Photographing the dead

Early Spiritualist Photography

In 1848 two young sisters, Maggie and Kate Fox, who lived in a small house in upper New York State, began to hear rapping sounds in their bedroom, and modern Spiritualism was inaugurated. Thirteen years later mysterious ‘extra’ figures began to appear on the glass plates of the Boston photographer, William Mumler, and spirit photography was inaugurated. Public interest in Spiritualism and spirit photography peaked in the 1870s but had subsided by the turn of the century. But both underwent an extraordinary revival from the time of the First World War and throughout the 1920s.

The most famous example of spirit photography in the nineteenth century phase was the documentation, in the mid 1870s, of the full body ectoplasmic materialisation of the spirit Katie King, supposedly produced by the medium Florence Cook. Katie King was the daughter of a 200 year-old pirate. Florence Cook, the teenage medium from Hackney in London who produced her, was sponsored by, and the photographs were promulgated by, the eminent chemist Sir William Crookes, the discoverer of the element Thallium and researcher into cathode rays. This erotically charged ménage-a-trois, of an older, scientific, patriarchal sponsor and proselytiser; a supposedly passive, honest, ingenuous female medium; and a young coquettish spirit ‘control’ from beyond the grave, was quite common within spiritualism.

As with all of the cases I’m going to discuss, it is only within the dynamics of the various personal investments of these relationships, the personal desire of the client to believe, and the seductive scenarios enacted by the medium, that we can account for the fact that time and time again obvious fakes are believed. Sir William Crookes built up an ongoing relationship with the spirit Katie King. He reported that she was supremely beautiful, and felt and breathed like a living person, and he was convinced that she had a different height, heart rate and hair colour than the medium who ectoplasmically produced her as she supposedly lay in a supine trance in her cabinet.

And we too, at a stretch, can just be convinced how Crookes, flattered by the attentions of this Pre-Raphaelite spiritual beauty in the crepuscular hush of a Victorian parlour, lit by a galvanically powered arc light,[1] could be persuaded to momentarily believe she was supernatural, and then out of pride and scientific arrogance, refuse to recant for the rest of his life. It is probable that in fact Crookes, a married man, was having an affair with his young and beautiful medium at the time of the Katie King materialisations. [2]  Also, in the 1870s, still in the period of the photographic glass wet plate, before the mass dissemination and reproduction of the snapshot, the medium of photography was removed enough from the public ken to still be mysterious enough in itself to sustain the overheated theatrics of these documents.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and William Hope

The most famous British medium photographer of the early twentieth century was William Hope who worked with a partner from a studio in the north of England from the 1900s and regularly produced images with what were called ‘extras’, spirit manifestations of the living dead. Often these extras appeared swathed in cocoons of material which was identified as an ectoplasmic like substance.

Hope’s work was eagerly examined and endorsed by the SSSP, the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, which had been formed by a group of well credentialled and eminent Spiritualists in 1918

Spirit photography had several high profile advocates. The famous creator of that arch-rationalist Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was an evangelical spiritualist. He went to William Hope in 1919 to try to obtain a photograph of his son who had died as a result of wounds received in the Great War. He published the resulting image in Britain’s Sunday Pictorial, and in Melbourne’s Herald. In his testimonial letter Doyle wrote:

The plate was brought by me in Manchester. On reaching Mr Hope’s studio room in Crewe, 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. [3]

This quote is characteristic of many people’s experience of spirit photography. There was a ‘laying on of hands’ of the spirit photographer, the presence of the sitter during the alchemical processes in the darkroom, and, despite obvious signs that the spirit image came from another source, ultimate belief because there is nonetheless a revelation of recognition, and it appears as though fraud was impossible.

Doyle had been a jingoistic propagandist during World War One, during  which he lost his son and his brother. Virtually every other family was experiencing similar grief. Since that 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. In each town and city he gave three lectures, two on spiritualism, and one, illustrated by lantern slides, on spirit photography. Conan Doyle’s lectures provided implicit comfort to the bereaved. The Melbourne Age reported:

Unquestionably the so-called ‘dead’ lived. That was his message to the mothers of Australian lads who died so grandly in the War, and with the help of God he and Lady Doyle would ‘get it across’ to Australia.[4]

Spirit photographs, in their openendedness, functioned in quite a different way to the monumental, closed, mute, funeral portrait. Spiritualism was always followed for selfish reasons. It was not concerned with the transcendently numinous, so much as the immediate desires of each individual soul for solace. For instance, when the Fox sisters publicly confessed to their childhood fraud in front of a packed house at the New York Academy of Music in 1888, forty years after they began Spiritualism, it was reported that, “spiritualists throughout the house cried out at having to face again the loss of loved ones they thought restored to them for ever”.[5]

The Spirit Photography of Mrs Ada Deane

In 1920 another spirit photographer joined William Hope on the British Spiritualist scenes: Mrs Ada Emma Deane. Although she had had many psychic experiences as a child it wasn’t until 1920, when she was 58 years old, that she began to develop her psychic powers. Her husband had left her many years before, and she had brought up three children on her own by working as a servant and charwoman. With the children grown she branched out into other occupations. She began to breed pedigree dogs, and she purchased a rickety old quarter-plate camera for nine pence with which she photographed her children, friends and neighbours. She also became involved in Spiritualism.

