Louis Kaplan


On his book The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer

Cover Interview of February 26, 2009

The wide angle

The Strange Case offers a different kind of ghost story.  Instead of the usual fare of haunted houses and wandering apparitions, these are photographic encounters with spirit-forms appearing in the photographs of William Mumler.  From a sociological perspective, one might think of these spirit photographic phenomena as constituting the urban legends haunting the major metropolitan centers of Boston and New York City in the 1860s and 1870s.  Let us not forget that this was the historical period that witnessed the American Civil War and its aftermath.  This factor has an important bearing upon Mumler’s story: the Civil War was a time of intense suffering and mourning in the American body politic.  The American Civil War was also a period of high infant mortality rates.  In promising the return of lost love ones through this relatively new photographic medium, spirit photography offered solace and consolation to the grieving nation and it assisted in the work of mourning for many people.

The other important historical context for understanding the rise of Mumler’s spirit photography has to be the growth of Spiritualism as a popular religious movement.  This politically progressive Christian reform movement blossomed in the mid-nineteenth century in the United States under the leadership of the “Poughkeepsie Seer” Andrew Jackson Davis and it thrived on a culture of mediumship.  The contested phenomena orchestrated by the Fox Sisters inaugurated Spiritualism in the spring of 1848 with incidents of “rappings” and “table turnings” in their haunted home in Hydesville, New York.  It was claimed that these communicating and communicative spirits were making themselves known by means of “spiritual telegraphy” which might be viewed as an otherworldly type of Morse code.  Let us recall that one of the founding tenets of Spiritualism was the belief that communication with the dead was possible and that spirit photography was a new phase in spirit communication and communion.

In this light, Mumler’s “spiritual photography,” as it was sometimes called, can be understood as another divinely inspired medium whereby the invisible ghosts revealed themselves to the living in the form of visual images.  Around this same period, the use of double exposure as an artistic technique in the photography of Oskar Rejlander and the genre of stereoscopic cards featuring ghostly apparitions as photographic amusements illustrated that technical processes and darkroom manipulations could produce the same haunted effects.  So while believers held that Mumler’s activities were wondrous occult phenomena and offered visual evidence of the truths of Spiritualism, doubting skeptics challenged these images as fraudulent tricks of double exposure and a swindle perpetrated upon a gullible public.  To the unbelieving rationalist, the ghostly phenomena were of a mechanical rather than a supernatural order.  In summary, Mumler’s story must be viewed as part of the larger crisis of faith that so characterized the second half of the nineteenth century and that still engages us at the beginning of the twenty-first, a crisis embodied in the conflicts between science and religion, evolution and creationism, rationality and faith.

But whether derided as a con man’s trick or hailed as a religious revelation, Mumler’s spirit photographs provided satisfied customers with the return of the dead.  In this way, the spirit forms haunting the frames of these photographs literalize the meaning of the ghost as revenant, as something that returns to haunt us in the present.  They foreground photography’s own intimate relationship with death or what Roland Barthes experienced in posing for the camera as a “micro-version of death,” the experience of “truly becoming a specter.”  The iconography of death in nineteenth century visual culture owes much to photography as it provided both memento mori images of freshly mortified corpses and spirit photographs that purportedly summoned the return of the dead.  We are indebted to William Mumler for initiating this peculiar iconography of death and death reanimated via the shady practice of spirit photography.

As a photographic historian and theorist with an abiding interest in the medium as both spectral and haunting, my desire to present the strange and singular case of William Mumler goes back a very long time.  The idea for such a book is something that has haunted me in various guises, whether more commercial or more arcane.  I am very pleased that it has finally taken shape in this form and format with the University of Minnesota Press.