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Modern-Day Photographer Takes Old-Time 'Spirit' Photos

  • Deborah Block

Photographer John Milleker shoots old-time portraits showing ghostly images. The photos echo portraits with a "spirit" in the background taken by American William Mumler in the 1860s and '70s, known as “spirit photography.”

With his dark, curly mustache and black coat, reflective of the era, Milleker begins setting up a "spirit" photo shoot in Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Virginia. But first, the Baltimore, Maryland, photographer tells visitors about Mumler, who came up with the idea of spirit photography as he photographed images on glass plates.

“He had taken a self-portrait of himself and a spirit happened to appear on the plate with him,” Milleker explained. "He thought his plate wasn’t cleaned properly. But when he took it to his friends and family, they thought it resembled a cousin of his who had died 10 years prior.”

Mumler drew well-to-do clients for his expensive portraits, convincing them that spirits could put themselves in photographs. They included Mary Todd Lincoln, a spiritualist and wife of President Abraham Lincoln. The president was assassinated in 1865, days after the end of the U.S. Civil War.

More than 600,000 soldiers died in the conflict, and some people longed for proof that their loved ones were in the afterlife. Mumler claimed he could provide that proof in a photo, but also warned that the spirit might not appear or look like the person his clients knew.

“And then he would explain [that] the physical and the spiritual form doesn’t always look exactly the same way,” Milleker said.

Milleker uses a wooden camera with a bellows and a lens from the 1860s to mimic Mumler’s photos. Inserting a glass plate into the heavy camera, he photographs a man, a Civil War re-enactor, and a woman in an 1860s-style dress. The woman is sitting in a chair with her hands crossed, while the man standing near her in a military uniform is her "ghost."

Milleker uses the couple to demonstrate one way Mumler may have created his photos, using a double exposure — "taking a photograph of someone, putting the lens cap back on, adding someone, and then taking the lens cap back off again.”

He develops his photos the same way Mumler did, using a wet plate collodion process that produces a negative image on transparent glass.

“It’s really shocking. I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Nikklas, a boy fascinated by Milleker’s demonstration, which included a way to tell if the blurry spirit was fake.

“If there’s a spirit image that we weren’t really sure was going to come up on this plate, then how come we left enough space on the right-hand side for him to show up?” Milleker told visitors.

Mumler was eventually “outed as a fraud,” said Milleker. He was taken to court but found not guilty because no one could prove his images were not spirits.

Milleker said his clients like the nostalgia of spirit images, as well as dressing in clothing from the 1800s. One couple even has a one-of-a-kind engagement picture of her sitting and staring at the camera, while her ghostly fiance, an apparent casualty in the Civil War, looks over her.

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