A Spirit Photograph

Shawn Michelle Smith
School of the Art Insti­tute of Chica­go
Pub­lished Decem­ber 17, 2011

A spir­it pho­to­graph.  An imag­ined encounter between the liv­ing and the dead ren­dered in the soft brown tones of an albu­men print.  The upper tor­so of a young white man fills the low­er half of the frame.  He sports a large pat­terned tie looped around a stiff white col­lar, tucked under vest and jack­et.  A wide mus­tache anchors his del­i­cate fea­tures.  His light eyes and combed-back hair shine in the illu­mi­na­tion of the stu­dio.  He turns his head away from the cam­era to focus on a dis­tant point out­side the frame.  He is ren­dered in sharp focus, and stands out dis­tinct­ly from the hazy back­ground.  Over the man’s left shoul­der hov­ers the face of a boy.  His head is a dis­em­bod­ied, slight­ly trans­par­ent orb.  His ear just touch­es the man’s tem­ple, and their bod­ies seem to over­lap and inter­min­gle at the point of con­tact.  The boy is posed par­al­lel to the man, at the same angle to the cam­era, and he appears to gaze out of the frame at the same dis­tant point.  His del­i­cate fea­tures close­ly resem­ble those of his elder coun­ter­part, and his hair is part­ed and slicked back in just the same man­ner, but his eyes are dark, entire­ly lack­ing in lus­ter.  The upper half of the pho­to­graph is dom­i­nat­ed by the face of an elder­ly Native Amer­i­can man, with lined fore­head, and solemn stare, and sharply down-turned mouth.  He resem­bles Sit­ting Bull, the famous Lako­ta chief known for his pre­scient visions, who resist­ed US attempts to force­ful­ly acquire land in the Black Hills of the Dako­ta Ter­ri­to­ry in the 1870s.  His head emerges from a dark and indis­tinct back­ground, and looms larg­er than those of the oth­er sub­jects.  He is the only fig­ure that seems to engage the gaze of view­ers.  Rest­ing on slight­ly dif­fer­ent axes, one eye looks direct­ly out at us, while the oth­er drifts toward the dis­tant point gazed upon by the white man and boy.  With­in the log­ic of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy, the image sug­gests an oth­er­world­ly encounter between a liv­ing man and his depart­ed son, facil­i­tat­ed by a Native Amer­i­can spir­it guide.

Spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy was a well-known, if not ubiq­ui­tous, prac­tice by the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry in the Unit­ed States.  In 1861, William Mum­ler began to make spir­it pho­tographs in his Boston stu­dio with the assis­tance of his clair­voy­ant wife, Han­nah.(1)  The images were much sought after, and with­in sev­er­al years Mum­ler opened a stu­dio on low­er Broad­way in New York City, ask­ing ten dol­lars per sit­ting dur­ing an era in which ordi­nary stu­dio pho­tographs sold for twen­ty-five cents.(2)  Mumler’s spir­it pho­tographs remained pop­u­lar com­modi­ties until he was put on tri­al for fraud in 1869, at which point they became a mat­ter of heat­ed debate among Spir­i­tu­al­ists and pho­tog­ra­phers alike.  Ulti­mate­ly, Mum­ler tri­umphed.  Even though the judge declared spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy to be a form of decep­tion, he ruled in favor of Mum­ler, argu­ing that the pros­e­cu­tion had failed to make a con­vinc­ing case.(3) Mum­ler con­tin­ued to prac­tice spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy into the 1870s.

Spir­it pho­tographs engaged many of the hopes and anx­i­eties that informed the wide-rang­ing prac­tice of pho­tog­ra­phy in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry.  From the moment of its inven­tion, com­men­ta­tors not­ed photography’s abil­i­ty to cap­ture more than the naked eye alone could see.  The cam­era could reg­is­ter detail and still motion in extra­or­di­nary ways, and the pho­to­graph enabled view­ers to con­tem­plate scenes for an extend­ed peri­od of time.  In this way, pho­tog­ra­phy lit­er­al­ly expand­ed the vis­i­ble world, mak­ing it pos­si­ble to see beyond the lim­i­ta­tions of human sight.

