Put down that smartphone with snapchat – ghosts are posing for the old-timey camera in The Apparitionists by Peter Manseau!
The date is 1850, and photography is a brand new art. Boston has many studios where you can sit (and sit, and sit) for a daguerreotype, but only one photographer who can capture not only your face, but the face of a deceased loved one as well! William Mumler alone practices the art of spirit photography; each of his photos features the misty image of a spirit, usually a loved one, hovering behind the main subject. The photos are real, but do they really portray ghosts, or are they a clever hoax? Manseau delves into the history of these photos and the controversy surrounding them, backed up with lots of transcripts and quotes from figures of the day.
I picked up this book because I’m interested in ghosts and ghost hunting. Though the main subject is the man who photographed ghosts, the book is also a really cool and in-depth look at the history of photography itself. We learn about the beginnings of this now ubiquitous art, the process of how old photographs are made, how they affected society in the mid 1800s, and how they even tied into debates about religion. The book also touches on Samuel Morse, the inventor of the telegraph, as well as PT Barnum and his museum of oddities.
A big part of the book was the way Civil War battlefield photography – which was the first time in history that human death could be visually recorded and reproduced – influenced public opinion about war. As the author put it, “To deliver bodies to the doorways of every willfully ignorant household in America – that was the potential of taking a camera into battle.”
If this book has a flaw, it’s that the supposed subject, William Mumler, is actually a very small part of the book. But there’s so much cool information here that I don’t really consider it a problem; the other subjects were fascinating as well! The book also reads easily, which is definitely a plus in a nonfiction piece. (My favorite line: “Having cut his teeth on criminals and lunatics, Brady took to politicians right away.” XD)
I really liked this book! I was fascinated the whole way through, and I even spent some time googling examples of old daguerreotypes and ambrotypes from that era. This is a must read if you’re interested in photography; you’ll come away with a greater appreciation of how easy we have it today!
Cover Report: The cover features an old photo of a man surrounded by spirits, with the book’s title slashed in yellow across the middle. I like the way the font looks very 19th century-ish. I give this cover a B+.
Typo Police: No typos found.
- Buy the book here! –> The Apparitionists (affiliate link)
I am a bit disappointed that we never get to learn about how exactly Mumler created the spirit photographs. No one has ever figured out the method he used to create his unique photos; similar spirit photographs could be easily reproduced, but many witnesses watched Mumler take the photos and never witnessed any tampering during the process. Some ghost hunter needs to contact him and find out how he did it! 😉
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