She finally obtained her first psychic photograph in June 1920. Her reputation soon spread amongst Spiritualists and she became one of Britain’s busiest  photographic mediums, holding over 2000 sittings where clients were photographed and, upon development, spirit ‘extras’, faces of their Departed, appeared on the plates.[6]

Late in 1920 Mrs Deane visited the Birmingham home of the psychic researcher Fred Barlow, secretary of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, to submit herself to a series of tests and experiments. He had supplied Mrs Deane with a packet of photographic glass-plates two weeks before the tests for ‘pre-magnetisation’ (derived, perhaps, from mesmerism’s theory of ‘animal magnetism’, this process involved keeping the plates close to the medium’s body). On development, the portraits Mrs Deane took held the faces of psychic extras swathed in either chiffon-like, or cottonwool-like surrounds.

“It appears”, Barlow reported, “as though the plates in some peculiar way became impregnated with the sensitive’s aural or psychic emanations”. The psychic extras had a flat appearance, which led Barlow to suggest, “I do not think the lens had anything to do with the formation of the psychic images which appear to have been printed on the photographic plate”. Closely examining the plates Barlow found signs that the shape of the plate-holder’s guiding channels had been exposed twice onto the edges of the plates. To him this was consistent with a psychic double exposure where the plate was, indeed, exposed twice: once to the normal spectrum through the lens, and once again at some other indeterminate point in the process when the wafer-thin space between the dark-slide of the plate-holder and the surface of the plate became filled with a psychic light, imprinting the psychic image. Barlow also noticed that some psychic extras were exactly duplicated, although the arrangement of their diaphanous surrounds had altered; to him this suggested that somehow the psychic images had been kept and used again by the mysterious operators from the Other Side of the Veil.

A final photograph, taken just before they said goodbye, confirmed for him that he had discovered in Mrs Deane an extraordinary phenomenon. Using his own half-plate camera, and his own photographic plate, Barlow took a group portrait of himself and his wife, along with Mrs and Miss Deane, arranging and then at the last moment rearranging the group himself. During their stay the mediums had mentioned several times that their spirit ‘guides’ had promised to be with them. After exposure he immediately developed the plate and was delighted to see that the beautiful guides of the ‘sensitives’ were to be seen on the negative and in correct relation to the sitters: ‘Bessie’, Mrs Deane’s guide appeared right above her head; whilst ‘Stella’, the guide of Miss Deane appeared above her’s. To Barlow the manifest beauty of this psychic picture was in itself wonderfully evidential.[7]

A World Distraught With Sorrow

Mrs Deane did have her detractors, though. By this stage she had 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. They had refused to send in their plates for pre-magnetisation and didn’t receive any clear extras. But, amazingly, Mrs Deane agreed to give them some plates which she had already pre-magnetised. They immediately took these to the photographic manufacturer Ilford who examined them and confirmed 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.

The reporter described the experience of a psychic sitting with Mrs Deane: “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’. We did so, but I must confess that the reverence usually associated with the singing of sacred verse was difficult to maintain. The broad daylight; Mrs Deane’s somewhat shrill voice; the absence of any accompaniment to the singing; the business like appearance of the studio; all of these things were entirely opposed to the creation of a ‘spiritual atmosphere’ such as one would regard as being most essential when dealing with the ‘living dead’. 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. The next minute she was bustling about the studio arranging the camera and ourselves, and as soon as we were focussed six different exposures were made, each on a separate plate and each plate in a separate slide.”[8]

The Occult Committee of the Magic Circle, an exclusive group of stage magicians and conjurers, also attempted to expose fraudulent mediums as a way of generating publicity for their own abilities in illusionism. They tested Mrs Deane on February 1922 and found that a box of plates they sent in for pre-magnetisation had been tampered with. Shortly afterward Eric Dingwall himself made an appointment to visit Mrs Deane, accompanied by a Mrs Osmaston. He elaborately sealed the package of plates he sent in for pre-magnetisation, dying the ends of the cotton with invisible ink, lightly gluing sable hairs across the folds of paper and pricking aligned pinholes through the layers of paper. On their arrival for the appointment, however, they found that the packet had not been opened. They opened the packet themselves and loaded the plate-holders themselves, before giving them to Mrs Deane. But, Dingwall observed, Mrs Deane had ample opportunity to switch the plate-holders as she then proceeded across the room and thrust her hands, with the plate-holders, into her capacious handbag in order to retrieve her prayer book for the first hymn.

