Bringing Out the Dead

The curious heyday of spirit photography.

We tend to think of ourselves as sophisticated readers of photographs—or at least in comparison with our 19th-century forebears, who were more innocent about the camera’s objectivity. The exhibition The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult, which opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sept. 27, should cause us to think twice. The exhibit includes works made as early as just after the Civil War and as late as the 1970s, but most of the images cluster around the turn of the 19th and first part of the 20th century. Together, they provide a quick history lesson in early reactions to the emerging technology, its mass dissemination, and its claims to veracity—a lesson that feels oddly contemporary. Maybe the viewers of yesteryear weren’t quite the suckers we thought they were.

Click here to read a slide-show essay about spirit photography.