In the early 20th century, a British guy named William Hope rose to prominence in Spiritualist circles because of his ability to allegedly capture images of spirits in his photographs. Eventually, Hope founded a group of spirit photographers called the Crewe Circle. He and his cohort went on to prey on grieving families who lost loved ones in WWI and desperately wanted photographic proof that their relatives were still hovering around in spectral form. By 1922, Hope was making good money in London taking spirit photos and working as a professional medium—even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame was a staunch supporter.
A string of skeptics exposed Hope's spirit photos as fakes instead of honest-to-God proof of the supernatural, and a 1922 feature in Scientific American mapped out the photo tricks and double exposures Hope and other spirit photographers used to make their images. Despite the naysayers, Doyle stood by Hope's side. He even penned an entire book to make a case for the legitimacy of Hope and spirit photography and named it, naturally, The Case for Spirit Photography. Even after being unmasked as a fraud, Hope continued taking spirit photos until his death in 1933. Doyle supported him until the bitter end.
Hope's surviving spirit photographs are now part of a collection at the National Media Museum. The images are strange and unsettling, but it's pretty obvious that they're fakes. For someone who created the world's most famous detective and inquisitive mind, Doyle was a real dope for falling for Hope's tricks. After discovering Hope's story and photos on the Public Domain Review website, I became curious about how Hope was able to manipulate photos like this back in the 1910s. So I tracked down Nathaniel Stein—Horace W. Goldsmith Curatorial Fellow in Photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art—to get some more info on what went into spirit photography.
VICE: Hey, Nathaniel. Can you tell me a bit about how Hope faked these spirit photos?
Nathaniel Stein: Photography was as open to manipulation in the pre-digital era as it is now. Supernatural effects were mainly accomplished using good old-fashioned double exposure. Photographers like Hope would have been making their negatives on photosensitized glass plates. You set up your apparition (or ectoplasm, or whatever) for the camera and take the lens cap off for a short period of time. Then, later on, you use the same glass plate to photograph your living sitter.
The developed negative comes out with both images on it—an incompletely exposed ghostly image as well as your sitter, looking perfectly unaware. Alternatively the doubling-up could be done during the making of the print, by printing multiple negatives to one piece of photographic paper.
Interesting. Were there a lot of photographers pulling tricks like this in the 19th and 20th centuries?
There are several famous figures in spirit photography—William Mumler is probably the most notable in the US. He had his heyday in the 1860s. Like Hope, Mumler was debunked in his own time (there was even a court case), but there were also many people who continued to believe in the veracity of his work.
Why do you think people kept believing, even after the whole thing was proved to be a hoax?
Spiritualism was quite a big thing in Europe and the US during this period, so the photographic aspect of this practice was building on an already thriving cultural phenomenon. Like mediums, I'm sure spirit photographers exercised a certain personal magnetism. I'm sure many of their adherents had a deep need to believe contact with the dead was possible.
Right. Seems like a lot of Hope's fans lost loved ones in the war, so they were really searching for ways to deal with that grief.
Yes. Also don't forget things like micro-photography, or the photographic registration of light beyond the visible spectrum, or X-ray photography—these are all instances where the camera was ordained by scientists as a machine that could see things human beings couldn't see. Would photography of spirit presences invisible to the human eye really be that much of a leap?
That makes sense. Thanks a lot!
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