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19th-Century Spirit Photography  

Cheryl Spinner

Spirit photography emerges out of the widespread movement of Spiritualism in the 19th century. In 1848, the Fox sisters of upstate New York claimed that the mysterious knockings emanating from the walls of their farmhouse represented the opening of a spirit telegraph that faciliated communication between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Spiritualism quickly became a techno-religious movement closely aligned with the abolitionist and suffragist movements. The movement utilized burgeoning technologies to apply a scientific rigor to phenomena beyond the five human senses. The photochemical process and the swift advancement of photography as both an art and science were particularly powerful mediums for providing evidence that spirits can manifest in the visible world. Sir John Herschel coined the term “photography” by combining the Greek words photos and graphé, literally “light writing” or “writing by light.” The term itself advances the concept that the camera produced an unmediated reproduction of the natural world, and, with the first spirit photograph emerging in 1862, believers understood that the camera was both capturing spirits of the dead and scientifically proving that the spirits were real. Nineteenth-century debates about the veracity of these images pivoted on the question of what photography was capable of capturing. Scientists knew that photography could capture invisible fluorescence, and Spiritualists argued that if the camera could capture the invisible world, then it could also capture spirits.