The Spiritualists’ other big gun, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, also supported Mrs Deane against her exposure by the Magic Circle:

The person attacked is a somewhat pathetic and forlorn figure among all these clever tricksters. She is a little elderly charwoman, a humble white mouse of a person, with her sad face, her frayed gloves, and her little handbag which excites the worst suspicions in the minds of her critics.[9]

He sat for Mrs Deane himself and got a female face smiling from an ectoplasmic cloud above his left shoulder. The plate she used wasn’t his, so the image could have been easily faked. However Doyle chose to believe it was genuine because he had already been incontrovertibly convinced by the well publicised evidence of a sitting that Mrs Deane had had earlier that year — the so called Cushman Case. Dr Allerton Cushman was the director of the National Laboratories in Washington. He had suffered the loss of his daughter Agnes, but got back in touch with her through automatic writing. Her spirit agreed to co-operate in trying to get an image of herself back across from the Other Side. He came to London and immediately went to the British College of Psychic Science without an appointment or introduction. When he arrived he found Mrs Deane in the act of leaving. But he persuaded her to give a sitting, and then and there he obtained a photograph of his dead daughter which was, he declared, unlike any existing one, but more vital and characteristic than any taken in life. To Doyle this was, “the very finest result which I know of in psychic photography”.[10]

Another Spiritualist believer, Mr F. W. Fitzsimons, also couldn’t understand how such a simple, earnest soul, 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. He visited Mrs Deane at her home and discovered the old lady busily washing a number of pedigree puppies. He 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. He could have talked dogs with her all afternoon, but finally she bustled off to wash her hands, slip off her overalls, and get out her rickety old tripod and camera. On another visit Fitzsimons found that his appointment time clashed with that of a sad, care-worn-looking man in the garb of a clergyman (appointment clashes weren’t uncommon with Mrs Deane). The clergyman was clutching a psychic photograph of his recently deceased wife that had been taken by the spirit photographer William Hope.

“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 them?”, he cried.

“Because”, Fitzsimons answered, “people as a whole are steeped in materialism, self-conceit, ignorance, intolerance and bigotry”.[11]

Experiments in Psychics

Dingwall had no more success in convincing another psychic researcher, F. W. Warrick, that she was a fraud. Warrick was the wealthy chairman of a large London firm of wholesale druggists who became progressively obsessed by Mrs Deane, and her predominantly female household. Over eighteen months from 1923 to 1924 Warrick visited Mrs Deane’s house twice a week for personal sittings during which she exposed over 400 plates, mostly of Warrick himself.

Warrick imposed increasingly rigorous conditions on his experiments, cunningly sealing the packets of plates he gave to Mrs Deane for pre-magnetisation, and insisting on using his own camera and, most importantly, plate-holders. Although, as he admitted to Dingwall, the imposition of these stringent conditions resulted in the departure of the veiled extras, he determined to go on as long as Mrs Deane was willing, and his opinion of her remained the same. He switched his attention from the extras to the multitude of ‘freakmarks’ — chemical smudges and smears, and bursts of light — which appeared on her plates. These further investigations were also fruitless, but they did eventually lead him to undertake another 600 inconclusive thought transference experiments on Mrs Deane over the next three years. These tested her ability to write letters on sealed slates and to make marks on pieces of cartridge paper placed against her body. For the purposes of these experiments Warrick had Mrs Deane and her family move into a house he owned. One room was reserved for séances and a darkroom was built into it, as well as a small sealed cabinet for the thought transference experiments. Whilst Mrs Deane sat in the cabinet with her hands imprisoned in stocks, Warrick crouched outside and attempted to transmit his thought images to her.

Warrick scrupulously recorded all of his experiments. He eventually compiled and published them, along with his extended but inconclusive reasoning as to what they might mean, in a monumental 400-page book, Experiments in Psychics. Warrick reasoned that the disappearance of Mrs Deane’s extras as more stringent conditions were applied might be because his own desire for scientific proof was putting off Mrs Deane’s Invisible Operators; or perhaps his excessive precautions might be producing a subconscious inhibitory resentment in Mrs Deane herself. This view was confirmed for him at the weekly private séances he attended with the Deane household. At these Mrs Deane fell into a trance and spoke in the direct voice of her various spirit guides. At one of the séances Warrick asked a spirit guide Hulah —a young girl — about the absence of the extras, she replied that Warrick, “worried the medium”. At a later séance another of Mrs Deane’s spirit guides, the American Indian Brown Wolf, also confirmed that Warrick himself was the cause of the non-success of his own experiments.

