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What is Spirit Photography?

Niki Foster
Updated May 17, 2024
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In its broadest sense, spirit photography refers to any type of photograph that appears to have captured supernatural phenomena. Examples may include photographs of ghosts, fairies, aura, or images created by thought. Photographs of cryptids, animals with no definitive proof of their existence, are not considered spirit photography. While many examples of spirit photography through the years have been debunked as fakes, others remain unexplained.

In the Victorian era, at the dawn of the art of photography, spirit photography was quite popular. The vogue of Spiritualism, through which many people attempted to get in touch with deceased loved ones, was a contributing factor, as was the large number of bereaved after the American Civil War. The typical spirit photograph of this era showed a shadowy figure, assumed to be a deceased relative, standing behind the sitter.

William Mumler is credited with pioneering spirit photography in 1862. He stood on trial for fraud seven years later, though he was acquitted due to lack of evidence. He took innumerable spirit photographs, as did his many followers. William Mumler's most famous spirit photograph shows Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's widow, with her husband's alleged ghost in the background.

Victorian spirit photographers are now known to have used a number of tricks to fake the photographs. Double exposures, which are made by exposing the same piece of film twice, were a common method of producing spirit photography. Since the subject had to sit for about a minute to take a picture in the 19th century, another method involved having the photographer's costumed assistant stealthily stand in the background for a few seconds to create a partially captured, shadowy image. Skepticism and the exposure of these tricks led to more cunning forms of fraud. Some photographers, for example, used sleight of hand to replace photographic plates with doctored ones before developing them. By the 1860s, spirit photography was still popular, but considered more of a novelty than a supernatural phenomenon.

Despite the fame of such fraudulent methods, many spirit photographs were and continue to be produced accidentally. Often, mysterious anomalies in photographs can be explained as reflections of light, accidental double exposure, or similar problems, but many spirit photographs puzzle even experts. Two of the most famous examples are the Brown Lady picture, taken in 1935 in Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England; and the Greenwich Ghost photographed at Queen’s House in Greenwich, London in 1966. Both photographs were claimed to be unintentional by the photographers, and neither has ever been definitively explained.

While the quintessential image of spirit photography is perhaps that of a humanoid figure, many spirit photographs simply show strange patches of light that may be interpreted as ghosts, aura, or other forms of psychic energy. One of history's most notorious photographic frauds, the Cottingley Fairies, could be considered a type of spirit photography as well. Other spirit photographs, sometimes called psychic photographs, allegedly show images created by the mind. This type of photography is called nensha in Japanese, and the most famous examples were created in Japan in the early 20th century under the study of professor Tomokichi Fukurai.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Foster
By Niki Foster , Writer

In addition to her role as a WiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

Discussion Comments

By Burlap — On Nov 09, 2010

@IceCarver, while I appreciate your pursuit of the true paranormal, I find your piece of toast just a contribution to the masses of people that seem to disbelieve my true faith. I don't mind that you have your own opinion but if you had experience the amazing things that I have come across in my life, I think your opinion on your toasted white bread might take a new meaning.

I strive to photograph paranormal stories. Just as all humans put more validity into the things that they can see, I understand this need to see and believe. Only when enough people see the images of truth will the light be revealed to the masses. I just hope this happens soon as that means the sooner that the paranormal can be accepted by mainstream society.

When will the picture that will convince the masses be taken, will it be you? Me? I hope that the spread of spirit photography will propel our human consciousness into the next realm

By IceCarver — On Nov 09, 2010

Once I toasted a piece of bread and I swear to you that the Virgin Mary appeared to me on the top of my club sandwich. After I spread the mustard on the final piece of my dagwood style creation, I flipped it over and topped the sandwich. To my surprise was an amazing image of Jesus' mother Mary in her iconic clothing and shape. Never would I have thought that such a timeless and amazine miracle such as this would happen to me.

After having calmed down from the discovery I decided that it would be worth my time to take a picture. Little did I know that this first snap of the miracle would propel me on a journey in life to find the most spiritual things I could possibly point my camera at.

While my pursuit of spirit photography still has not yielded results like i first got from my piece of toast, I am always on the look out. Never would I have thought that a piece of white bread would reignite my soul to the word of Jesus Christ. Praise Jesus and mother Mary.

Niki Foster

Niki Foster


In addition to her role as a WiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in...

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