A dialogue between science and spiritualism took place in the U.S. and Great Britain from the mid-nineteenth through the early twentieth century. The images in this exhibition were part of that conversation. Practitioners of spiritualism added the camera, a new technology perceived as a scientific instrument of sorts, to the Ouija boards, celebrity-status mediums, table rapping, and trances they used to communicate with the dead and to prove the existence of an afterlife.
This small exhibition features photographs from the collection of the famous British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, now held at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. Doyle, a committed spiritualist in the early twentieth century, amassed hundreds of these photographs, which he believed substantiated the existence of the afterlife. In this selection, viewers will see disembodied heads hovering in the air above photographic subjects or glowing on the sleeves of the sitters’ jackets. In even more unusual photographs, we see “evidence” of ectoplasm produced by a female medium.
Ultimately, this exhibition shows that it was not simply faith in the veracity of the scientific photographic process that led to the kind of credence spirit photography enjoyed; it was a desire to believe in the existence of ghosts.