting image in Britain’s Sunday Pictorial, and in Melbourne’s Herald, and wrote:

I opened the packet in the darkroom and put the plate in the carrier. I had already carefully examined the camera and lens. I was photographed, the two mediums holding their hands on top of the camera. I then took the carrier into the darkroom, took out the plate, developed, fixed and washed it, and then, before leaving the darkroom, saw the extra head upon the plate. On examining with a powerful lens the face of the ‘extra’ I have found such a marking as is produced in newspaper process work. It is very possible that the whole picture, which has a general, but not very exact, resemblance to my son, was conveyed onto the plate from some existing picture. However that may be, it was most certainly supernormal, and not due to any manipulation or fraud. [1]

Doyle’s testimony is characteristic of many people’s experience of spirit photography. There was a ‘laying on of hands’ by the spirit photographer; the presence of the sitter during the alchemical processes in the darkroom;  and despite obvious signs that the spirit image had been appropriated from another source, ultimate belief because the sitter felt a compelling sense of recognition for the spirit extra.

Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during the war, in which he not only lost his son, but also his brother. Virtually very other family was experiencing similar grief. Since the war the, “sight of a world which was distraught with sorrow and eagerly asking for help and knowledge”, had compelled him to use his fame and personal wealth to proselytise the cause in bluff pugnacious lectures delivered from platforms across the world.[2] In 1920 and 1921 he spoke to 50,000 people in Australia alone. According to Melbourne’s Age the message of his lectures, that the dead lived and could communicate, would provide implicit comfort to, “the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War”.[3]

In 1920 another medium photographer, Mrs Ada Deane, joined William Hope in offering sittings for one guinea each at the British College of Psychic Science in West London. The satirical newspaper John Bull sent two anonymous investigators to a sitting.

We were asked to sit on a wicker settee before a dark screen or background. Then, handing us each a hymn book, a hymn was selected and sung. At the close of this Mrs Deane commenced to sing vigorously We Shall Meet on the Beautiful Shore, and intimated that we should ‘join in’. … Mrs Deane then collected our slides in her hands, placing one at the top and one at the bottom. She instructed us to place our hands in a similar manner over hers, and in this position we recited the Lords Prayer.[4]

They took some of Mrs Deane’s photographic plates to the photographic manufacturer Ilford who examined them and reported that they had been pre-exposed to light in a plate-holder. The paper headlined with: AMAZING SPIRIT CAMERA FRAUDS, PSYCHIC EXPERIMENTER CAUGHT RED HANDED IN TRANSPARENT DECEPTION AND TRICKERY.

But many Spiritualist believers simply couldn’t understand how such a ordinary, earnest woman, as Mrs Deane so obviously was, who had brought comfort and joy to thousands of sorrowing hearts, could be periodically attacked by sceptics and accused of cheating her clients with elaborate sleight-of-hand tricks. Mr F. W. Fitzsimons, for instance, found Mrs Deane to be a cheery, pleasant faced old soul, simple and uneducated in the ways and evils of the world of men, and with the hallmark of absolute honesty imprinted on her face. On one of his visits to Mrs Deane, Fitzsimons encountered a sad, care-worn-looking man in the garb of a clergyman. The clergyman was clutching a psychic photograph of his recently deceased wife. “My wife and I had been married twenty years, and we were childless”, he explained, “she was all I lived for. Recently she died, and my religion has given me no comfort or solace. I was in despair, and grew resentful against God. A friend told me about faces of deceased people appearing on photographs. I had four exposures made. Two were blanks, one had the psychic face of someone I did not recognise, and the other held that of my wife, and here it is”. “Can such a thing be true?”, he asked Fitzsimons, tears gathering in his eyes, “To me it seems impossible, yet I succeeded in getting the picture of my wife”. “If such a thing be true, why does not the suffering, anguished world know about it?”, he cried. “Because”, Fitzsimons answered, “people as a whole are steeped in materialism, self-conceit, ignorance, intolerance and bigotry”.[5]

Spirit photographs functioned in quite a different way to the monumental, closed, mute, funeral portrait. The portrait photograph has often been associated with the irrevocability of death because it freezes a moment of life permanently in the past, while giving it only a vicarious presence in the present. In this morbid theory the photograph intimates our own mortality because one day we, too, will remain frozen in time. In a sense the photograph ‘corpses’ time. Spirit photography was such a compelling idea during this period because it took the ‘corpsed’ photograph and miraculously revivified it as evidence of life beyond the grave. By inserting a ghost into the photograph, it made the photograph itself less corpselike. It reversed the past tense, the ‘that has been’ of the photograph, into a future tense: ‘this will continue to be’.