Nonetheless Warrick’s obsessive fascination with Mrs Deane’s extras remained. She gave him access to her negative collection and he had 1000 of them printed up and bound, in grids of twelve per page, into four large albums, embossed with her name, which he presented to her. He asked the Society for Psychical Research to be responsible for their eventual preservation because, “the prints may be of great value — and may be sought after the world over for the purposes of study. They are unique in the world.”[12]

He scrutinised and worried over each portrait and extra. In November 1923 Mrs Deane took a portrait of Warrick on a plate that hadn’t been subject to his precautions against faking. An extra of a young woman duly appeared. Warrick thought he saw a peculiarity in the forehead of the extra and had it enlarged. Wandering over the enlargement with a strong lens he was astonished to see, in the pupil of the right eye of the extra, the image of his late father. Although indistinct it had a certain expression of the mouth which was strongly reminiscent of him. He had the eye further enlarged and the image was recognised by many people who knew his father. He had a commercial artist make a drawing of the image, and that too was recognised. He then had the eye enlarged a third time by a photo-microscopist who also testified that the image was the head of a man.

Unseen Men at the Cenotaph

Mrs Deane’s moment of greatest notoriety came in 1924 through her involvement with Estelle Stead, another eminence of the Spiritualist movement who ran a Spiritualist church and library called the Stead Bureau. Estelle Stead was the daughter of the W. T. Stead who had been photographed in the 1890s with the ‘thought mould’ extra of his spirit guide Julia. Stead was clairvoyant, but this faculty didn’t prevent him from booking a passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. Shortly after he drowned, however, his spirit reappeared at a London séance and continued his Spiritualist activities as busily as ever. He transmitted the posthumous experience of the passengers on the Titanic through automatic writing to his daughter, who published them as The Blue Island.

In 1922 Estelle Stead received another ‘wireless message’ from her father that they should arrange for Mrs Deane to take a photograph in Whitehall during the Two Minutes Silence that year. 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 discarnate W. T. Stead as a “river of faces” and an “aerial procession of men” appeared to float dimly above the crowd.

Spirit messages received from the Other Side gave further 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. [13]

The discarnate W. T. Stead added that there was always a difficulty in the way of the communicators who were working to press the impressions into the plates. This was because on the spirit side there was such competition for results that the crowded atmosphere made it very difficult to use the medium.

Conan Doyle took this image with him on his second tour of America, which featured an entire lantern-slide lecture on Spirit Photography. In April 1923 he lectured to a packed house at Carnegie Hall. When the image was flashed upon the screen there was a moment of silence and then gasps rose and spread over the room, and the voices and sobs of women could be heard. The spirit of a deceased mother of a fallen soldier, who was keen to tell other bereaved mothers what had become of their sons, suddenly possessed a woman in the audience who screamed out through the darkness, “Don’t you see them? Don’t you see their faces?”, and then fell into a trance.[14]  The following day the New York Times described the picture on the screen:

Over the heads of the crowd in the picture floated countless heads of men with strained grim expressions. Some were faint, some were blurs, some were marked out distinctly on the plate so that they might have been recognised by those who knew them. There was nothing else, just these heads, without even necks or shoulders, and all that could be seen distinctly were the fixed, stern, look of men who might have been killed in battle.[15]

Two more photographs were taken during the following year’s Silence. Although the heads of the Fallen were impressed upside down on Miss Violet Deane’s plate, the pictures were circulated through the Spiritualist community. Many people recognised their loved ones amongst the extras, and those on the Other Side often drew attention to their presence in the group. H. Dennis Bradley, for instance, was in contact with the spirit of his brother-in-law who told him, through a direct voice medium, that he was, “on the right-hand side of the picture, not very low down”. On the following day Bradley obtained a copy of the photograph and, to his astonishment, among the fifty spirit heads visible in the picture he found one in the position described which, under the microscope, revealed a surprising likeness to his deceased brother-in-law.[16] A Californian woman, Mrs Connell, received a copy of the picture out of the blue from a friend. Intuitively feeling that it might be meant for her particularly, she got out her ouija board to communicate with her fallen son David. She asked him if he was in the picture. “Yes”, he said, “to the right of Kitchener”. She found Lord Kitchener’s face and there, to the right of it, was her son.[17]

During 1924 there was much excitement on both sides of the Veil in the lead up to Armistice Day. Estelle Stead was continually getting messages about preparations on the Other Side, where there seemed to be a great deal of training and grouping and other excitements. She was even told to give up smoking and meat to enhance her psychic sensitivity. At Mrs Deane’s own private séances there was also much discussion amongst her various spirit guides about the upcoming event. Hulah said that the spirits were trying to arrange for a border of nurses’ heads to frame the boys. And on 21 October the guides requested that there be no more sittings until after Armistice Day to store up power.

