Long before the existence of Photoshop, so-called “spirit photographers” were manipulating images to convincing—and haunting—effect.
One such photographer was William Hope, a well-known, early 20th century spirit photographer who led a group called The Crewe Circle, comprised of several other alleged ghost shutterbugs. In 2015, a curator from the National Media Museum uncovered a series of Hope's photographs in a Lancashire bookshop.
In the aftermath of World War I, many were eager to connect with deceased loved ones, which gave Hope a chance to capitalize more than a decade after he first "captured" a spirit while photographing a friend. Spirit photographers promised not just a glimpse of those lost souls, but lifelong documentation of their presence. The most common methods used double exposure or glass plates to achieve these pictorial apparitions during a time when photo manipulation was a new concept.
Spirit photography was so popular that by 1922, Hope had relocated to London and became a professional medium. He attracted famous fans such as Arthur Conan Doyle, who not only believed in Hope’s photographs, but later wrote The Case for Spirit Photography in support.
Hope's methods were famously debunked in a study published by Scientific American the very same year he arrived in London, as was photographer William Mumler before him. Mumler was a notable American spirit photographer in the 1860s who dealt with skepticism and lawsuits, but continued to work. He even snapped a picture of Mary Todd Lincoln around 1870 with her deceased husband at her side.
Despite the pushback and accusations, Hope too stayed in the business of spirit photography and worked until his death in 1933. If that seems crazy, consider that his business was really not so unlike the spiritual mediums of today—who do well despite the common knowledge that their methods are unfounded.
You can explore Hope's entire eerie collection at the National Media Museum.
This piece originally ran in 2015.