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In its broadest sense, spirit photography refers to any type of photograph that appears to have captured supernatural phenomena. Examples may include photographs of ghosts, fairies, aura, or images created by thought. Photographs of cryptids, animals with no definitive proof of their existence, are not considered spirit photography. While many examples of spirit photography through the years have been debunked as fakes, others remain unexplained.
In the Victorian era, at the dawn of the art of photography, spirit photography was quite popular. The vogue of Spiritualism, through which many people attempted to get in touch with deceased loved ones, was a contributing factor, as was the large number of bereaved after the American Civil War. The typical spirit photograph of this era showed a shadowy figure, assumed to be a deceased relative, standing behind the sitter.
William Mumler is credited with pioneering spirit photography in 1862. He stood on trial for fraud seven years later, though he was acquitted due to lack of evidence. He took innumerable spirit photographs, as did his many followers. William Mumler's most famous spirit photograph shows Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's widow, with her husband's alleged ghost in the background.
Victorian spirit photographers are now known to have used a number of tricks to fake the photographs. Double exposures, which are made by exposing the same piece of film twice, were a common method of producing spirit photography. Since the subject had to sit for about a minute to take a picture in the 19th century, another method involved having the photographer's costumed assistant stealthily stand in the background for a few seconds to create a partially captured, shadowy image. Skepticism and the exposure of these tricks led to more cunning forms of fraud. Some photographers, for example, used sleight of hand to replace photographic plates with doctored ones before developing them. By the 1860s, spirit photography was still popular, but considered more of a novelty than a supernatural phenomenon.
Despite the fame of such fraudulent methods, many spirit photographs were and continue to be produced accidentally. Often, mysterious anomalies in photographs can be explained as reflections of light, accidental double exposure, or similar problems, but many spirit photographs puzzle even experts. Two of the most famous examples are the Brown Lady picture, taken in 1935 in Raynham Hall in Norfolk, England; and the Greenwich Ghost photographed at Queen’s House in Greenwich, London in 1966. Both photographs were claimed to be unintentional by the photographers, and neither has ever been definitively explained.
While the quintessential image of spirit photography is perhaps that of a humanoid figure, many spirit photographs simply show strange patches of light that may be interpreted as ghosts, aura, or other forms of psychic energy. One of history's most notorious photographic frauds, the Cottingley Fairies, could be considered a type of spirit photography as well. Other spirit photographs, sometimes called psychic photographs, allegedly show images created by the mind. This type of photography is called nensha in Japanese, and the most famous examples were created in Japan in the early 20th century under the study of professor Tomokichi Fukurai.
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