Spir­i­tu­al­ists in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry played on photography’s capac­i­ty to cap­ture worlds beyond nat­ur­al human sight, propos­ing that the cam­era might also record a supernat­ur­al realm beyond the range of ordi­nary vision.  In his intro­duc­tion to Pho­tograph­ing the Invis­i­blepub­lished in 1911, James Coates notes the many mate­r­i­al but invis­i­ble things that can be pho­tographed, such as the inte­ri­or of the body seen with X-rays or stars made vis­i­ble with tele­scopes.  He then pro­claims that imma­te­r­i­al things can also be pho­tographed:  “In addi­tion to invis­i­ble objects, persons—some of whom are depart­ed, and hence no longer clothed in the ves­ture of the flesh, or exist­ing on the present plane of sense perception—have been pho­tographed.”(4)

Spir­it pho­tographs appealed to a wide range of believ­ers and non­be­liev­ers.  Spir­i­tu­al­ists sug­gest­ed that, when placed in the right hands, the cam­era could func­tion as a sen­si­tive “medi­um,” record­ing the pres­ence of spir­its oth­er­wise invis­i­ble to the human eye.  Oth­ers pro­claimed spir­it pho­tographs to be a hoax, rec­og­niz­ing the photograph’s capac­i­ty to be manip­u­lat­ed through dou­ble expo­sures.  As the case of French spir­it pho­tog­ra­ph­er Édouard Isidore Buguet attests, how­ev­er, the pur­port­ed verac­i­ty of the images did not nec­es­sar­i­ly deter­mine their com­mer­cial suc­cess.  Buguet, unlike Mum­ler, did not win his own fraud case, and was forced to reveal the secrets of his process dur­ing his tri­al.  As he explained, he pro­duced dou­ble expo­sures.  He would first pho­to­graph a dum­my cloaked in a gauze veil, with an enlarged pic­ture of a face resem­bling the depart­ed attached at the head.  He would then expose the same neg­a­tive again when he pho­tographed his liv­ing sub­ject.  Even after he dis­closed his decep­tion, how­ev­er, many of his cus­tomers con­tin­ued to pro­claim the truth of his spir­it pho­tographs.(5)  Soon after the tri­al, Buguet announced his new prac­tice as an “anti-spir­it” pho­tog­ra­ph­er, and con­tin­ued to make exact­ly the same kind of images for eager con­sumers.(6)  Those who did not believe in the truth of spir­it pho­tographs might nev­er­the­less find com­fort in them as memen­to mori, as objects that memo­ri­al­ized the dead.(7) And some sim­ply enjoyed the joke.

In the spir­it pho­to­graph at hand, one can imag­ine a father com­mu­ni­cat­ing with (or sim­ply com­mem­o­rat­ing) his depart­ed son.  But this reunion of spir­it takes place under the guid­ing author­i­ty of a Native Amer­i­can man who resem­bles Sit­ting Bull.  How does one explain his pres­ence in this pho­to­graph, and what is his role in this encounter?

Native Amer­i­can “spir­its” fig­ured in spir­it pho­tographs with some reg­u­lar­i­ty.  As Mol­ly McGar­ry has demon­strat­ed, “Rely­ing on a cul­tur­al under­stand­ing of Native Amer­i­cans as high­ly spir­i­tu­al, and map­ping onto the spir­it world the colo­nial rela­tion­ship of the Indi­an as a guide for the white man, Spir­i­tu­al­ists posi­tioned Native Amer­i­cans as a vital link between this world and the next.  It was the Indi­an guide who could bring Spir­i­tu­al­ists through the veil, trac­ing the invis­i­ble foot­prints beyond.”(8)  Giv­en their promi­nence in the world­view of Spir­i­tu­al­ists, it is not sur­pris­ing that Native Amer­i­cans would begin to appear in spir­it pho­tographs.  The Native Amer­i­can who looms over the spir­i­tu­al reunion depict­ed in this image func­tions as the guide who joins the liv­ing with the dead.  Impor­tant­ly, he does not emerge to com­fort or com­mu­ni­cate with his own rel­a­tives, but to suture the nat­ur­al and super­nat­ur­al worlds for a young white fam­i­ly.

