Although Manhattan seems to made up entirely of stone, brick and cement, a few 19th Century wooden houses still survive. Some are in my neighborhood, and I thought it would be fun to shoot them as pinhole photos.
This pretty building is a wooden farm house on East 85th Street, constructed in 1899. Right away, there was a problem. When I developed the negative, there seemed to be a ghost hovering near the porch.
There must have been some kind of light leak or flare, although I’d never had trouble with leaks or flare before.
Next, I shot one of my favorite buildings, a tiny house at the end of a lane on East 82nd Street. It wasn’t made of wood, but it was ancient. More difficulties.
This is flare from direct sun. But I wasn’t in direct sun, it was a hazy day. I had shot with another camera as well, my big 5″ x 7″ pinhole.
Even worse. I was surprised that I could get such flare from diluted light.
I taped the cameras up super-tight and headed up to 92nd Street, to two small wooden houses built in 1859 and 1871. Here’s the first attempt.
What on earth is that lightening bolt bouncing off the porch roof?!
I took two shots from the same vantage point at the same time, the other with a smaller camera. Finally, a normal picture, although these houses look about as inviting as a snarling bear.
I approached the houses and shot some close-ups. Here’s the porch of the left-hand building, with what appears to be a faint cloudy flare drifting its way across the walkway.
I used four different cameras for these shots and they had almost all captured strange light on the negatives. Frustrated, I mentioned the trouble I was having to a photographer friend who said with a wink, “Oh, that’s spirit photography! You’re capturing ghosts!”
I’d never heard of spirit photography, but soon discovered that it became popular during the Victorian era. In the photos, shadowy spirits seem to hover or loom around living people. This was all trickery done with double exposures and darkroom techniques, but that didn’t stop it from being touted as real. The photographer Wiliam Mumler founded the movement in 1862; it became wildly popular and was promoted by Mumler and other portrait photographers creating mementos for bereaved family members.
Mumler’s most famous shot is a photo of Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln’s ghost.
Here’s another Mumler photo, of a man with his deceased daughter. I can see how having a photo like this would be comforting.
And here’s Mumler again, going all out with the ghost thing.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Mumler stood trial for fraud. Also not surprisingly, he was acquitted due to lack of evidence.
As the daughter of a scientist, ghosts don’t hold a lot of water with me. But spirits or no spirits, I stopped photographing the buildings. And by the way, I never had strange things like lightening bolts show up on my negatives again.