Viewing History and Fantasy through Victorian Spirit Photography

Authored by: Sarah Willburn

The Ashgate Research Companion to Nineteenth-Century Spiritualism and the Occult

Print publication date:  July  2012
Online publication date:  March  2016

Print ISBN: 9780754669128
eBook ISBN: 9781315613352
Adobe ISBN: 9781317042280


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Photographic spirit images that, to a twenty-first-century viewer, look staged, like double exposures, or like exposures in which distinct bodies were spending different amounts of time in the frame were often received in the latter half of the nineteenth century as legitimate depictions of deceased loved ones. Taking a closer look at the aesthetic conventions and social network that contributed to their popularity and meaning in the mid-to-late nineteenth century provides a context for considering their cultural meaning and significance. During the nineteenth century, the technology of studio photography, spirit or otherwise, was guided by the idiom of portraiture, and spirits – photographed or not – were consulted as intelligent interlocutors on matters of polity. This chapter addresses several photographic plates taken in the studio of a popular 1870s photographer Frederick Hudson as well as the 1890s phenomenon of dorchagraphy, taking a picture without a camera. These spirit photographs not only illustrate how photography follows a style popular in paintings, but also offer an intriguing insight into Victorian models of historiography. Spirit photography can be a powerful place to look for Victorians intentionally at work describing their fantasies, imaginings, and proscriptions not only for everyday life, but also for the past, the future and the world beyond.

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