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.