Seeing is Believing? Ghostly Goings-on in Photography

October 12, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

The scene is one of my favourite places to take photographs, the time is around 6.30 am, and I’m sitting on a moss-covered rock, having a panic attack.  When I say panic attack, I’m not talking the kind of anxiety we experience when anticipating something uncomfortable like public speaking or being interviewed.  This panic was a more primal confusion than anything else.  My brain couldn’t comprehend what had just happened, couldn’t determine a rational explanation could be processed then either accepted or rejected.  As it careered about from irrational thought to irrational thought, the only thing I could do was panic, breathe rapidly and feel my heart racing in my chest.  What had reduced me to this state of gibbering imbecile?  Well, in some quarters it would be called a paranormal event but, knowing the scepticism with which these lines may be met, let me just give you the facts.   I’d been stood in the middle of the river just down from the Cauldron Falls in the village of West Burton in Wensleydale which, as I said, is one of my favourite locations.  The reason is that the falls are on the outskirts of the village, where the Waldon Beck passes through a gorge lined with trees as it makes its way toward the River Ure.  It’s easy to access and, at the right time of the day, completely private if you want to take some photographs.  Did I mention that the falls themselves are also very beautiful?  I’ve photographed them many times over the years, with a variety of cameras and even if I feel that there is little new to capture, I still loved visiting when I’m in the area.   This particular morning, I’d taken my ONDU pinhole camera with me and wanted to get into the perfect position to make use of its vast field of view and depth of focus (having no lens and a very tiny aperture of f/128).  Using a pinhole is a liberating experience in itself, because the lack of viewfinder makes composition more luck than judgement. We only have control over the film’s ISO and shutter speed, the former being determined by the choice of film and the latter usually being measured in seconds or minutes, owing to that tiny hole that lets in the light.  With this simplicity comes an emphasis on how to best meter the scene, and it was while doing this that I had my encounter.  I was looking through the light meter’s eyeglass when a female voice no more than a couple of feet from my right ear said “hello”.   I thought there was unusual about being noticed by someone, being a man knee deep in water with a strange wooden camera, so I turned to say hello back.  There was nobody there and I was completely alone. Here’s the thing, I have excellent hearing and have always been able to pinpoint where a sound is coming from.  The voice had no echo, so I quickly ruled out a distant voice reflected off the walls of the river gorge.  The sound of the waterfall itself was being reflected around me, so the voice had to have been loud and close for me to hear it.  What happened next was the panic.  I had to move to the nearest rock in the river, sit down and try to regulate my rapid breathing.  It wasn’t long before I packed up my gear and went back to the cottage we were renting.  Ever since then, the memory of that experience still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.  

Cauldron Falls at West Burton (2021), by Richard Fletcher

The sceptics among you will undoubtedly have some theories that might explain the event and believe me I’ve tried over the years to come up with my own.  This need to be able to explain the unexplainable is part of human nature, driven by our history of exploration and shaped by our life experiences.  However, there was a period in Britain where people were apparently happy to believe in the paranormal with only their senses or feelings as persuasive evidence.  That period was the Victorian age, between 1837 and 1901, which happened to also be the golden era of the emerging medium of photography.  Here was this new technology, where whatever object was placed in front of the lens was faithfully represented on the photosensitive plate in the camera.  Photography would play its part in the people’s desire to believe in the paranormal, and its reputation as a form of evidential documentary would conversely take and a bit of a beating in doing so. I refer, of course, to ghost photography.

