"A unique characteristic of photography has always been its ability to record the visible material world with truth and accuracy."
-- Philippe de Montebello, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Other sources:

Barnum's Lost Museum

Medium Well Done


Prairie Ghosts

American Museum of Photography

Museum of Hoaxes

Cottingley Fairy Controversy

Seeing is Believing

William H. Mumler (1832-1884; active Boston & New York)

Mumler's portrait of Mrs. Lincoln with her deceased husband's ghost, 1868.

Unidentified Man with Two Spirits, c. 1870.

This image, unlike the other examples in this gallery, does not seem to show a celebrity or noted spiritualist. Perhaps this sitter is more typical of those who flocked to Mumler's galleries, seeking contact with deceased relatives or friends.

Members of photographic trade groups sought to condemn Mumler as a matter of professional pride and public service. The New York photographer Abraham Bogardus testified at Mumler's 1869 court hearing that he belonged to the National Photographic Association, which had among its goals "putting down any humbug we could discover." After the court dropped charges against Mumler, the Photographic Section of The American Institute passed a resolution "That the Photographic Section... take the earliest opportunity to condemn all such methods of working upon the credulous and uninitiated." [Source]

Mrs. French of Boston with Spirit Son, c. 1868.

Cartoon from Harper's Weekly

Mumler's advertising in Harper's Weekly.

Abraham Bogardus' portrait of PT Barnum and the ghost of Abraham Lincoln, 1869
Barnum uses this in an effort to prove Mumler's a fraud and takes him to court in 1869.

Harry Houdini, 1874-1926. Houdini was a famous debunker of Spiritualist hoaxes.
In fact, he may have gotten some of the ideas for his act from some of the Spiritualists he debunked.

Master Herrod in a Trance. His Spiritual Body Withdrawn and Appears Behind, c. 1868.

Mumler 's advertisements in spiritualist publications offered two photographs of "Master Herrod of N. Bridgwater, Mass.

"For sale:

This young man is a medium. Before sitting for this picture three spirits offered to show themselves, representing Europe, Africa and America. As will be seen by the picture, this promise was fulfilled. Also a picture was taken while entranced, and shows his double." (The Religio-Philosophical Journal, August 24, 1872.) [Source]

Moses A. Dow, Editor of Waverley Magazine, with the Spirit of Mabel Warren., c. 1871.

The Medium and Daybreak, a weekly Spiritualist newspaper devoted to the history, phenomena, philosophy, and teachings of Spiritulism.

Ghost, Theodor Prinz, 1900.

Miss Evans with a Spirit Emanation, Stanley Bulford, 1921.

Henri Robin and the Spectre, Eugene Thiebault, 1863.

Effluvia from the electrified hand resting on a plate, Jacob von Narkiewicz-Jodko, 1996.

The Medium Eva C, Albert von Schrenk-Notzing, 1912.

Emission and Reabsorption, 1/25/1913.

Levitation of the Medium Cole Evans, 1938. (Infrared)

The Medium Ferihummer, 1923.

Partial Dematerialization, of the Medium Marguerite Beuttinger, 1920.

A spirit photograph of Harry Price taken by George Moss, who subsequently confessed to creating fake pictures (including this one), c.1925

A photograph of medium Helen Duncan during a seance with head covered with ectoplasm.

A photograph of the blindfolded Helen Duncan during a seance, with 'ectoplasm' trailing from her nose, leading to a coathanger spirit at her side, 1933.

A photograph of the 'Marianne' wall writings at Borley Rectory, an example of so-called automatic writing.

A 'phantom priest' photographed in the church at Arundel, Sussex.

Lone Chair, 2005, Florencia Durante, Click here to cycle through her series.

Photism 1.4, (from the series Unseen Agents), 2006-07, Clare Strand's Conjurations and Gone Astray portrait series.

Sequential Opposition, 2006, Ben Judd, see his stereographic series here.

Still from The Last Person, 1998, Susan MacWilliam

Untitled, 1991, from Tim Maul's series Traces and Presence.

Polaroid, 1959. Ectoplasm?

Seance in a Toys r Us stockroom, Sunnyvale,California. This is an infrared shot.
The high-speed camera set up to shoot simultaneously with this one did not produce the same image.

Two women and a whimsical friend in Manila.

'About as spooky as a tea-towel'
Is that ectoplasm or cheesecloth? A ghost or a sheet? Adrian Searle attends a very strange exhibition - and wonders how these pictures ever fooled anyone...
The Guardian, Wednesday November 28, 2007

Whatever became of Geff, the Talking Mongoose of Doarlish Cashen? What this baffling creature was doing on the Isle of Man to begin with is mystery enough. And what of Pasquale Erto, the Human Rainbow from Naples, who would appear nude and in a self-induced trance, with rays of light six yards long emanating from his body? It is a pity no camera ever captured the full effect. These are things one might expect from the back wards of daytime TV, rather than the Photographers' Gallery in London. Its Seeing Is Believing show is a disappointing exhibition about the unexplained. What is really inexplicable is the mediocrity of many photographs in the show: Claire Strand's arty portraits, with their smoky grey auras; Florencia Durante's figures and rooms, with their scribbles and arcs of yellow light. The furniture flies about, but we know too much to be more than mildly entertained by pictures like this any more.

