Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Boo! Don’t Look Now, But I See a Ghost

In the 1860s, an era fascinated with spiritualism—spirits, the supernatural, messages from the Great Beyond—a small-time engraver named William Mumler realized he could apply the latest technology of his day, photography, to create “spirit photographs.” Almost a visual séance, Mumler’s photographs claimed to reveal the ghosts of loved ones participating in a portrait session. These spirit photographs were highly popular, and Mumler made a small fortune before he was prosecuted for fraud in 1869.

For the full story on Mumler and his spooky images, I recommend reading The Strange Case of William Mumler by Louis Kaplan. Some of the Getty’s Mumler photographs are currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in their exhibition Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop.

Here are five from our collection.

Mrs. Chapin oil merchant & his spirit wife & babe recognized / William H. Mumler

Mrs. Chapin oil merchant & his spirit wife & babe recognized, 1862–1875, William H. Mumler. Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XD.760.1.3

Robert Bonner / William H. Mumler

Robert Bonner, 1862–1875, William H. Mumler. Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XD.760.1.1

Five spirits in background with a photograph at center of table with a doily / William H. Mumler

Five "spirits" in background with a photograph at center of table with a doily, 1862–1875, William H. Mumler. Albumen silver print.The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XD.760.1.13

Unidentified elderly woman seated, three spirits in the background / William H. Mumler

Unidentified elderly woman seated, three "spirits" in the background, 1862–1875, William H. Mumler. Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XD.760.1.19

Female "spirit" standing next to a table with a photograph propped against a vase with flowers / William H. Mumler

Female "spirit" standing next to a table with a photograph propped against a vase with flowers, 1862–1875, William H. Mumler. Albumen silver print. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 84.XD.760.1.33

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2 Comments

  1. Alan
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Now that is both intirguing and timely! Trick or treat! :)

  2. lenka
    Posted October 31, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    It’s funny that so many of the “ghosts” have wreaths on their heads…..just a tiny bit suspect.lol

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      #ThyCaptionBe: Warnings to the Rich & Powerful

      You captioned this detail. And we’re revealing the full story now.

      It would be awesome if this was Medieval hangman, or a really awkward frat party, but it’s actually the result of a one-letter swap gone wrong in a book about the fates of the rich. 

      Here’s the full story:

      You sometimes regret what pops out unexpectedly when you open your mouth, but in this case, even the fish must have been quite surprised when a wooly lamb burst forth. 

      The stories in this text by Giovanni Boccaccio warn of the terrible fate that often awaits the rich and powerful. He uses here the example of King Polycrates, who tossed a ring into a river, hoping for good luck, and found it later in the mouth of a fish. 

      Someone got confused, though, and instead of a ring (in French, annel), what came out instead was a lamb (agnel). Apparently, neither the ring nor the lamb worked because the king was later hanged (background).

      #ThyCaptionBe is a celebration of modern interpretations of medieval aesthetics. You guess what the heck is going on, then we myth-bust.

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