100 Years of Spirit Photography, by Tom Patterson

100 years cvr

Major Tom Patterson’s 1965 70-page book on spirit photography is a condensed survey of the history and practice of spirit photography, published to mark the hundredth anniversary of its inception by William Mumler of Boston, USA, in 1862.  The book is illustrated with 36 plates which are discussed in the text.

Patterson was General Secretary of the International Spiritualist Federation and a believer in the genuineness of spirit photography; in his foreword he declares that ‘In this work I explain how the light radiations which emanate from discarnate spirits, can, and do leave their impressions upon the silver salt on the undeveloped film in the same manner that the light of day, or any other form of illumination leaves its pictorial effect upon the negative.’ (It may be noted that the use of commas is eccentric throughout.)

It was his belief that spirits, though invisible, still give off radiations – ‘psychic energy’ – which can be captured on film, accounting for examples obtained without the use of a camera, the images directly impressed onto the film.  ‘Ribbon’ effects can be accounted for by the spirit moving during the exposure.  He emphasises how soon spirit photography appeared after the invention of photography, an example as he sees it of how the spirit world is able to utilise scientific advances to improve methods of communication between the two worlds.

There is a brief overview of significant names in the field such as Mumler, Frederick Hudson, Robert Boursnell, Edward Wylie, M J Vearncombe, William Hope and the Crewe Circle (discussed in some detail), Emma Dean, Tom Lynn, David Duguid, John Myers, as well as others less well known in 1965 and totally obscure now.  The focus is generally British, though international examples are included: as well as Mumler, T. Glen Hamilton in Canada, some American and even African producers are touched on.  Patterson stresses that the production of spirit photographs has been widespread, with many one-offs, and undoubtedly further bodies of work that have never been publicised.  He says he is still receiving examples taken by ordinary members of the public with no claims to mediumistic abilities.

My favourite of Patterson’s examples has to be Staveley Bulford (misspelled Steveley by Patterson).  Bulford was a member of the Society for Psychical Research who built an unusual type of camera with which to take spirit photographs in that it was possible to sit inside it (a photograph of the contraption, plus some of his results, courtesy of the College of Psychic Studies, can be found in The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, ed. Clément Chéroux, 2004).  The spirit operators, Bulford concluded, employed a kind of ultraviolet light to produce the extras; Dr Karl Muller, past president and research officer of the International Spiritualist Federation, and therefore a colleague of Patterson’s, is quoted as commenting that as observers sitting inside the camera saw light effects when extras were recorded, the ultraviolet was ‘of a peculiar kind’.  Indeed.

Patterson is aware of some of the methods of fraud that can be used to produce spirit photographs or misinterpret them, and lists ten mechanisms by guarding against which trickery can be excluded.  He is confident test conditions will rule out all these methods, leaving the only possible interpretation that the photograph so produced is genuine.  Unfortunately a written account does not necessarily match accurately what occurred in studio and darkroom, and Patterson does not take into account the degree to which a sitter might be misdirected by sleight of hand.  It is entirely possible to run through the list provided and assume all such possibilities have been guarded against, but despite one’s best efforts still fall prey to deception.  Patterson may not have been quite as rigorous as he would like to believe and the reader may find his evidence unconvincing.

A chapter is devoted to the development of camera mediumship in the context of a home circle, stressing that the circle is primarily a means to communicate with the dead, not for entertainment.  Thus the general advice is relevant to any group wishing to form a circle whether or not they pursue photography as an adjunct.  The final section deals with infrared as a means both of identifying fraud in the séance room and ‘proving the reality of genuine spirit manifestations’, and Muller adds a technical appendix on infrared in the darkroom, arguing that the low energy levels he describes are not injurious to mediums.

Patterson claims to have an extensive collection of photographs, many of recent origin, including a number that had belonged to Bulford, himself a collector.  Additionally there are several references to Estelle Stead, who was still alive when the book was written (a lengthy letter written by her about William Hope is included) and Patterson adds that she owns ‘a large selection of psychic photographs’.  One has to wonder at the fate of the bulk of spirit photographs.  Some are in the archives of such organisations as the College of Psychic Studies, the Society for Psychical Research, and the odd museum and gallery, but they can only represent a fraction of those produced in a century and a half.  More may turn up but most, sadly, are gone, as evanescent as the extras on them.



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