From the earliest experiments with fixing photosensitive glass, tin, and paper to retain the image, photographers have noticed the effects of accidental leaking of light into the camera during exposure, motion blur caused by having a very slow shutter speed, and in the cases of basic human error, the dreaded double exposure.  It’s a familiar problem where older cameras are capable of accidentally exposing two different scenes onto the same negative frame.  The result is a strange combination of a clean image with a translucent second one caused by the non-linear behaviour of the emulsion as it is exposed to light over time.  The two images occupy the same frame which, to the uninitiated, looks like it was a single photograph all along.  To the photographer, this was a costly mistake both in wasting money, but also ruining a picture that could have special meaning to them.   As photographers and camera manufacturers became more experienced, measures were taken to avoid these sorts of problems through better design meaning that modern cameras can make double exposures, but it is something that cannot happen by accident.  Very early on, the camera built a reputation for being honest and truthful, so it’s no surprise that light leaks and the creepy effect of double exposure were used by unscrupulous photographers of the day to tap into the Victorian obsession with the notion of life after death.  Ghost photographs popped up all over the place, heralded by a narrative from the photographer about the shocking experience they’d had when developing the picture and seeing the phantom emerge from the gloom of the darkroom.  It would be easy to think that only the gullible or vulnerable in society were taken in by ghost photography, but this was not the case.  Many learned people such as the legendary authors Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens had a fascination with ghosts and the paranormal, the former being a spiritualist who would later be drawn into the elaborate Cottingley Fairies hoax in 1917.   Dickens was said to be a ‘fascinated sceptic’, who desperately wanted to witness a ghost for himself, but settled for using the ideas of the paranormal to thrill his readers instead.  It was this tantalising of the already susceptible public that led to the creation of one of the most famous pieces of visual trickery of the time, the Pepper’s Ghost.  Although the illusion can be traced back to the 16th Century, the ‘inventor’ of the theatrical version is credited as English scientist Dr John Pepper in 1862.  He first demonstrated the technique in the production of a play called based on a Dickens short story called The Haunted Man.  The effect was genius in its simplicity, using a large pane of glass angled toward the audience at around 45 degrees.  The ‘ghost’ actor would be concealed beneath the front of the stage and brightly lit so that their image could be seen by the audience in the surface of the glass facing them.  As the stages were generally dimly lit at the time, the glass was effectively invisible to the audience, who could see the rest of the play’s action through it. What they saw was a translucent ghost on stage that was interacting with the rest of the cast, because the actor offstage was receiving his or her own direction. 

It’s fair to say that the audiences loved it, and Pepper’s Ghost has remained popular ever since, with uses including Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, Coachella’s famous appearance by late rapper Tupac Shakur, and more recently Yoko Sayema’s performance art collaboration with Fernando Melo in 2017.   But what is the point of all this?  To thrill?  To deceive?  Well, we know that art provokes an emotional response that says something about what it means to be human.  In the case of the paranormal, it doesn’t matter if the audience believes or is sceptical, they still imagine the ‘what if…?’ because of the lack of physical evidence to the contrary.  The drama of seeing a ‘real’ see-through ghost floating around the stage, interacting with living actors must have been thrilling before the audience cottoned on to the way it was achieved.  I doubt somehow that it converted sceptics into believers, though, as what were the chances of seeing an actual ghost during a performance of a play?  When we feel we need proof of something in order to believe it, we say that we see something “with our own eyes”, as if our eyesight gives us that truth.  This connection between seeing and believing is almost unbreakable, so it is no surprise that a good illusion of trick makes us think twice.   With unexplained ghost sightings, that link becomes more problematic, because we believe we’ve seen something visible so it must be translatable onto a piece of film or sensor, right?  Even though there is no tangible evidence that ghosts are purely visual or emit light that could be captured by a camera, the urge to believe that it does is very strong indeed.  Sceptics point back to those technical tricks that the Victorian photographers did their best to eradicate, and so the arguments about authenticity rage on, often for decades. 

Perhaps the most famous of ghost photographs is The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, taken in 1936.  The photographers were shooting for a piece about the house in Country Life magazine and had just completed a shot of the grand staircase, when one man spotted the ghost of a woman in a long brown dress, floating down the stairs towards them.  He hastily took a picture, which has intrigued paranormal investigators, photographers, and scientists ever since. 

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall (1936) by Hubert C. Provand & Indra Shira, perhaps the most famous ghost photograph of them all

The picture looks authentic enough and the story that they told to go with it was indeed convincing.  Historical accounts of sightings of the ghost of Lady Dorothy Walpole support the belief that the image is indeed of her walking the corridors of her old home.  On the rare days every year that Raynham Hall is open to the public, many flock to the house to see if, while touring the grand building, they might catch a glimpse of the famous phantom.   Even though our desire to believe is still strong, we have moved away from the Victorian attitude that believes everything they see in an image like this one, instead favouring the approach to prove that it’s all a fake.  As recently as 2006, people claiming to be specialists in this field (whatever that means) were asserting that the Brown Lady image was a fabrication, by either the photographers or magazine, to increase interest in the article about the house.  

My recreation of The Brown Lady using the Pepper's Ghost illusion.  


How it was done (1) - A sheet of transparent plastic angled in front of my tablet, which displays the background.  My phone is set off-axis to provide the 'ghost'

How it was done (2) - the arrangement adjusted to that she appears floating on the staircase

For me, I feel that in the absence of malicious hoax, deliberate double exposure, or optical illusion, there are still things we cannot explain.  I love the Pepper’s Ghost illusion as a way of entertaining, and The Brown Lady is a provocative story and accompanying photograph, but wouldn’t say I was a firm ‘believer’.  What I do know is that I most definitely heard a woman’s voice, one that was not familiar to me, say “hello” during that early morning shoot.  It frightened me at the time and thrills me to this day because it remains a mystery. Perhaps I don’t want or need it to be solved in case it loses that thrill.  Make of it what you will.




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