Photography captures spirit of the spirit world

The Spirit of Mabel Warren
This photo was taken by William Mumler in the early 1870s. It was Mumler's work that put spirit photography on the map.
Photo by William H. Mumler

Most photography professors wrap up the semester with a final student show. Instructor Nathan Lewis, on the other hand, concluded his course in the musty basement of a Minneapolis duplex, attempting to make contact with a ghost.

"We're a group of people who mean you no harm. Is there a way you could show us you might be here?"

On this night, Lewis and four photography students crouch between a home water heater and an old hideaway sofa, hoping for a signal from the spirit world.

Ghost hunting
This class member surveys the basement, trying to sense anything out of the ordinary.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Anybody getting anything?"

To understand how they ended up here, you first need to know where they began.

For years, the St. Paul media arts organization IFP has offered a wide range of photography classes. This fall it added one more: paranormal photography.

"We have to be really aware of what our cameras are doing," Lewis tells his class.

Paranormal photography is based on the assumption that the camera can see things the human eye can't - like, say, ghosts.

Now, you might assume a class titled paranormal photography would focus on things like which shutter speed is ideal for capturing otherworldly entities or what kind of lens is best for grabbing shots of ghouls. But Nathan Lewis actually spends most of the course debunking so-called spirit photos.

"That is the reflection of the flash off the carpet," he says of one image.

Some people want so badly to prove the existence of the spirit world that they end up mistaking the mundane for the mysterious, Lewis says. He's met plenty of shutterbugs who swear they've captured an image of the paranormal. What they've often photographed, though, is their camera strap, which, unbeknownst to them, got in the way of the lens as they were taking the picture.

Getting into the spirit
The class examines the history of spirit photography and discusses just how easy it can be to fake a ghost photo these days.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

"Some images have a big orange dot somewhere in it. That's just a pixel misfiring."

To those who believe strongly in the paranormal, Lewis can be a bit of a killjoy. But the way he sees it, if you're really seeking truth about the paranormal, you better be able to weed out what's false. And that's what prompted this class -- his desire to teach others to distinguish lens flares from apparitions. But there's a bigger question.

"I wanted people to be able to come in and talk about that completely intimate and completely ubiquitous idea: Is there life after death?"

Americans are in a constant tug-of-war when it comes to the idea of an afterlife, according to Lewis. We question the credibility -- even sanity -- of those who talk openly about their belief in spirits. Yet very few of us are willing to say that when we die, that's it.

"You want to know where you are going, if there's more to this."

Of course, proving there's life after death can be a bit tricky. Which is why the people of the mid-1800s were so excited. They had a new technology that seemed to confirm that ghosts did indeed walk among the living. That technology? The camera.

Spirit son
Spirit photographer William Mumler took this Boston woman's picture around the year 1868. Mumler claimed the image of her deceased son appeared only when the picture was developed. To modern minds, this looks like a typical double exposure.
Photo by William H. Mumler

Back in 1862, an amateur photographer named William Mumler set out to create a self-portrait. When he developed the picture, it showed his own image -- as well as the translucent figure of a young girl. Mumler identified her as his niece who had passed away years before.

The picture gave birth to what's now known as spirit photography.

Spirit photographers claimed to be mediums between the world of the living and the dead. Everyone from grieving parents to heartbroken widows would sit for these spirit photographers, hoping the ghosts of deceased loved ones would show up during development. And, time after time, it appeared as if they had.

Today these photographs would likely be dismissed as quintessential double exposures, where two pictures are taken on the same piece of film.

But in those days, photography was still a mystery to most people. Seeing the camera create a permanent image of your sister was mind-blowing enough. Accepting that it could also capture the photo of a ghost wasn't that much of a stretch.

What's more, this all happened during the time of the Civil War. Mourning families relied on spirit photography. They wanted reassurance that those lost in the war were ok.

"Even though these images really seen obvious fakes, they don't speak of stupid speaks of desire, it speaks of this want and need to touch and communicate with a loved one. That's what it's about.

Today some believe that orbs of light are the visual representation of spirits. Often times, though, the orbs are really just specks of dust or pollen being lit up by the camera flash.
Copyright Ghostcircle

Nathan Lewis will flat out tell you that most paranormal photographs -- both historical and present day -- are fakes. But he says the lack of good photographic proof doesn't mean spirits don't exist.

It's the possibility of the paranormal that brought Lewis and his photography students to the basement of this Minneapolis home.

"You can use your flashlights but I'd say use them as sparingly as possible."

After studying ghost photos for weeks, Lewis wanted to give his students an opportunity to take some of their own. And this seemed like the perfect spot to do that.

The home's residents are convinced they're sharing their place with something supernatural. They've found storage boxes opened that they swear they didn't open. And, on a number of occasions, they've seen a shadowy figure making its way through the kitchen.

It's the kind of setting Lewis loves.

"I want to experience the supernatural. Is it because I live in a city and I have a good job and my biggest worry is normally if my cat got food, and I'm trying to experience things beyond my terrestrial life? Sure, that could be a good reason."

Giving up the ghost
A class member uses an EMF meter to measure for any electromagnetic fluctuations. It's said that ghosts or spirits can distort electrical fields.
MPR Photo/Nikki Tundel

Lewis holds an electromagnetic field, or EMF, meter. These detectors were designed to measure electromagnetic radiation levels from, say, microwaves or power lines. But it's said they can also read electricity emitted by spirits.

The meter beeps and spikes a number of times, although no one knows exactly why.

"A fuse just blew, which is interesting."

The students snap images of the basement's cow-webbed corners and the dark crevasses that would make perfect hiding places for shy spirits. But no one walks away with any great shots of ghosts.

And that, says Lewis, is just fine.

"Is this really about getting 100% proof and evidence and breaking it down? No way. It's about the search. 'Is anyone out there? Will someone talk back to me?...Can I talk to you grandma? Are you still there? Are you ok?' Wanting proof that our loved one will go to a better place and in the end we're going to be together and it's going to be ok. That's really what we're searching and hoping for evidence on. We want to see everything's going to be ok.

And if you think about it that way, ghost stories, they're really just human stories.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.