Native Amer­i­cans were posed as “Amer­i­can” ances­tors in a wide range of cul­tur­al dis­cours­es in the late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Unit­ed States.  As Alan Tra­cht­en­berg has argued, white Amer­i­cans appro­pri­at­ed the image and idea of the Native Amer­i­can as part of their Amer­i­can her­itage, pre­cise­ly at the moment in which they also deemed Native Amer­i­cans to be van­ish­ing from the present, and erased them from a viable future.  In this peri­od white Amer­i­cans rel­e­gat­ed Native Amer­i­cans to an imag­ined past and claimed them for Euro-Amer­i­can his­to­ry.(9)  Such nar­ra­tives sought to legit­imize the course of Amer­i­can Man­i­fest Des­tiny and the pol­i­cy of Indi­an removal as nat­ur­al process­es rather than aggres­sive mil­i­tary oper­a­tions.  Spir­i­tu­al­ists par­tic­i­pat­ed in such racial­ized log­ics, and as McGar­ry has argued, “As Spir­i­tu­al­ists appro­pri­at­ed Native Amer­i­cans as ances­tors, pre­cur­sors, and spir­i­tu­al teach­ers, they con­sis­tent­ly pro­ject­ed these spir­its into an after­world that both ratio­nal­ized and val­i­dat­ed Indi­ans’ pass­ing from this world.”(10)  If this is, in fact, an image of Sit­ting Bull, the appro­pri­a­tion at work is extreme, for it imag­ines a famous Native Amer­i­can war­rior who resist­ed Euro-Amer­i­can col­o­niza­tion recon­fig­ured as a spir­i­tu­al fore­bear and guide for a white father and son.  He no longer serves the spir­i­tu­al life of his own peo­ple but instead pre­sides over the spir­i­tu­al com­mu­nion of white peo­ple who claim him as their Amer­i­can ances­tor.

This spir­it pho­to­graph is thus more than a fas­ci­nat­ing odd­i­ty.  It engages nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry debates about the nature and reach of pho­tog­ra­phy, the pres­ence of spir­its and their mate­r­i­al man­i­fes­ta­tions, and the racial con­tours of an Amer­i­can past, present, and future.

* * *

Spir­it pho­tographs draw atten­tion to the asso­ci­a­tion of pho­tog­ra­phy with death that would pre­oc­cu­py many twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry schol­ars.  Roland Barthes famous­ly described the process of being pho­tographed as a kind of small death.  In Cam­era Luci­da he states, “The Pho­to­graph … rep­re­sents that very sub­tle moment when, to tell the truth, I am nei­ther sub­ject nor object but a sub­ject who feels he is becom­ing an object:  I then expe­ri­ence a micro-ver­sion of death (of paren­the­sis):  I am tru­ly becom­ing a specter.”(11)  For Barthes, the pho­to­graph­ic por­trait is intrin­si­cal­ly a kind of spir­it pho­to­graph, trans­form­ing its sub­ject into a specter.  Indeed, Barthes saw death in all pho­tographs:  “The pho­to­graph tells me death in the future.… Whether or not the sub­ject is already dead, every pho­to­graph is this cat­a­stro­phe.”(12)  The pho­tographed sub­ject always belongs to the past; the pho­to­graph pre­serves an instant already gone the moment the camera’s shut­ter clos­es.  In con­cert with Barthes, Eduar­do Cada­va has stat­ed, “It is pre­cise­ly in death that the pow­er of the pho­to­graph is revealed, and revealed to the very extent that it con­tin­ues to evoke what can no longer be there.… In pho­tograph­ing some­one, we know that the pho­to­graph will sur­vive him—it begins, even dur­ing his life, to cir­cu­late with­out him, fig­ur­ing and antic­i­pat­ing his death each time it is looked at.  The pho­to­graph is a farewell.  It belongs to the after­life of the pho­tographed.”(13)  In this sense, spir­it pho­tographs might be con­sid­ered the epit­o­me of pho­tog­ra­phy rather than an anom­aly, reveal­ing some­thing of the photograph’s essen­tial prop­er­ties.



