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The Spooky Figures behind the Black-and-White Stills

London Stereoscopic Company | The Ghost in the Stereoscope | 1982.1182.1284

London Stereoscopic Company (English), The Ghost in the Stereoscope, ca. 1856. Albumen silver prints from glass negatives with applied color; Mount: 3 3/8 x 6 7/8 in. (8.6 x 17.5 cm); Image: 3 1/16 x 2 9/16 in. (7.8 x 6.5 cm) each. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Weston J. Naef, in memory of Kathleen W. Naef and Weston J. Naef Sr., 1982 (1982.1182.1284)

Among the humorous, tragic, beautiful, and controversial photographs found in the current exhibition Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, you will find disappearing people, questionable "others," ghostlike figures, and possible spirits. By using various methods of manipulation such as the combining of several negatives into one cohesive piece, mid-nineteenth-century photographers were able to make these spooky images.

During the early 1860s, a jewelry engraver named William Mumler became the first producer of "spirit photographs," portraits containing both a living sitter and a hazy, ghostlike figure said to be the spirit of deceased person. These trick photographs, which Mumler claimed to be real, became controversial when the "spirit" in the background of two of his portraits was found to be alive and a local resident. As a result, Mumler was asked to leave his jewelry-engraving job.

Some viewers of spirit photographs—such as Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria—embraced and liked these sad though controversial portraits. Similar illusions featuring much more frightful images, such as that in The Ghost in the Stereoscope, began to pop up everywhere. While at the time some people were genuinely fooled by these questionable photographs, today we find them entertaining. Though these scenes may appear a bit spooky, they actually show the work of some of the early geniuses of photography.

Audrey. Faded Away, 2012

Audrey. Faded Away, 2012. Pencil and collage on photocopy of Henry Peach Robinson's photograph Fading Away, on view in the exhibition

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