The blog of author Dennis Cooper

Roget Malot presents … Spirit Photography Day *

* (Halloween countdown post #7)


‘Spirit photography developed within the context of spiritualism, a 19th-century religious movement. Spiritualists believed in the soul’s persistence after death and of the potential for continued bonds and communication between the dead and the living.

‘In 1848, when two young women of Hydesville, N.Y., claimed the ability to hear and interpret the knocking of a deceased peddler in their home, spiritualist ideas were already in the air.

‘Some 19th-century spiritualist artists saw their work as being inspired by an unseen presence. For example, British artist and medium Georgianna Houghton produced abstract watercolours she dubbed her “spirit drawings.” Similarly, about 20 years after photography as a medium emerged, spirit photographers began attributing their work to an external force, a presence that temporarily overcame or possessed them. The spiritual “extra” that appeared alongside the bereaved in spirit photographs — sometimes clearly a face, at other times a shape or object — was meant to be understood as not having been made by humans.

‘Paired with the longing of the bereaved, spirit photographs had the potential to become intensely personal, enchanted memory objects.

‘Unlike postmortem photography — the 19th-century practice of photographing the deceased, typically as though sleeping — spirit photographs did not lock the loved one in a moment after separation has occurred through death. Instead, they suggested a moment beyond death and therefore the potential for future moments shared.

‘Spirit photography encouraged and then mediated the resurgence of the deceased’s animated likeness. At a time when many available technologies — such as the telegraph, telephone and typewriter — were being applied towards communication with the dead, spirit photography offered a visual record of communication.

‘But in spirit photographs, the beloved seldom appeared at full opacity. Using the technique of semi-translucence, spirit photographers depict spirits as animated and “still with us.” That they are only half there is also indicated. In this way, spirit photographs illustrate the lingering presence of the absent loved one, just as it is felt by the bereaved.

‘Spirit photographs were not the first photographs to depict ghostly apparitions. But they do mark the first instance wherein these semi-translucent “extras” were marketed as evidence of continued connection to the deceased.

‘As a service rendered within the bereavement industry, spirit photographs were meant to be understood as the grief of separation, captured by the camera — and not constructed through some form of trickery.

‘Belief in the appearance of miraculous impressions of forms and faces may appear novel in the emerging medium and technology of photography. But a longer tradition of finding meaning and solace in the apparition of faces can be seen in Christian traditions of venerating relics such as The Veil of Veronica which, according to Catholic popular belief and legend, bears the likeness of Christ’s face imprinted on it before his crucifixion.

‘Even in the 19th century, recognition of the beloved in spirit photographs was occasionally equated with pareidolia — the powerful human tendency to perceive patterns, objects or faces, such as in relics or random objects.

‘In 1863, physician and poet O.W. Holmes noted in Atlantic Monthly that for the bereaved who commissioned spirit photography, what the resulting photograph showed was inconsequential:

“It is enough for the poor mother, whose eyes are blinded with tears, that she sees a print of drapery like an infant’s dress, and a rounded something, like a foggy dumpling, which will stand for a face: she accepts the spirit-portrait as a revelation from the world of shadows.”

‘If the photographer’s methods were exposed, the bereaved still maintained their spirit photograph was authentic. The ambiguity of the figures that appeared seldom deterred the bereaved from seeing what they hoped for. Indeed, it was this very leap of faith that incited the imaginative input required to transform these otherwise unbelievable photographs into potent and intensely personal objects.

‘In 1962, a woman who had commissioned a photograph of her late husband shared with the spirit photographer: “It is recognized by all that have seen it, who knew him when upon Earth, as a perfect likeness, and I am myself satisfied, that his spirit was present, although invisible to mortals.”’ — Françoise Marmouyet

Spirit Photography: History and Creation


Spotlight on William Hope


‘William Hope created his first spirit photograph in 1905, a portrait of a friend which when developed appeared to contain an additional presence bearing a striking resemblance to the sitter’s sister who had recently died. Using his newfound talents in the paranormal Hope set up and lead the spiritualist group the Crewe Circle in his home town in Cheshire.

‘The group gained notoriety with the addition of member Archdeacon Thomas Colley, an eccentric who verified Hope’s “powers”, championed Hope’s work to the public and gifted him his first stand camera. Another prominent figure in Hope’s success was Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; also an avid spiritualist and strong believer in spirit photography, Doyle was a member of the Society for the Study of Supernormal Pictures. As a fervent supporter of Hope, Doyle would go on to spend his life defending Hope’s work and reputation.