Durante's photographs look like adverts for something or other. Roger Ballen's weird interiors are at least unsettling, with their mad writing on the walls, the creepy rubbish lying about, the gesticulating hands appearing from under the filthy bed-linen. Fred Ressler sees the faces of Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein and "Lila, the Native American Princess" in the patches of shadow cast by trees in his backyard. With a bit of imagination, you can see them, too. You just have to open yourself up to the unseen world and the presences in the ether. But the best of this exhibition is to be found in the back room, where, under suitably gloomy conditions, black-and-white photographs from the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature are on loan from Senate House, in London University. The Talking Mongoose is here - or rather not here - and so is the Human Rainbow, though he is failing to emit any substantial rays. We also see Price, who died in 1948: a pipe-smoking boffin in a white coat, seated at a laboratory bench, in his guise as founder of the National Laboratory of Psychical Research - a scientific-sounding name for a slightly amateurish organisation.

It is precisely this amateurishness that distinguishes the images in Price's collection. They make no pretence to art whatsoever. Their purpose is entirely documentary, which is why they are often genuinely strange and uncanny - though not perhaps in the ways that Price, his collaborators and subjects imagined.

They are also often hilarious, with their double-exposure ghosts, table-tilting mediums, automatic writing appearing on the walls, and the whole Ealing-comedy cast of oddballs, table-rappers, communicators with the dead, clergymen, fakirs and frauds. Price's photographs are indeed a glimpse into an unseen world. Price - part-time conjuror, inveterate ghost-hunter and fearless exposer of fraudulent psychics and mediums - was a bit of a fraud himself, well placed to expose the wiles of his subjects.

The original captions to the photographs, most of which were written by Price, are sometimes better than the images themselves. "One of the methods of controlling Willi Schneider, the famous Austrian medium, during a seance," one reads. "In addition to one-piece tights and luminous pine stuck all over him, his hands are rigidly controlled by Professor Karl Gruber." In Price's "controlled experiments", mediums were made to wear special socks, or have their hands inserted in shoeboxes during seances, to prevent any sly legerdemain. One medium, Fred Marion, was made to sit in a plywood box, with only his polished shoes emerging. During the flesh-creeping incident of the Crawley Poltergeist, Alan Rhodes, a small boy in a well-pressed pair of pyjamas, was tied to his bedstead, while Price, an eager-looking vicar and various other observers (including the lad's grandmother) listened for flying objects from the next room.

Nowadays, the activities of the researchers might well draw the attention of social workers. The child himself appears entirely unconcerned by events. There are even more bizarre images. Gosh, I'd never seen teleplasmic hands emerging from anyone's navel before - or from anywhere else. They look like a bunch of sausages.

I think I prefer a very nice photograph of Miss Ethel Beenham. Price's doubtless long-suffering secretary poses with the accoutrements of the fraudulent medium on the table before her. Oddly, one of her ankles is tied to the chair, but she doesn't seem to have noticed.

Price himself is seen in another photograph, in a haunted bed in Chiswick, with Professor Joad, the popular philosopher and radio personality. Joad was an extremely famous and extremely irritating figure during the 1940s. He was there to give a bit of intellectual heft and objectivity. Joad fell from grace in 1948, having been caught fare-dodging on a train.

Price surrounded himself with hoaxers as much as he investigated them. He also travelled to Germany in 1932, where, to celebrate the centenary of Goethe, he attempted a black-magic experiment to turn a goat into a young man. We are told the experiment failed, but who really knows? The rumours and stories abound. Some of the strangest photographs are those of medium Helen Duncan emitting ectoplasm from her mouth. In fact, it is yards and yards of Woolworths cheesecloth. It is a wonder she got away with her regurgitations for so long. Sometimes she would make the ectoplasmic cheesecloth appear even spookier by affixing rubber gloves or magazine portraits to it.

Another of Price's photographs appears to show Duncan with ectoplasm entirely covering her head. It is about as spooky as a tea-towel. In 1944, Duncan became the last woman to be tried in Britain for witchcraft, and of falsely claiming to "procure spirits". There is a website devoted entirely to Duncan's rehabilitation and posthumous pardon.

Elsewhere in Seeing Is Believing, the artist Susan MacWilliam re-enacts Duncan's cloth-swallowing act in a video, The Last Person. How could anyone be taken in by the patently ludicrous, faked manifestations in many of the photographs in Price's collection? Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was fooled by the hovering phantoms that populate supposed "spirit photography". One spook, seen crossing a room with arms outstretched, wouldn't fool a four-year-old today.

That, perhaps, is the trouble. We have seen too much. Special effects and doctored photographs are staples of the movie and advertising worlds. Even most surrealism fails to be surreal to us.

Perhaps the only other work in Seeing Is Believing that tugs strongly on the imagination is the series of photographs taken by Tim Maul in 1991. Maul walked round New York with a psychic, who homed in on deserted alleys, bricked-up doorways, lobbies and other unremarkable corners of the city, where the psychic detected traces of unwordly, non-living presences. There's nothing to see - no weirdness, no people, alive or dead. But having been told that something is hovering around in these places makes us look more closely. The totally deadpan normality of Maul's anonymous and undramatic images is what makes them eerie. And there's not a drop of ectoplasm nor an inch of cheesecloth in sight.