Spiritualism is not as old as one might think. Distinct from mysticism, spiritualism focused on the esoteric and occult side of the otherworldly and was a loosely organized doctrine based on communication with the dead. An American product of the modern age, its history is riddled with stars and starlets, reading much like a soap opera, with its supporters tried in court and governmental hearings. At the same time, it counted among its followers some of the finest minds of its day, well-known personalities, scientists, and authors. The movement that would eventually claim over 12 million followers had its beginning in the small upstate New York town of Hydesville. In 1848, two sisters, Katie and Margaret Fox, claimed to have communicated with the spirit of a murdered peddler buried under their house. Using an elaborate system of knockings (which one sister later explained were their toe joints cracking against the bedposts), they could answer "yes" and "no" to questions, a sort of spiritual version of Morse code. Soon after their fame, the sisters moved to Rochester—coincidentally, as one critic notes, the city that what would later become the home of two major imaging companies, Eastman Kodak and Xerox—and attracted even more believers.
Although spiritualism took on a variety of guises, its main foci were the medium and the séance. Another pair of siblings, the Davenport Brothers introduced what was to become the major accouterment of séances in their traveling act of the 1860s. The psychic cabinet, a sort of spiritual camera obscura, was a prop that mediums (and later magicians) all over the world added to their vocabulary. While the brothers were tied within the dark cabinet, hands would appear, instruments would levitate, and other inexplicable happenings would occur. Later developments—slate and spirit writing, ectoplasm and full body materializations—brought spiritualist occurrences into the physical realm, literally. Each new feat was duly captured in photographic form in order to provide scientific and visual proof. Such effects brought the photography parallel full circle, as Gunning has observed: "Spirits are not simply captured in pictures; they communicate by some sort of picture language. The medium herself became a sort of camera, her spiritual negativity bodying forth positive image, as the human body behaves like an uncanny photomat, dispensing images from its orifices."
In 1861, a Boston engraver William Mumler while alone in a room took a self-portrait, which after development showed the likeness of another figure. This episode launched what would become known as spirit photography, which lasted in popularity until the 1930s. Mumler later moved to New York City, where he established a successful practice, charging as much as $10 and guaranteeing results. (He was eventually accused of fraud and destroyed most of his images.) In this exhibition, a small selection of historical photographs from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Spirit Photography collection from the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin focuses on the case of the Boston Medium, Mina (Margery) Crandon, who in 1924 accepted Scientific American's and Harry Houdini's challenge to show proof of psychic ability. With the author of Sherlock Holmes on one side and the famous escape artist on the other, the heated debate over Margery's powers played out in the press and was documented photographically. Conan Doyle, a member of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures, collected photographs from psychic circles and actively promoted spiritualism. Houdini, initially interested in contacting his deceased mother, realized that many mediums used the same slight of hand as he did in his magic act. He subsequently created a touring exposé and several books and pamphlets debunking them. While Margery was never awarded the monetary prize, her story continues to fascinate.
Spirit photography still finds an audience today as evidenced by the hundreds of amateur ghost hunter websites showcasing various ethereal looking blobs, streaks, orbs and vortexes. Indeed, many of us have yielded something similar on a roll of film, usually explained away as light leaks, x-rayed film, an errant camera strap, or even mist or smoke in the air. As Mark Alice Durant notes, photography professors often attempt to interpret enigmatic effects often created, intentionally or not, by students. "But sometimes I am baffled myself," he writes, "I may be teaching Beginning Photography, but I feel at times that I am an inept ghost buster, an incompetent debunker of the inherent mysteries of the medium."