I’ve been guiltily fascinated by spirit photography for a couple of years now. Very much against my better judgement I’ve devoted my time to becoming an expert on spirit photography, and have published a small biography of Mrs Deane. I just haven’t been able to stop myself going back day after day to libraries and archives to find out more about Spiritualism and early spirit photographers. In the Cambridge University Library I came across nearly one thousand spirit photographs taken by Mrs Ada Deane, pasted in grids of twelve into the pages of four large leather bound albums. I got Cambridge to make copies of some of the photographs for me and I burrowed into them with Photoshop to produce a series of art works for an exhibition. I found myself gravitating not to the spirit ‘extras’, but to the faces of those who had paid for their sitting with Mrs Deane. These people, once so desperate for an image of their departed loved ones, are now themselves all dead also, but ironically revenant in the photograph. As they were photographed in the act of channelling an image from the Other Side their faces appeared confused, doubtful, worried, tired and distracted.

I also published a small biography of Mrs Deane which I conceived of as a kind of artist’s book. The Spiritualists where prolix writers and enthusiastic publishers, and I found many journals, pamphlets, proselytising tracts and reminiscences to draw on. I collected all the ones relevant to Mrs Deane and then ordered them into a narrative and strung them together by either directly quoting, or closely paraphrasing them. I tried to retain the flavour of their original prose—which is always pulled between the breathless excitement the writer obviously feels for what they are experiencing, and the need they also feel to appear to be sober and dispassionate in their reporting of positive evidence for spiritualist phenomena—while homogenising and modernising the texts just enough to make it a smooth read. I sometimes thought that I was acting as an amanuensis for these people. Although I remain a materialist, my enthusiasm for their enthusiasm matched their enthusiasm for what was to them the manifest truths of spirit photography and automatic writing.

Besides spirit photography there were many other ways in which the dead made their continuing existence known to the living. Spirit guides acted as go-betweens, taking possession of the medium, speaking with her voice, and relaying messages from relatives and loved ones whilst she was in a trance. Spirits also moved planchettes or ouija borads to speel out messages letter by letter, or tapped in code. But beside the direct voice trance medium the most common means of communication was automatic writing. This was done either in a complete trance or whilst semiconscious.

Within Spiritualism theories of automatic writing didn’t draw on models of inspiration, delirium or poetic suggestion, rather they drew on technological models of telecommunication. For instance the experience of William Howitt is described by his daughter.

My father had not sat many minutes passive, holding a pencil in his hand upon a sheet of paper, ere something resembling an electric shock ran through his arm and hand; whereupon the pencil began to move in circles. The influence becoming stronger and ever stronger, moved not only the hand but the whole arm in a rotary motion, till the arm was at length raised, and rapidly— as if it had been the spoke of a wheel propelled by machinery—whirled irresistibly in a wide sweep, and at great speed, for some ten minutes, through the air. The effect of this rapid motion was felt by him in the muscles of the arm for some times afterwards. Then the arm being again at rest the pencil, in the passive fingers, began gently, but clearly and decidedly, to move.[6]

This was a mechanical model, seeing the medium as a kind of human telegraph machine. Within this model even infants could become automatic writers. Mr Wason, a well known spiritualist from Liverpool, saw a six months old baby write: “I love this little child. God bless him. Advise his father to go back to London on Monday by all means—Susan.” Celina, a child of three and a half, wrote: ” I am glad to manifest through a charming little medium of three and a half who promise well. Promise me not to neglect her.”

This direct machinic model of automatic writing was complemented by another model of collaborative amanuensis. This relied on a more complex quasi Freudian model of an inner and outer mind which separated an imagistic notion of an essential ‘thought message’ out from the language and scriptography into which it was translated. When the psychic pioneer Frederick Myers died he continued to write from the Other Side through a medium called Miss Cummins. His discarnate spirit wrote:

The inner mind is very difficult to deal with from this side. We impress it with our message. We never impress the brain of the medium directly, that is out of the question. But the inner mind receives our message and sends it on to the brain. The brain is a mere mechanism. The inner mind is like soft wax, it receives our thoughts, their whole content, but it must produce the words that clothe it. That is what makes cross-correspondence so very difficult. We may succeed in sending the thought through, but the actual words depend largely on the inner mind’s content, on what words will frame the thought.[7]

Towards the end of 1922 a London medium began to receive messages from the Other Side, via automatic writing, that a photographic group of ‘Tommies’ and sailors who had passed on in the war had been prepared, and if she carried out their directions they had every hope of getting this image onto a photographic plate. The spirits requested that Mrs Deane take a picture at Whitehall during the Two Minutes Silence. A group of spiritualists were placed in the crowd to produce a ‘barrage of prayer’ and so concentrate the psychic energy, and Mrs Deane took two exposures from a high wall over the crowd, one just before the Silence, and one for the entire two minutes of the Silence. When the plates were developed the first showed a mass of light over the praying Spiritualists, and in the second what was described by the spirit as a “river of faces” and an “aerial procession of men” appeared to float dimly above the crowd. Further spirit messages gave details about how the images were produced:

Material is used from the active body of the medium to build up the picture. The material is either impressed by the communicator directly himself, or moulds are made beforehand. The armistice photographs were probably prepared beforehand in groups and either impressed upon the plates before, during, or after the Two Minutes Silence.[8]

I am interested in spirit photographs because, on the one hand, in the emotional effect they had on their audience, and in the visceral connection with their absent loved ones which they gave them, they seem to confirm all that is most powerful about photography; however, on the other hand, in their structure and execution, and in their use of amateurish ‘special effects’, they seem to erode the very ontological foundations on which that photographic power is built. For me, therefore, spirit photographs enable an, admittedly eccentric, critique of the normative epistemology of twentieth century photography.