Mrs Deane and her daughter took two more photographs of the Cenotaph at Whitehall during the Two Minutes Silence. By this time Mrs Deane no longer required the plates beforehand for pre-magnetisation, and Mrs Stead supplied her and her daughter with special, factory sealed plates on the day. The Daily Sketch  beat its rival the Daily Graphic to get the rights to the pictures from Estelle Stead and reproduce them in their pictorial section. Initially the paper took an ambivalent approach to the images. The caption simply asked of the unseen faces: “Whose are they?”.[18]

The paper thought it had answered its own question with its front page story two days later: HOW THE DAILY SKETCH EXPOSED ‘SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY’, ‘GHOSTS’ VERY MUCH ALIVE, FACES OF POPULAR SPORTING IDENTITIES IDENTIFIED IN ARMISTICE DAY PHOTOGRAPH. It reproduced the portraits of thirteen footballers and boxers, matching with the faces in the Armistice Day photograph. It was no longer ambivalent:

The exposure of truth in regard to alleged spirit photography, which deeply interests and affects multitudes of people, would not have been possible if the Daily Sketch had not, at the risk of some obloquy to itself, submitted the pictures to the rigorous searchlight of publicity, and thereby set at rest the minds of thousands who at various times have been tempted to believe in ‘spirit’ photography. [19]

But, Estelle Stead protested, if anybody wanted to deliberately perpetuate a trick, the last thing they would do would be to use such easily recognised images. Besides, a person as simple as Mrs Deane would have no idea how to prepare such a picture. The paper found Mrs Deane herself to be unflappable. This little grey-haired middle-aged woman was the least disturbed person of the lot. Unlike the others she said little but answered all questions put to her with a practised ease that bespoke an unusually capable woman. She simply refused to accept that the sportsmen’s faces were the same as those in her print.

Three days later one of the paper’s staff photographers duplicated Mrs Deane’s effects under the same test conditions. He explained how he had secreted a positive transparency of copied faces into the front of his plate-holder through which his ordinary plate was exposed (thus offering one explanation for the extraordinarily long exposure times of Mrs Deane.) The paper also published some readers’ views on the incident. “Does it not appear dastardly cruel and harsh”, one reader wrote, “that individuals, especially women, should resort to these spirit photographs, thereby ridiculing these heroes of war, and perhaps causing sorrow and distress in many homes?” Another reader agreed, “when it comes to monkeying about with something as sacred as the Two Minutes Silence you are going just a step too far and are guilty of something more than merely bad taste.”[20]

That day the paper also challenged Mrs Deane to produce spirit photographs using its equipment and facilities. Not surprisingly, she refused. “She is a charlatan and a fraud”, the paper claimed, “who has already too long imposed on the sorrows and hopes of those who lost sons and husbands and brothers in the war.”[21] Mrs Deane replied:

You challenge me to do a psychic photograph under your conditions. Do you not understand that I cannot do one under any conditions? They do not come from me. They come from some power which works through me over which I have no control. My results are often very different from what I expect. Such a power may work to console the afflicted folk. But I doubt if money would tempt it to come at the bidding of a newspaper man.[22]

As in the case of the 1923 photographs many people claimed to recognise their loved ones in the photographs. Conan Doyle saw his nephew, and Mr Pratt from Burnley saw his son Harry who had been killed in action in 1918. “This knocks the Daily Sketch argument on the head”, he wrote, “for if only one is claimed, the case for genuine spirit photography is made out.”

At her discarnate father’s suggestion Estelle sent copies of the two photographs to the medium Mrs Travers-Smith asking her to submit them to her spirit guide, Johannes, to get further comments from the Other Side. He said, through the medium:

This is an arrangement prepared beforehand from our side. The person who took this (Mrs Deane) must have been very easy to use. I see this mass of material has poured from her. It is as if smoke or steam were blown out of an engine. This material has made the atmosphere sufficiently clear to take the impress of the prepared mould which you see here. It is not as it would be if the actual faces had pressed in on the medium’s mind. A number of faces were wanted for this photograph, so a mould was prepared. The arrangement is unnatural and does not represent a crowd pressing through to the camera because it has all been carefully prepared beforehand.[23]

“I Do No More Understand How Or Why Than You Do”

In the early 1930s Mrs Deane’s very first sponsor in Spiritualism, Fred Barlow (the former secretary of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures) created a kafuffle by publicly repudiating his earlier passionate belief in, and promotion of, William Hope and Mrs Deane as genuine spirit photographers. Writing simultaneously in the sober pages of the Society for Psychical Research Proceedings and in the popular Spiritualist magazine Light, he now accused them both of fraud.[24]

Mrs Deane’s remaining staunch friend and patron, F. W. Warrick, asked her what she thought of Barlow’s sudden apostasy. Mrs Deane reminded him of the photograph whose self evident beauty had most impressed Barlow in 1920, and like the Cushman case seemed impossible to fake.

