WILLIAM MUMLER, THE SPIRIT PHOTOGRAPHER

Seeing And Believing

William H Mumler (1832 - 1884) was a jewellery engraver who, by his own admission, had little experience of photography.  When visiting a friend who was a keen photographer one day in 1861,  Mumler attempted a self-portrait which, when it had been developed, seemed to contain an image not only of himself but also of his dead cousin.  His interest sparked, he went on to take more photographs which showed the same phenomenon: some form of spirit or ghost in the picture.  He produced portrait after portrait which showed either a dead loved one or relation of the sitter or sometimes a complete stranger.   In February 1863 a doctor sat for Mumler.  True to form, when the picture was developed a ghostly image was shown.  The problem in this case however was that the doctor recognised the image and knew that the spirit it purported to show was still very much alive.  Despite the ensuing controversy Mumler subsequently moved to New York City and continued his spirit photography until, in 1869,  he was arrested and prosecuted for fraud.  

In the ensuing trial the main argument for the defence - whose witnesses were spiritualists - was that the photographs were an accurate depiction of reality simply because they were photographs. A photograph cannot lie, these witnesses argued, and therefore these photographs were evidence of the truth of their own contents.  Ghosts exist!  The prosecution alleged quite the reverse: that since spirits do not exist the photographs must be fraudulent - a rationalist argument. Ghosts don't exist!   In effect, witnesses on both sides brought to the court pre-existing opinions which they then applied to the photographs in question.   The photographs then simply reflected back to them their own particular mental constructs.  "Seeing is believing" it is often said of photographs.  But this case shows that to be wrong: "Believing is seeing" seems much closer to the truth.  

In the end the case against Mr Mumler did not proceed on a technicality.  It is worth bearing it in mind when we look at photos however.  Can it be true that a photograph does little more than reflect back at us our own mindset?  What monkey-trap is this?

LENSES AT THE EXTREMES

When The Lens Sees What We Don't.

If I am photographing my own life (for what else can I photograph after all?) then how can I use a lens that does anything other than come close to standard vision?  A very long focal length or a very wide angle might show what was there in a sense – but would it be what I saw?  And if it doesn’t show what I saw then what is it?  As I stand about a yard from a window, I am just about aware of its two side uprights in my peripheral vision.  Beyond that I am aware of objects of course, almost to 180 degrees, but I couldn’t identify them if I didn’t know what they were. As I put an 18mm digital lens to my eye it captures the periphery much more sharply than my vision does since the sensor is uniformly sensitive throughout.  And a longer lens – beyond around 50mm - leaves out things that I can see clearly and so over-emphasises the predominance of central vision in the human eye. 

If a photograph is not roughly what you saw then what is it?  If not that, then what?  The only answer can be – it is invention.  It is what you wished you’d seen, what you thought you saw, what you hoped to see, what you nearly saw, what someone told you you’d see, what you thought would make an impressive photograph.  It’s a kind of dream.  With a standard lens of some kind what you fix on the sensor is some kind of reality. With focal lengths that go beyond that, aren’t we just making reality up rather than seeing it?