Photography’s Ghosts

What’s that in the back of the House Chamber? Is the camera out of focus, or could there be a ghost in the Capitol?

1913 Electoral Vote Count/tiles/non-collection/1/10-19-photo-ghosts-2008_069_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This photograph of the 1913 electoral vote count includes some ghostly images. The head of House Speaker Champ Clark, seated next to Senator Bacon on the rostrum, seems to float. Toward the bottom appears a Representative so transparent that his papers are visible through his head.
When photography first developed in the 19th century, the public thought that it showed the truth. With light, a camera, and chemicals, early photographers could create surprising facsimiles of real scenes and people. But the long exposures of early photographs often created ghostly images.

One such House Collection photograph shows the 1913 electoral college vote count. Blurry spots, or ghost images, appear throughout the image. On the rostrum, the spectral face of Speaker Champ Clark seems separated from the seated, bent body below it. Toward the lower right corner of the image, a Member sits in his seat, his chin resting on his hand. Unbelievably, the papers on his desk can be seen clearly through his head. These two spots exemplify photographic ghosts: blurred, phantom images, created not by the supernatural, but rather by light and motion captured during long exposures. Low light in the Chamber may have required a particularly lengthy exposure, and unintentionally created photographic ghosts.

House Chamber in 1920/tiles/non-collection/1/10-19-photo-ghosts-PA2015_07_0089.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The blurry spots in this 1920 photograph of the House Chamber are not ghosts, but rather, fast Members, moving quickly during a long camera exposure.
In the days of daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and other early photographic techniques, each exposure took a long time. The earliest daguerreotypes required as long as 15 minutes to complete. During that time, the subject had to sit perfectly still, or risked blurry features. Many 19th century photographers used a cast-iron clamp to keep the subject’s head immobile during portraits. Fortunately, photographic technology improved over time. Blurring and ghost images lessened significantly but still continued, as seen in this photograph of the 1920 opening session.

“Photography’s first fictions were full of ghosts,” wrote art historian Mary Warner Marien. The usually unintentional phenomenon of ghost images was small change in comparison to the practice of spirit photography. Spirit photographers snapped daguerreotypes of clients, but after the portraits were developed, they showed a spirit or ghost bending over the patron. But as journalists and investigators revealed, the purported ghosts of spirit photography could be logically explained. To produce a photograph of a spirit eerily standing over the portrait-sitter, the fraudulent photographers used the same negatives twice—once to fabricate an image of the background “spirit,” and then a second time to photograph the customer.

1919 Joint Meeting/tiles/non-collection/1/10-19-photo-ghosts-2008_156_002pq.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
This 1919 Joint Meeting includes a strange detail—a curious black hat near the lower right corner.
Although there are no known examples of double exposure spirit photography in the House Collection, one image comes close. “Congress Welcomes General John J. Pershing,” an Underwood and Underwood photo, depicts a 1919 Joint Meeting with General Pershing standing before the rostrum. In the lower right corner, there seems to be a small figure with a black hat on, hovering next to a Member. Is this little figure a ghost, a witch, a double exposure, or a trick of the camera? Perhaps none of the above. A close examination of the photo shows that some Representatives brought their young children to the Joint Meeting. The little hat-sporting specter in the House Chamber may just be the Member’s child, admiring the general.

From the advent of the daguerreotype in 1839 to 21st century digital cameras, photography has always mixed a dash of mystery and ghosts into its portraiture. With digital cameras and computer editing, photographic manipulation has become easier and more prevalent. Recording the ghostly blurs of long exposures along with people and events, even House Collection photographs retain the traces of mysteries.

Sources: Mary Warner Marien, Photography and Its Critics: A Cultural History, 1839-1900 (Cambridge University Press, 1997); New York Tribune, September 30, 1915.

This is part of a monthly series of blog posts exploring the art and history of photographs from the House Collection.