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The Man Who Photographed Ghosts

Via / Sarah Waldorf

Mrs. Tinkham (detail), 1862–75, William H. Mumler. Albumen silver print, 3 3/4 x 2 1/4 in. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XD.760.1.7

In the 19th century, death was trending. The newly invented medium of photography became a way to cope with death, and post-mortem photography offered a popular new way to preserve the memory of loved ones.

Unidentified elderly woman seated, three “spirits” in background, 1862–75, William H. Mumler. Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum. 84.XD.760.1.19

William H. Mumler cashed in. A jeweler’s engraver by trade and the accidental inventor of “spirit photography,” Mumler figured out how to produce images with double exposures, giving one of the figures a ghostly quality.The invention of photography also coincided with the increasing popularity of hauntings, seances, and mediums during the rise of the spiritualist movement. Photography was a perfect way to connect with the spirit realm…or so it seemed.

His first ghostly image taken in March of 1861 was a total accident. He took a self-portrait in a friend’s studio using a plate that already was exposed. This image was circulated as a gag, and then fell into the hands of somebody at The Herald of Progress, a spiritualist journal. And from there his popularity exploded and his story began to change.

Soon, accounts of Mumler’s first self portrait were embellished with stories of his arm feeling numb. Some stories claimed he couldn’t take more than two or three spirit photographs a day, for connecting with the spirit world was exhausting work.

A flip through the Getty's album of Mumler spirit photography.

A flip through the Getty’s album of Mumler spirit photography. –


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