Spirit photographs are performative. Their power lies not in their relationship to a pro-filmic Real elsewhere in time and space, but their audience’s relationship to them in the audience’s own time and place. They solicit a tacit suspension of disbelief from their audience, while at the same time they brazenly inveigle a tacit belief in special effects. These special effects are traded from other genres such as cinema or stage-craft using the currency of the audience’s thirst for belief. They shamelessly exploit the wounded psychology of their audience to confirm their truth, not by their mute indexical reference to the Real, but through the audience’s own indexical enactment of their traumatic affect. Their truth is not an anterior truth, but a manifest truth that is indexed by the audience as they feel the shock of recognition of their departed loved ones.

The theory of the spiritualist portrait does not conform to the more obvious model of the photographer’s studio, with spirits manifesting themselves to be photographed in front of the camera. Rather the dominant model is the printer’s press, or sculptor’s foundry, where image moulds are prepared on the Other Side, and then impressed into soft photoplasm during the sitting. On an obvious level, the elaborate explanations which spiritualist researchers came up with to explain the effects were their attempts to maintain belief in the face of what were more easily explainable as signs of fraud (flat looking extras, hard cut-out edges, the presence of half-tone dot screens, different lighting, and so on). But in doing so they invented and sustained an extraordinarily compelling, moving, and poetic photographic system.

The complex theory of spirit photography sees the spirit photograph as a completely different thing to the ordinary photograph. The locus for the spiritualist system of photography is not the camera, the lens and the shutter. That technical assemblage, of a shutter vertically slicing a rectilinearly projected image, has been central to photographic theory, with a direct lineage going back to the renaissance. Instead, the locus for spiritualist photography was the sensitive photographic plate alone.

The process of making a spirit photograph is not that of ‘snapping’ an image of an anterior scene and thereby making a direct stencil from the Real; rather it is a process of activating the photographic emulsion as a soft, wet, labile membrane between two worlds — the living and the dead, experience and memory. The spirit photograph’s emulsion is sensitised chemically by the application of developers, and magically by the meeting of hands and the melding of mutual memories. The resultant image is not the mute and inert residue of an optical process, decisively excised from time and space, but a hyper-sensitised screen which two images had reached out from opposite sides to touch, both leaving behind their imprint.

Photographic emulsion — creamy, gelatinous, sensitive to light, bathed in chemicals, and cradled by hands — became poetically and technically related to the most mysterious, potent substance in the spiritualist’s world: ectoplasm. Ectoplasm was rooted in the materiality of the body, it was feminine, moist and labile and often smelt of the bodily fluids it was imagistically related to (because, in fact, it was usually chiffon secreted in the medium’s vagina, or ingested by her before the séance). Ectoplasm could form itself into shapes (in the nineteenth century it could even embody, or body forth, complete material spirits who would walk around the room), but it could also act as an emulsion — receiving imprints or filling moulds. In spirit photography ectoplasm was not only a physical stage in a process of transubstantiation, but also a technological interface, a bio/techno diaphragm.

To me the recently renewed interest in spirit photography reveals the continued power and enigma of the photographic image, despite predictions in the 1990s of its digital demise. The spirit photograph of the 1920s resonates with the ways the photograph as artefact is still used today in both public and private rituals of memory, mourning and loss.

Martyn Jolly

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Son, Harbinger of Light, 1919, October 1919.

N. Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press Limited, 1933,

Conan Doyle in Australia, Light, 1920, December 18, 1920.

B. W. C. Pilley, AMAZING SPIRIT CAMERA FRAUDPSYCHC EXPERIMENTER CAUGHT RE HANDED IN TRANSPARENT DECEPTION AND TRICKERY, John Bull, 1921, 17 December 1921.

F. W. Fitzsimons, Opening the Psychic Door: Thirty Years Experiences, London, Hutchinson & Co, 1933,

E. Stead, Faces of the Living Dead, Manchester, Two Worlds Publishing Company, 1925,


[1]Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his Son, Harbinger of Light, 1919, October 1919.

[2]Doyle entry in, Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press Limited, 1933.

[3]Conan Doyle in Australia, Light, 1920, December 18, 1920.

[4]Pilley, John Bull, 1921, 17 December 1921.

[5]Fitzsimons, Opening the Psychic Door: Thirty Years Experiences, London, Hutchinson & Co, 1933, .

[6] Automatic writing entry in, Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press Limited, 1933.

[7]

[8]Stead, Faces of the Living Dead, Manchester, Two Worlds Publishing Company, 1925, .

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