‘But Hope’s pictures were of course complete fabrications. He would procure an existing photograph of the deceased and expose the apparition onto a photographic plate prior to the sitting with his client. By using this method and creating a double or triple exposure image he would was able to produce the translucent effects consistent with expectations of how a spirit might manifest in our world.

‘Despite the obvious signs that the images were fake he kept a strong following of dedicated fans and believers, who insisted that Hope’s photographs really did show the ghost of a deceased friend or family member.

‘It was Hope’s timing which undoubtedly led to his success. The images were produced in the early 20th century and embraced by a grieving population decimated by the devastation of the First World War, perhaps hoping for proof that even after death their loved ones still had a presence in our world and that there was life, of sorts, on the other side.

‘Hope met a fierce critic in Harry Price, a leading paranormal investigator and one of history’s most famous ghost hunters, who was well known for outing fraudsters and hoaxers. Price suspected the spiritualist’s photographs were a hoax and set an elaborate trap in the hopes of firmly disproving the legitimacy of his photography, and outing him as a scammer and a charlatan. By marking the plates he provided to Hope during a photography session, Price was able to conclude that Hope had switched them with his own, already-exposed, plates.

‘Despite his photographs being proved to be fakes his reputation remained strong among spiritualists, who refused to accept the unwelcome truth behind the man whose work they so admired. Following the report of Price’s exposé Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his own report The Case for Spirit Photography in which he commended Hope’s character, offered evidence for the photographs’ validity and presented numerous testimonies by some of Hope’s many satisfied customers.

‘In one testimony a former client of Hope, Mr. W. Whitefield, stated: “My good wife and myself have not the slightest doubt that it is a photograph of one of our daughters. I do pray that this knowledge may bring joy and comfort to some sorrowing heart.”

‘Whether his intentions were to offer solace to mourning families, or profiteer from their grief, Hope continued to practice his photography for the rest of his life; his photographs were not conclusively accepted as fakes until more than a decade after his death.’ — Kate McNab


The Case for Spirit Photography, by Arthur Conan Doyle



The publicity given to the recent attacks on Psychic Photography has been out of all proportion to their scientific value as evidence. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle returned to Great Britain, after his successful tour in America, the controversy was in full swing. With characteristic promptitude he immediately decided to meet these negative attacks by a positive counter-attack, and this volume is the outcome of that decision.

We have used the term “Spirit Photography” on the title-page as being the popular name by which these phenomena are known. This does not imply that either Sir Arthur or I imagine that everything supernormal must be of spirit origin. There is, undoubtedly, abroad borderland where these photographic effects may be produced from forces contained within ourselves. This merges into those higher phenomena of which many cases are here described. Those desiring fuller information on this subject are referred to “Photographing the Invisible,” by James Coates.

It was only when editing the matt… … … … … … … … … … … … mass, of reliable material we had to, work upon. In restricting this book to the necessary limits it has only been possible to make use of a small portion of this evidence. Many more cases have been placed on record and maybe published on some future occasion. Most of the letters accompanying these descriptions display a deep and genuine affection for the maligned mediums of the Crewe Circle. Our hearty thanks are due to all those friends who have so readily co-operated in this work and who are so willing to brave the discomforts of publicity for what they know to be the truth.

See/read the rest here


The intriguing history of ghost photography
When a 19th-Century ‘Spirit Photographer’ Claimed to Capture Ghosts Through His Lens
Seeing Ghosts: A Brief Look at the Curious Business of Spirit Photography
How Spirit Photography Made Heaven Literal
What the History of ‘Spirit Photography’ Portends for the Future of Deepfake Videos
When Cameras Took Pictures of Ghosts


