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Ghost Photography From The Early 20th Century

In the early 1900s, a man named William Hope claimed to have the power to channel the dead through his photography.

Posted on October 31, 2018, at 4:56 p.m. ET

Two of William Hope's friends are seen with a figure, the couple's deceased son, at the wheel, circa 1920.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images

Two of William Hope's friends are seen with a figure, the couple's deceased son, at the wheel, circa 1920.

In the early 20th century, an English spiritualist named William Hope claimed to have discovered a unique power between the realms of science and the paranormal — the ability to photograph actual spirits of the dead.

Spirit photograph by William Hope of the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures in 1922.
Public Domain

Spirit photograph by William Hope of the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures in 1922.

Hope quickly rose to prominence as a medium and formed a popular spiritualist group known as the Crewe Circle. Families who had lost loved ones would sit for a portrait in Hope's studio, to which the resulting image would appear a ghostly apparition of the deceased. But by 1920, most people were skeptical of Hope's abilities. It was soon revealed that what once appeared to be a channel to the dead was really just a trick of photography.

Today, many of Hope's original pictures are housed in the collections of the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England, and are revered for their artistic craft and their unique place as a precursor to today's "fake news."

Here, Geoff Belknap, head curator at the National Science and Media Museum, tells BuzzFeed News about William Hope's work and the cultural environment that made Hope's pictures so believable at the time.

Photography wasn’t new at this time — it had been around for 80 years, and even spiritual photography and photographs depicting ghosts and spirits had been around since the mid- to late 19th century. However, there was a large increase in interest and belief in spiritualism in the period Hope worked in. This was due to people seeing friends and family members go to serve in the First World War and never come back.

A woman mourning her husband poses by his body, which is wrapped in sheets and laden with flowers, circa 1920.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images

A woman mourning her husband poses by his body, which is wrapped in sheets and laden with flowers, circa 1920.

Left: Elderly couple with a young "spirit," circa 1920. Right: A seance, circa 1920. The information accompanying the spirit album states that the table is levitating.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images

Left: Elderly couple with a young "spirit," circa 1920. Right: A seance, circa 1920. The information accompanying the spirit album states that the table is levitating.

There was a real mix in terms of belief in spirit photography. There were skeptics as there always are, and there were people who argued that you couldn’t only trust your senses, that there may be world beyond the one that we see, and we have to be willing to believe that.

So it wasn’t just gullible people who were interested in spiritualism, there were also scientific people who were looking for genuine evidence of spiritual phenomena and using scientific methodology to research the unknown. It was people such as these who investigated Hope’s photographs and found them to be manipulations.

A woman's face, draped in a transparent cloak, appears over the group, circa 1920.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images

A woman's face, draped in a transparent cloak, appears over the group, circa 1920.

Left: Two women with a "spirit," circa 1920. Right: The reverse of this photograph reads: "Why is the child always pushing to the front?: and "Do we get messages from the higher spirits?' — perhaps questions the women wanted answering. One of the sitters, at Hope's request, has signed the plate for authentication.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images

Left: Two women with a "spirit," circa 1920. Right: The reverse of this photograph reads: "Why is the child always pushing to the front?: and "Do we get messages from the higher spirits?' — perhaps questions the women wanted answering. One of the sitters, at Hope's request, has signed the plate for authentication.

Hope would say he was photographing spirits that appeared in front of his camera. We know, however, that the technique he used to produce the images was a form of double exposure. He would take one photographic negative of the scene and overlay it with a second negative that included the face of the loved one, usually a portrait, and then retouch the image to produce a final photograph featuring a ghostly apparition.

What I find most fascinating is that Hope is using the reliability of the camera and people’s trust in the authenticity of photography. There’s a collective trust in the camera, and its ability to see something we can’t.

Hope was making use of that value that we give to photography.

A photograph of the Welsh medium Joe Thomas. The shrouded woman's face appearing in the photograph was not identified by Thomas, but it may indicate some form of collaboration between him and Hope, circa 1920.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images

A photograph of the Welsh medium Joe Thomas. The shrouded woman's face appearing in the photograph was not identified by Thomas, but it may indicate some form of collaboration between him and Hope, circa 1920.

We can learn a lot from the period after the First World War — the shared desire to communicate with loved ones and the communal sense of grief. This led to the increased interest in spiritualism, in its own right and as an aspect of religious belief and a cultural phenomenon, as well as a scientific one. It tells us something about how we as a culture and as a society want to believe in or understand something we can’t see.

Left: Man with signs of spirit presence, circa 1920. Right: Two men with a "spirit," circa 1920.
Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images

Left: Man with signs of spirit presence, circa 1920. Right: Two men with a "spirit," circa 1920.


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