31 October 2011


Gordon Rutter. Ghosts Caught on Film 3: Photographs of the Supernatural. David and Charles, 2011.

In his book Apparitions published in 1953, the then influential psychical research G. N. M. Tyrrell produced a list of the properties of what he considered to be the perfect apparition. One of these was that apparitions could not be photographed, for the simple reason that they were not physical objects present in the environment, but hallucinations, or as we might say today virtual experiences.
This had been the view of such early psychical researchers as Edmund Gurney and Frank Podmore, and even F. W. H. Myers who had rather more complicated theories, never assumed that apparitions were real in the same fashion as Volkswagens.

This does not stop large numbers of people from claiming that they have photographs which show ghosts. This book, following on from those written by Melyn Willins and Jim Eaton, presents some of these; this collection being based on those submitted in response to an event 'Hauntings: The Science of Ghosts' at the Edinburgh Science Festival in 2008.

There are several explanations for so called ghost photographs. Many in the days of film were double exposures, others are created by photographers blindness, a form of scene blindness in which photographers concentrating on the task in hand fail to notice people moving into the frame; others are caused by environmental factors such as dust, insects, condensation from breath, mist and the like, or marks on the lens or film. One of the most significant causes is paradolia, the 'seeing' of faces and figures in random patches of light and shade or features in the environment.

There are examples of all of these in this book, the latter being especially well covered. Indeed in a good number of the photographs reproduced here I just couldn't see the alleged ghost at all, at least until I read the text where it was pointed out where you should see it. Sometimes I could then 'see' the figure or face or whatever, clearly an example of suggestion.

Rather more interesting are cases in which more or less clear figures can be seen in photographs in which the photographers claim that there was definitely no-one else around at the time. Of course that assumes both that the photographers are telling the truth and that their memory has not become distorted over time.

In almost all the photographs in this book, the image is only detected when the photograph is examined, it is not a case of seeing a ghost and photographing, further suggesting non-paranormal explanations. Indeed it is not clear how, if at all alleged paranormal entity or process could produce these pictures.

As earlier reviews in Magonia have shown, there is now great interest in the art world over nineteenth and twentieth century spirit imagery. These were, of course, usually the work of conscious artifice, so the notion of art still applies. Whether it can apply to the mind's perceptions of forms and faces in ambiguous features on a photograph is a more difficult to assess, at the least it might argue that art is to a certain degree in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps for Magonia readers the most interest might lie in trying to understand what the seeing of signs and wonders in often barely visible ambiguous features in a photograph might shed on our society, and its need for "rumours of angels" in the most unlikely places.

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