At almost the same time that photography was invented, Spiritualism was born in Hydesville, New York. It was a belief in the practice of communication with discarnate human spirits. These two developments would intertwine in 1861, when William Howard Mumler produced the first spirit photograph.
Photography has always been used as a form of objective truth. Following the carnage of the American Civil War, people looked to spirit photographs as proof of the continued existence of their loved ones. This practice involved a human "medium" who would make contact with the dead. Because this process was so rife with fraud, others sought a mechanical truth that, like that of the camera, could extend human senses and capacities. These individuals brought all the technologies of their day to bear on the challenge of revealing the existence of life beyond the grave.
The images presented here represent a selection of “spirit photography.” We may doubt the truthfulness of their claims, but one thing is certain: the camera does indeed let us see the dead again, not as ghostly manifestations, but as meaningful and precious documents of those who once lived.
Edward Bateman is the head of the Photography and Digital Imaging program at the University of Utah. As a child, he grew up closely examining images of UFOs and has never fully trusted photographs ever since.