75 photographs




p.s. Hey. A French reader of this blog wanted to contribute to the Halloween rollout via this generous and paranormal-infused guest-post about the irresistible, if you ask me, arena of spirit photography, and please enjoy your status as its beneficiaries. And please spare a word of some relative sort of your choosing for our kind and canny guest host, Roget. And thank you ever so much, Roget, from me, your lucky construction worker. ** Dominik, Hi!!! Cool, so glad you loved it! I feel confident somehow that Anita will find something even more exciting. Yes, I think love’s lust is definitely always on the verge of taking him over. Thank you! I actually have a weird thing for picnics. Well, not for picnics themselves but for picnic baskets. I even did whole post here once about picnic baskets. I don’t know what that’s about. Maybe Zac’s and my next film should be about a mysterious picnic basket. Love is a human shaped cloud of fog that is standing just to your right at this very moment without you even knowing it, G. ** David Ehrenstein, That’s one way put it! ** Tea, It would be cool if they were sentient. Or terrifying, I guess, but cool too. Thank you so much about ‘I Wished’. That really means a lot. It was a super emotional book to write, which I guess is pretty obvious. I look forward to tearing up about something of yours one of these days. Yes, no need for explanation on the dedication/ paean/ tribute front. And you can use the goal of making what you write worthy enough of said subject as impetus to get your writing right. Or I do, at least. Oh, man, being Celiac seems like it would be tough, although I’m sure you have it sorted. I eaten seitan all the time, and I’d be lost. Bowl of strawberries coming right up somehow even if it requires fake paranormal forces. Shake Thursday’s timbers. ** Steve Erickson, Oh, gotcha on the WalMart thing. I feel like I should have known that. 160 minutes, eek. Well, I’ll see it in any case, but I’ll bring a nicotine patch with me for sure. I know a fair amount of people in real life who are asexual and fairly vocal about that. For some reason, they all live either in Paris or Los Angeles. Helluva an upcoming album title, dude. ** Jamie, Hey, hey, Jamie. Yeah, the popup store is dreamy. They have antique, extremely rare ones, even ones by very unexpected sources like Bataille and Breton and so on, as well as new ones by the unusual people who continue to create them despite the niche-ness of the genre. A visual art friend of mine decided to make one as a piece some years ago, and she said it was extremely difficult, and the resulting piece was about 50% less complex than she had hoped. The earliest we’ll shoot the film is just after Xmas Day, but it’s starting to look more likely that we’ll shoot it early next year, by/before March. We’ll know after we get to LA and start organising things. Awesomeness that you finished your novella draft! That’s huge! What’s  next? Yesterday we finally, after many, many months, seem to have set up the bank account for our film which means the funds can finally, now or any minute now, be transferred into it by the donors, which is a giant step. Happy Marnie Weber did something untoward to your thinking. A lovelier even day to you, sir! Fake ghosts galore love, me. ** Bill, Hi, Bill! Cool that the post sat well. I have yet to be all that impressed by a Yann Gonzalez film, but I’ll give his new thing my best shot. ** Paul Curran, Hi, Paul! Does anyone call you Pauly or Paulie? Thanks about the Adachi post. I have a post about Hisayasu Satô coming up this weekend, if that’s of interest. Yes, Zac told me the travel restrictions re: Japan were just lifted the other day! Our plan now is that as soon as we’ve finished editing our new film, we’ll be coming to Japan to celebrate. Yes, I’m beyond 100% into hosting a post for your book! Abso-fucking-lutely! Great! One thing to know is that Zac and I will be heading to LA around mid-October to do some pre-production work on our film. I don’t know the exact departure date just yet, but while I’m there, for three weeks or so, the blog will be on vacation. So I’ll need to launch the post just before or around mid-month, if that’s doable. Based on past experience, if the post has to go up just a little before the actual pub date, I don’t think that will be a problem for the book/launch. So if you can get me the post before mid-month, that would be optimal. Is that possible? I really, really want to host it, so I’m hoping so. Thanks, buddy! Exciting! ** Robert, Hi, Robert. Oops. I’m glad you’re still in one piece psychologically. Wow, I haven’t read Lawrence Durrell or even really thought much about him since I was in college. So I don’t really know what I think. I think I remember liking his work but thinking it was a little empurpled? But I could feel completely differently now. What an interesting writer to be reading. Let me know what you think, I’m very curious. Thanks! ** Okay. Enjoy your unrealistic yet charismatic day around here, and please say hi to Roget. See you tomorrow.


  1. David Ehrenstein

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  2. paula

    I watched Mungo River the other night. This post made me think of that movie, which if you haven’t seen it, is great. A very convincing mockumentary – I didn’t know it was a mock one beforehand, which worked well for me! HA- about a ghost. It’s Australian, and Australian cinema is just a great love of mine.

  3. l@rst

    Howdy Dennis!