It was a sorry day for me when I discovered this photographic power. My life has lost all its ease and serenity. Before that I was respected and happy in my work, though poor; and to-day I am poor and look back on twelve years of worry and trouble and am a cock-shy for any newspaper penny-a-liner. I cannot understand Mr Barlow now saying that every Extra face that appeared on plates used by me has been put there by me fraudulently. In those days I was unsuspicious and not resentful of inquiry nor fearful of accusations. I had no knowledge then of the length the sceptic will go in his treatment of an unfortunate medium, as I am called. I put no obstacle in Mr Barlow’s way and was willing to accommodate myself to his every wish. … Once again, Mr Warrick, I assure you I have never consciously deceived sitters; I admit that many of the results obtained through me (in a way I have not the least inkling of) have every appearance of having been produced by trickery but I do no more understand how or why than you do.[25]

The authenticity of affect

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

On one obvious level these elaborate explanations which the spiritualists 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, etc). 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.

Scientifically inclined spiritualists, and the anti-spiritualist media alike, were obsessed with establishing whether the spirit photograph was either an authentic, or a fake, document of an anterior psychic phenomenon. But for the mediums themselves, and their sitters, this missed the point. Authenticity was not found in the photograph as document, but in the photograph as transactional object. The spirit photograph was a voodoo or votive object passed between spirit, medium and sitter in the private ritual of the portrait sitting. The authenticity of the psychic photograph was not based on how closely it laminated itself to an anterior event, but how strongly it effected affect in its users.

Sceptics at the time pointed out again and again that the process of photography was thoroughly familiar, and the phenomena of double exposure, montage, light leaking, and chemical fogging were well known to any knowledgable person. (Indeed popular theatre and cinema had long been reproducing spiritualist and seance illusions, and thereby exposing them as explicit mechanical and optical effects.[26]) Maddeningly for the sceptics, the spiritualists quite agreed with them. But, as they wearily replied time and time again, just because spirit photographs could be faked, didn’t mean they were faked. Those on the Other Side had access to the same techniques as any Earth Plane photographer to manifest their presence.

The spiritualists were not concerned that the effects of the psychic photograph were shared by stage magicians or Hollywood films, or could be easily duplicated by fraudsters. In their ecumenical universe everybody—magicians, film makers, fraudsters, and the ‘Mysterious Operators of the Invisible’—had access to the same effects, but they could not, ultimately, produce quite the same affects in an audience. Only the Mysterious Operators could personally deliver to each and every viewer his or her own personal uncanny experience.

The spiritualists certainly wanted their beliefs to be positively validated. They wanted them to be scientifically authentic, and that authenticity required evidence. And, when they were absolutely compelled to recognise the face on a photographic plate as that of a departed loved one, that was their positive evidence. But, by its nature, this positive evidence, the conviction of recognition, could only manifest itself within the cocoon of their own previously formed belief and desire. The two reinforced each other, and no amount of scepticism was able to prise the couplet of recognition and belief apart.

The body and technology

The central Spiritualist tenet was that the human personality survived beyond bodily death. This belief downgraded the specificity, and the spatial and temporal obduracy, of the life lived within our bodies. Instead, Spiritualists valorised linkages: webs of connections, filial binds, and ties of mutual memory between people living and dead. Spiritualists, like all good early twentieth century modernists, were entranced by new technology, but they did not see technology as alien to the body. For them technology and the body interpenetrated each other, or interfaced with each other.

New technology played a vital role in the spiritualist crusade. Like all technologists, spiritualists saw themselves as pioneers of a new historical epoch. The modern march of technology, with the spectrum being pushed in both directions towards both radio waves and x-rays, proved that there was a ‘beyond’ to human knowledge of unknowable extent which could be, and was being, advanced upon by scientific investigation.

The spiritualist idea that human consciousness could be disembodied in death, but then supernaturally transmitted and re-embodied within the cast or template of an image, is not such an astonishing one in a technological context where living human bodies were already being delaminated, doubled and dispersed, peeled apart and projected, by the wireless, the telegraph, the wire picture, the x-ray and the telephone. Spirits were early adopters of this new technology, using all of it to get in touch with the Earth Plane.

