In the mid 19th century, two powerful forces--the march of technology and the gaining momentum of the Spiritualist movement--led to a strange alliance of photography and the supernatural and the birth of "spirit photography".
From the 1860s carte-de-visites of William Mumler to the present day, photography has been used to both prove and debunk the existence of ghosts and spirits. Jack and Beverly Wilgus, a collecting team for 30 years and the creative force behind the Bright Byte Studio, have a remarkable collection of spirit photography. In the following interview, they discuss their collection and this mysterious aspect of ephemera.
Wilgus: We did not set out to collect spirit photography. One day we found that a sub-collection had appeared in our collection of photographs without our being aware that it was happening. This seems really appropriate when you think about it. I am not sure when or where we bought our first item of spirit photography. It might have been the two carte-de-visites by William Mumler of men with extras. It might have been the Harper's Weekly from May 8, 1869, that featured William Mumler's trial for fraud. It may have been a stereo card of The Ghost in the Stereoscope style suggested in Sir David Brewster's 1856 The Stereoscope, Its History, Theory, and Construction. We added an item from time to time that interested us but did not think of ourselves as spirit photography collectors until after we were selected as technical advisers for Telegrams From the Dead, a 1994 episode of The American Experience series on PBS. After we assisted in the set up of an 1860s photography studio and darkroom and a reenactment of Mumler's photographing of Mary Todd Lincoln with Lincoln's ghost, we were hooked, and began to look for photographs and books on spirit photography. We slowly built up the collection. In the last few years, we have made most of our purchases on eBay where spirit photographs appear from time-to-time and always bring brisk bidding.
ephemera: You've certainly established an excellent reputation in this field. What challenges or obstacles do you encounter in finding new items for your collection? How do you overcome these challenges?
Wilgus: There are two challenges. First, spirit photographs are a very small percentage of photographs made so they are not available in large numbers. Second, the current surge in interest in the field has brought about fierce competition for any material that comes on the market. We paid $5 for each of the Mumler carte-de-visites which we bought many year ago but now expect any image we add to be much more expensive.
Wilgus: It is hard to pick a favorite item or two, but when pressed, we both picked the Robert Boursnell cabinet card from the 1890s of the spiritualist, J. H. Evans with a spirit child made in London. It is a beautiful image and very unusual to be able to identify the photographer, sitter, date, and place. Another favorite is the carte-de-visite by Jay J. Hartman made in Cincinnati on Christmas 1875 of a woman with the extras of a woman and two children. The back of the card details the procedure and lists the names of sixteen 'respectable, intelligent gentlemen' who witnessed the event.
ephemera: What’s your advice to achieving success as a spirit photography collector?
Wilgus: Accept that starting or adding to a collection of spirit photography in today's market will not be inexpensive. Read all you can about the field and keep your eyes open. Consider specializing in an area that is more available and not as expensive as the real spirit photographs. For example, stereo cards in the 'ghost in the stereoscope' tradition are readily available and not expensive.
ephemera: What resources and tools do you recommend?
Wilgus: The older books are wonderful objects in themselves and some of the newer books are beautifully made. Here is a brief list: Photographing the Invisible: Practical Studies in Spirit Photography, Spirit Portraiture, and Other Rare But Allied Phenomena by James Coates, 1911. The Case for Spirit Photography by Arthur Conan Doyle, 1925. The Veil Lifted - Modern Developments of Spirit Photography, 1894. Photographing the Spirit World: Images from Beyond the Spectrum by Cyril Permutt, 1988. The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult by Clement Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, and Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem, Sophie Schmit, 2004. A more complete list is on our Web site. In addition to the books mentioned the primary tools, we recommend are the Internet search engines including Google Book Search, which searches many out-of-print books. This gives access to the entire contents of many out of print books on spirit photography.
We store our images in archival storage boxes and sleeves available from sources such as Light Impressions. Larger images are matted with archival museum board and framed with UV-protective Acrylate glazing.
ephemera: I have an eerie feeling that a lot of ephemera collectors will find this to be a fascinating topic. Thanks for sharing your expertise.
Search Abebooks for the books listed in this interview.