Louis Kaplan


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

Cover Interview of February 26, 2009


What is it about Mumler’s story and the conjuring of these technological ghosts in photography that still resonates with us one hundred and fifty years later at the dawn of the digital era?  The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer reminds us of the intense intertwining of the history of communications technologies with occult or paranormal phenomena in every generation.  The “ghosts in the machine” can be found in every successive technological medium from telegraphy to television to cyberspace.  Jeffrey Sconce has referred to this as haunted media.  If you browse around the internet, you will find a wide range of popular examples of ghostly images produced by digital means as well as the same debates between skeptics and believers with the accusations of Photoshop manipulations on the one hand and the claims of New Age revelations on the other.  But whether discussing Mumler or the ghost hunters of today, I take a more deconstructive approach, recalling how each side of the debate is always already haunted by and dependent upon the other.  For me, it is not a question of affirming or debunking the truth claims of spirit photography.  The point is rather to acknowledge spirit photography’s affective power and its ability to construct meaning and value as well as to provoke controversy and debate then and now.

This book illuminates a curious chapter in nineteenth century American history that has largely gone unnoticed even though it has major ramifications for many fields.  First and foremost, the story of William Mumler and the birth of spirit photography highlight a fascinating chapter in the history of photography, deserving of its place in the canon.  The book would appeal to history buffs of the American Civil War period because of the many renowned personages (often Mumler’s clients) who walk through its pages.  It has major significance for religious studies in light of the way in which it implicates the history of Spiritualism.  Mumler’s famous trial also raises interesting issues about the use of photographic evidence in a court of law and this makes the book quite relevant for legal studies.  Given that the book elucidates Mumler’s case history through theories derived from psychoanalysis and deconstruction, it impacts and implicates these fields of study as well.  Finally, I believe that everyone enjoys a good ghost story and I want us all to remember that, whether dead or alive, photography gives up the ghost.

© 2009 Louis Kaplan