Metaphors and analogies

The uncanniness of new technology, where material opacity melts and the unique became multiplied, operated as both a poetic metaphor and a positivist analogy for spiritualist practices. Hence, for instance, messages received from her deceased father by automatic writing were referred to by Estelle Stead as wireless messages.

Another common assemblage[27] of poetic metaphor/positivist analogy was the lantern slide screen, as in this message telegraphed from the discarnate W.T. Stead in 1917 which asked people receiving thought messages from the Other Side to keep their minds blank, so the images projected were not obliterated:

[T]he living self in the unseen must flash itself on the living self in the seen. [T]he screen of the conscious mind must be bare of images, so that the active mind in the unseen can throw its images onto a clear surface… While the conscious mind incarnate is active it is busily picturing what it desires… The screen of the mind is full of these thought images, and the images received from us are blotted and indistinct, confused and dimmed.[28]

The assemblage of the screen was technically related to the unexposed photographic plate and to the cinema screen, but it also drew upon every individual Spiritualist’s intimate, but communal, relationship with the lantern-slide lecture. In 1920 Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Adelaide to begin his lantern-slide lecture circuit through Australia and a strange phenomenon occurred which he could only explain as a ghost inhabiting the machine itself.

I had shown a slide the effect of which depended upon a single spirit face appearing amid a crowd of others. This slide was damp, and as photos under these circumstances always clear from the edges when placed in the lantern, the whole centre was so thickly fogged that I was compelled to admit that I could not myself see the spirit face. Suddenly, as I turned away, rather abashed by my failure, I heard cries of “There it is”, and looking up again I saw this single face shining out from the general darkness with so bright and vivid an effect that I never doubted for a moment that the operator was throwing  a spotlight upon it. … [N]ext morning Mr Thomas, the operator, who is not a Spiritualist, came in in great excitement to say that a palpable miracle had been wrought, and that in his great experience of thirty years he had never known a photo dry from the centre, nor, as I understood him, become illuminated in such a fashion.[29]

Spirit communicators kept pace with the thickening density of audio and visual technologies. As the twentieth century progressed transmitted messages began to be received less as one-to-one psychic telegraphs, projections or impressions, and more as general psychic broadcasts. Spiritual forces increasingly revealed themselves to those inhabiting this side of the Veil in the temporarily legible patterning of chaotic matrices: from those who picked up transmissions from the dead in the static of radio receivers; to those who heard voices in the sound of tape hiss; to those who saw faces on their TV screens after the stations had shut down for the night.[30]

The theory of the spiritualist portrait

It is an important point that 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 prepared moulds are filled with ectoplasm, or impressed into soft photoplasmic emulsion.

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 definitely 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). Researchers noted that the medium’s body got lighter as the ectoplasm was extruded, and often the medium screamed if it was suddenly touched or exposed to light. 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. So this substance was not only a physical stage in a process of transubstantiation, but also a technological interface, a bio/techno diaphragm. As Lady Conan Doyle explained:

A photographic medium is one who gives out enough special ectoplasm … for the Spirit folk to use in impressing their faces on the plate with the human sitter.[31]

History

For many decades spirit photography had absolutely no place in any reputable history of photography.[32]  That it is why it is difficult to think back eighty years to the 1920s when these images were scandalous, certainly, but also, in a sense, possible. That is, the affects of their effects had substantial currency. They briefly played big time in the mass media. By the 1930s, however, they had become impossible. They still had their adherents, but by then Conan Doyle’s regular posthumous appearance on the photographic plates of William Hope and Mrs Deane must have increasingly seemed to newspaper readers to be stories about human gullibility and eccentricity, rather than the possibility of seeing the dead. By then picture magazines were well established as the mass medium of the day. And their address to their readers was driven by a valorising of the photographer’s index finger, jerking in empathic response to fleeting scenes as they sped through time. The picture magazines fetishised the camera’s guillotining shutter blade slicing up this linear time—which moved in one direction only, from the past to the future—into historically fixed instants.

By the 1930s all photographs, even personal snapshots, had tended to become attached to the logic of press reportage, the logic of the decisive moment.[33] All photographs became irrevocably about pastness, about the instantaneous historicisation and memorialisation of time. But spirit photographs cheerfully included multiple times, and multiple time vectors. As personal snapshots kept in albums or cradled in hands they did not represent the exquisite attenuation of the ‘that has been’ of a moment from the past disappearing further down the time tunnel as it was gazed at in the present, nor the frozen image’s inevitable prediction of our own mortality, rather they were material witness to the possibility of endless recursions, returns and simultaneities.

