The first recorded instance of spirit photography was in 1860’s Boston, when amateur photographer William Mumler allegedly saw the ghost of his deceased cousin in the background of a self-portrait he had developed. He turned his discovery into a business, banking on the sentimentalities of those who wanted to reconnect with loved ones lost during the Civil War. Spirit photographers became popular in several major cities, charging customers $10 for a snapshot with the deceased of their choosing. Nearly all of them were later investigated and charged with fraud.
“If you were a photographer, you knew what was going on in a chemical-filled dark room,” says Brooklyn-based spirit photographer, JR Pepper. “But if you weren’t, you anticipated some kind of power in photography. Technology was very different; nowadays, when someone sees an image with anything unusual, it’s immediately deemed to have been Photoshopped. We don’t even think about it. But back then, people thought this was absolute truth.”
There are two different types of modern spirit photography, Pepper explains. There are those who use it as a science, the “paranormal investigators.” They look for evidence of the afterlife by using technology. They go into haunted houses. They document exorcisms.
Then you have the artists, like Pepper, who don’t aim to prove, but to create. Drawn to the important historical and visual elements of the old photographs, she began creating her own spirit photographs in 2008.
She doesn’t believe in spirits, and doesn’t try to trick anyone into believing her images show authentic ghosts. Unlike Mumler, who continually denied his fraud, Pepper is quick and happy to share that she uses “old parlor tricks” to create her images. Her spirits consist of mannequin parts and different types of cloth. Her subjects are friends and family members, who she dresses up in period clothing and pays with pizza and beer.
For her most recent photo series, Pepper wanted to do a recreation of a seance, citing old Victorian gothic horror as her inspiration. She set up her friends in a formalized portrait in her living room, and took several photos both with and without the “spirits” (a series of fans and tissue paper).
“It looks ridiculous while you’re doing it, like a puppet show,” Pepper laughs. “But when you look at the film, it has a really cool, ethereal look to it.
Pepper gets her ghostly look by shooting with a very low shutter, while moving objects (a piece of fabric, or a plastic arm) into the shot, then pulling it out. She creates digital compositions when necessary, like when shooting in cemeteries.
“They don’t want you bringing in lots of equipment, for obvious reasons. That’s when I’ll go into Photoshop and get a double exposure that way. But for the most part, it’s all done in camera, which is a lot more fun.”
“I started this project as an homage to a particular time in the history of photography,” she says. “Spirit photographers used the power of an image and the strength of their subjects' beliefs to show them what they so desperately wanted to see. Despite the fact that these photos were taken by photographic trickery—Photoshop before Photoshop—there is an intense beauty to them. They told a personal narrative of the deceased and the mourners. My work is done in this style, using the aesthetics and techniques of the spirit photographers. I'm fascinated that a photograph could convince someone of the seemingly impossible. These photos exuded the power photography has. It has to power to make us believe what we want to believe.”
Click here for more of JR Pepper’s art.