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.
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.
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.
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.
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.