    (I had posted this on the Campfire of the Dead entry a day late)
    I’m gonna make sure the library gets a copy of this book! Sounds fantastic.
    It’s been a mixed bag of highs and lows over here, the lows are at work, the library inundated with creeps cuz the main branch is closed and it’s causing me anxiety because often I’m in charge when the boss is away and it seems the boss is always away. Saturday we came into the branch to find broken glass everywhere as someone hurled big rocks through the window. So that’s the lame part…
    Good part is I finished the first issue of Skullcrushing Hummingbird – The Zine! I’m looking to make a digital flip book to accompany the print version, I’ll share the link when I get it. Distinguished Local Kier is one of the many contributors. I’m having a release party for those involved on Sunday!
    I played music with my buddy from Trumans Water and a friend who has drummed for bands like Jackie-o-motherfucker the other night and it was super fun, so I hope we converge again…
    Finally I start a Poet’s Studio next week that runs through May and I’m looking forward to immersing myself.
    Saw Broken Social Scene last night with my friend who is Canadian (I mention that because none of my friends ever heard of them, they also don’t look at the internet). They were totally fun and uplifting!
    Hope you’re good.
    Yr bud, l@rst

  4. Dominik


    Looks like I’ll have two favorite Halloween posts this year. This is awesome. Thank you, Roget and Dennis!

    Hm, a picnic basket obsession. Near-obsession? That’s interesting. Love hit a sweet spot then; I’m glad.

    Shit, this is a scary love, haha! Now that I know he’s standing there, I can’t shake the feeling of being watched and followed. Although… being watched and followed by love is probably a good thing. Love making ball-jointed dolls cheap and easily available in Europe, Od.

  5. Bill

    Thanks to Roget for the post. I love the look of spiritual photography. My friend Diane Fenster’s photomontages often have a similar look (but without the ectoplasm etc):

    Funny you should mention Hisayasu Sato, Dennis. I’ve been hatching some ideas connected with his movies, but they’re very hard to find. I found Muscle on nitroflare, but the resolution is probably not good enough for me to work with.


  6. Thomas Moronic

    This day is excellent! Dreamy stuff to go through. Thanks, Roget!

    Dennis – I’ve been loving the Halloween posts, so thank you for firing my spooky metre up. I hope you’re good. Stuff here is cool. Just got over a nasty cold (which was weird because I don’t get ill that often – knock on wood), just in time for the Infinity Land Press event in London at the weekend. It’ll be fun to see everyone. And then – holy shit – the Amphetamine Sulphate event in New York at the end of October, which I don’t think I’ve totally got my head around yet! Hope film stuff and life is treating you you well. Love from here to there.

    Thomas xoxo

  7. Paul Curran

    Great post and subject, Roget! Coincidentally, when I first went to Paris I took the obligatory Jim Morrison grave photo and then, on the Berlin metro, lost my bag. About six months after, I got my bag back from the police. The disposable camera was slightly damp, but I processed it anyway, and there was a ghostly smudge or something on the Morrison one, ha, ha, ha.

    Hi Thomas, from over here. Good luck with the show(s). Wish I was there!

    Dennis, absolutely looking forward to the (this) Hisayasu Satô post! Yes, a lot of friends and family call me Paulie or Pauly. My gmail’s paulycurran because someone got in with paulcurran first. Also sometimes like in a New York Italian accent. Or my trans barroom lush identity name. My dad even used to call me Pauly Bob (my middle name’s Robert) for some reason.

    Excellent and an honour to have you onboard for hosting the launch!! We can go for whatever date works best for you. I’m putting the post together now, and I’ll get it to you as soon as I can. What’s the best email nowadays? I think I’ve only got your old google one. Mega thanks!x

  8. Robert

    Oh, these are so cool! I had a class on civil-war-era American lit last year and we spent a week talking about spirit photography and all this stuff. It’s great how the pictures hit sort of the sweet spot for uncanniness–the ghost faces/bodies don’t look too realistic or well-proportioned/positioned, but they obviously don’t look super kooky either. Or at least for some of them.

    And yes, super purple, purple is probably a generous term for it. His style isn’t the kind of stuff I normally go for but there’s enough thematic interest that I’ve gotten sort of hooked by it, theoretically at least since I’ve been a very lazy reader these past couple days. I do most of my reading in little snatches at work or on the bus and I never really spend the time I ought to spend getting into the material.

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