These images are performative. They work best when their sitters had seen them well-up from the depths of the emulsion in the medium’s developing tray, or seen them suddenly flashed on the screen in a lantern slide lecture. Their power lies not in their reportage of a pro-filmic real elsewhere in time and space, but in their audience’s affective response 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 film 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 cry out at the shock of the recognition of their departed loved ones.

The recent resurgence of interest in spirit photography indicates that the photograph can still be regarded as something other than a snapshot image, it can still be recognised as an auratic object. Current interest in spirit photographs reveals the continued power and enigma of the photograph, despite predictions in the 1990s of its demise at the hands of universal digitisation. For me the spirit photograph of the 1920s especially resonates with the ways the photograph as artefact is still used today in both public and private rituals of memory, mourning and loss. Memory, mourning and loss, of course, also underpin the canonic theory of the photograph as it was developed during the twentieth century.


[1][Krauss, 1994 #2]

[2][Hall, 1962 #1]

[3][, 1919 #5]

[4][, 1920 #10]

[5][Brandon, 1983 #8]

[6]. F. W. Warrick, Experiments in Psychics: Practical Studies in Direct Writing, Supernormal Photography, and other phenomena mainly with Mrs Ada Emma Deane, London, Rider and Co, Paternoster House, 1939.

[7]. Fred Barlow, ‘Pychic Photographs, Interesting Experiments with a New Sensitive’, The Two Worlds, 19 November 1920.

[8]. B. W. Charles Pilley, John Bull, 17 December 1921.

[9]  Doyle spirit phot book

[10]. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Case for Spirit Photography, London, Hutchinson and Co, 1922.

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

[12]. F. W. Warrick, Letter to Eric Dingwall, 1924, Deane Medium File. These albums are now in the Society for Psychical Research Archive at the Cambridge University Library. They formed the basis of the exhibition Faces of the Living Dead, the appendix to this thesis.

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

[14]. Kelvin Jones, Conan Doyle and the Spirits: The Spiritualist career of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Aquarian Press, 1989.

[15]. ‘Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at Carnegie Hall’, Harbinger of Light, July, 1923.

[16]. Nandor Fodor, Encyclopedia of Psychic Science, London, Arthurs Press Limited, 1933.

[17]. Mrs Connell, Letter to Society for Psychical Research, 1925, Deane Medium File.

[18]. ‘UNSEEN MEN AT CENOTAPH’, Daily Sketch, London, 13 November 1924.

[19]. ‘HOW THE DAILY SKETCH EXPOSED “SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY”, Daily Sketch, London, 15 November 1924.

[20]. ”SPIRITS’ WHILE YOU WAIT’, Daily Sketch, London, 18 November 1924.

[21]. ‘£1000 TEST FOR MEDIUM BIG SUM FOR CHARITY IF CENOTAPH CLAIMANT CAN TAKE ‘SPIRIT PICTURES UNDER FAIR CONDITIONS, WILL MRS DEANE ACCEPT THE CHALLENGE’, The Daily Sketch, London, 19 November 1924.

[22]. ”SPIRIT’ PHOTOGRAPHER RUNS AWAY’, Daily Sketch, London, 21 November 1924.

[23]. Estelle Stead, Faces of the Living Dead.

[24]. Fred Barlow, ‘Psychic Photography Debated: Major W.R. Rose and Mr Fred Barlow State Their Case Against William Hope’s Work’, Light, 19 May 1933. Fred Barlow, ‘Report on an Investigation in Spirit Photography’, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, XLI, March 1933.

[25]. F. W. Warrick, Experiments in Psychics.

[26] [Gunning, 1995 #3]  p61. See also the Georges Melies film  A spiritualist Photographer, 1903.

[27]  To Gilles Deleuze an assemblage is, “simultaneously and inseparably a machinic assemblage and an assemblage of enunciation”. Jonathan Crary discusses modernity in terms of two related assemblages: the camera obscura and the stereoscope. See [Crary, 1990 #412], p31, and [Crary, 1999 #355]

[28]Stead, Estelle, “And Some of Them are Photographed”, Harbinger of Light, February 1918.

[29] [Doyle, 1921 #299], p76-77.

[30]  These reports were amongst the stories which motivated the British artist Susan Hiller in her long term engagement with the power of the paranormal in contemporary experience. See, [Hiller, 2000 #410]

[31] [Doyle, 1931 #411]

[32]  Exceptions are Helmut and Alison Gernsheim’s tongue in cheek “Photographing Ghosts”, in  Photography, London, Vol. X11, p53. Cited in [Krauss, 1994 #309], p135.

[33]  I am here bringing forward the famous phrase which wasn’t coined until later by Henri Cartier-Bresson in his book The Decisive Moment, Simon and Schuster, 1952.

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