Barthes, Roland, Cam­era Luci­da: Reflec­tions on Pho­tog­ra­phy, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).

Batchen, Geof­frey, For­get Me Not: Pho­tog­ra­phy and Remem­brance (New York: Prince­ton Archi­tec­tur­al Press and Van Gogh Muse­um, Ams­ter­dam, 2004).

Cada­va, Eduar­do, Words of Light: The­ses on the Pho­tog­ra­phy of His­to­ry  (Prince­ton: Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1997).

Chéroux, Clé­ment, “Ghost Dialec­tics: Spir­it Pho­tog­ra­phy in Enter­tain­ment and Belief,” in The Per­fect Medi­um: Pho­tog­ra­phy and the Occult by Clé­ment Chéroux, Andreas Fis­ch­er, Pierre Aprax­ine, Denis Can­guil­hem, and Sophie Schmit (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005), 45–55.

Clouti­er, Crista, “Mumler’s Ghosts,” in The Per­fect Medi­um: Pho­tog­ra­phy and the Occult by Clé­ment Chéroux, Andreas Fis­ch­er, Pierre Aprax­ine, Denis Can­guil­hem, and Sophie Schmit (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2005), 20–28.

Coates, James, Pho­tograph­ing the Invis­i­ble (Lon­don: L. N. Fowler and Co., 1911).

Gun­ning, Tom, “Phan­tom Images and Mod­ern Man­i­fes­ta­tions: Spir­it Pho­tog­ra­phy, Mag­ic The­ater, Trick Films, and Photography’s Uncan­ny,” in Fugi­tive Images: From Pho­tog­ra­phy to Video, ed. Patrice Petro (Bloom­ing­ton: Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1995), 42–71.

Kaplan, Louis, The Strange Case of William Mum­ler, Spir­it Pho­tog­ra­ph­er (Min­neapo­lis: Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta Press, 2008).

McGar­ry, Mol­ly, Ghosts of Futures Past: Spir­i­tu­al­ism and the Cul­tur­al Pol­i­tics of Nine­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca (Berke­ley: Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia Press, 2008).

Tra­cht­en­berg, Alan, Shades of Hiawatha: Stag­ing Indi­ans, Mak­ing Amer­i­cans, 1880–1930 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004).

(1) For fur­ther infor­ma­tion about Mum­ler, see Louis Kaplan’s edit­ed col­lec­tion of pri­ma­ry source doc­u­ments, and his his­tor­i­cal and the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion of those doc­u­ments in The Strange Case of William Mum­ler, Spir­it Pho­tog­ra­ph­er.

(2) Crista Clouti­er, “Mumler’s Ghosts,” 21.

(3) Crista Clouti­er, “Mumler’s Ghosts,” 22–23.

(4) James Coates, Pho­tograph­ing the Invis­i­ble (Lon­don: L. N. Fowler and Co., 1911), 3.

(5) Clé­ment Chéroux, “Ghost Dialec­tics,” 50–51.

(6) Clé­ment Chéroux, “Ghost Dialec­tics,” 51–52.

(7) As Geof­frey Batchen has argued, spir­it pho­tographs ulti­mate­ly were not about the dead, but about the liv­ing, rep­re­sent­ing the labor and time of mourn­ing.  Geof­frey Batchen, For­get Me Not.  Louis Kaplan sug­gests that spir­it pho­tographs func­tioned as tran­si­tion­al objects in the work of mourn­ing.  Louis Kaplan, The Strange Case of William Mum­ler, 231–232.

(8) McGar­ry, Ghosts of Futures Past, 66.

(9) Alan Tra­cht­en­berg, Shades of Hiawatha.

(10) McGar­ry, Ghosts of Futures Past, 73.

(11) Roland Barthes, Cam­era Luci­da, 14, empha­sis added.

(12) Roland Barthes, Cam­era Luci­da, 96.

(13) Eduar­do Cada­va, Words of Light, 13.