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Part 2 - Leaving Boston

Definition: Part 2 of a 7 part series about spirit photography.
Part 2 of a 7 part series about spirit photography.

Although he was very successful, Mumler attracted an enormous number of critics as well as supporters. Some members of the spiritualist community accused him of fraud, alleging that the "spirits" in his photo resembled people who were not only still alive, but who had sat for him recently.

Boston's other photographers were less enchanted with Mumler the medium. James Black, famous for his aerial views of the city, assumed Mumler cheated, and he thought he knew how. Black bet Mumler $50 that he could catch him at it. He examined Mumler's camera, plate and processing system, and even went into the darkroom with him. In his auto-biography, Mumler described Black's astounding disbelief when a ghostlike image emerged on the negative. "Mr. B., watching with wonderstricken eyes... exclaimed, 'My God! Is it possible?'"

The technical question of how Mumler's pictures were made was the subject of great speculation. In an 1863 essay for Atlantic Monthly , Oliver Wendell Holmes, himself an avid photographer, not only gave step-by-step instructions on how to obtain a double exposure ("An appropriate background for these pictures is a view of the asylum for feeble-minded persons... and possibly, if the penitentiary could be introduced, the hint would be salutary"), but also contemplated the popularity of Mumler's pictures.

"Mrs. Brown, for instance, has lost her infant, and wishes to have its spirit-portrait taken," Holmes wrote. "It is enough for the poor mother, whose eyes are blinded with tears, that she sees a print of drapery like an infant's dress, and a rounded something, like a foggy dumpling, which will stand for a face."

Holmes, a Bostonian and an intimate of Black, almost certainly had Mumler's dubious shapes in mind when he penned those lines. While many of Mumler's spirits indeed fail the "foggy dumpling" test, they are in general less theatrical than the sheet-draped stage spooks that haunt most 19th-century spirit pictures. Instead the apparitions in a Mumler photograph have human features, silky gestures and misty, entwining forms-up to the point where they melt away. They are spirits, not ghosts, and in that gentle difference lay the secret of Mumler's success. Mumler depicted what spiritualists believed-that the afterlife was a paradise, a "summerland" with its own schools, farms and intimate relationships, exalted and deathless. The spirits in a Mumler picture are just people-if now more radiant-right down to their coiffure, their flowers, their clinginess and their clothes.

Business in Boston fell off for Mumler, however, as his apparitions were called hoaxes. There had been censure, too. Even prominent spiritualists had been stunned to discover that some of Mumler's photographic spirits were in fact people still very much alive. Letters to newspapers in Boston publicized these double-exposures, and Mumler's reputation suffered. The spirit photographer confessed nothing, but with business going bad, it was time for him to get out of town, so he left for New York and took up work at many different photography studios.

 

Collections:

William H. Mumler - Father of Spirit Photography

 

Related Categories:

| The Birth and Death of Spirit Photography | Spirit Photography Defined | Part 1 - The Birth Of Spirit Photography | Part 3 - New York City | Part 4 - The Arrest and Trial | Part 5 - Witnesses for the Prosecution | Part 6 - The Descision | Part 7 - Return to Boston | William H. Mumler and Spirit Photography | William H. Mumler and Spirit Photography - 2 | | Mumler's Spirit Photos | | Haunting Spirit Photography from the Age Before Photoshop | 15 Incredible Examples of Early Spirit Photography | HISTORY OF SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHY | William H. Mumler, Spirit Photographs, Amazed Audiences With Ghostly Images | Of Spooks, Proofs, and Truths: Reflections on the Mumler Spirit Photograph Case - YouTube | The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer — University of Minnesota Press | Spirit Photography | The Mumler Mystery: A Gallery of Spirit Photography from The American Museum of Photography | The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer - Louis Kaplan - Google Books | A Ghostly Image: Spirit Photographs | Picture This: Library of Congress Prints & Photos | When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts - Megan Garber - The Atlantic | G is for ghosts... the birth and rise of spirit photography | National Media Museum blog | | The Ghost and Mr. Mumler |

Resources:

  external linkThe Birth and Death of Spirit Photography | Dark Shadow Ghost Tours

 

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