Worth a Thousand Words?

Click to check out other Photoshopped Sandy photos at The Atlantic

Like every other New Yorker with access to electricity,  I’ve spent the last week obsessing over the media coverage of Sandy.  At one point I started developing an Avataresque root-system symbiosis with my sofa/laptop/television/phone. It was news all the time, the more images the better. For days.

One thing I  noticed was that no sooner than photos of the storm appeared, altered images of the storm appeared as well. Some of the photos seemed so believable that The Atlantic and a bunch of other sites ran pieces to debunk the Photoshopped imposters.

Sharks in the subway?                Click for source

Nowadays, we understand that a photograph can be messed with, but on Friday I learned where our first skepticism of the verisimilitude of photographic images arose.

I finally ventured out for a symposium at the Metropolitan Museum of Art connected to the wonderful exhibition at the museum, “Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop”.

The exhibition contains hundreds of great photographs (dating from the dawn of photography in the 1840’s) that have been doctored for fun or art or less noble reasons.  An outstanding portion of the symposium was entitled “Of Spooks, Proofs and Truths: Reflections on the Mumler Spirit Photograph Case”.

The speaker was the charming and brilliant Dr. Louis Kaplan, Chair of Visual Studies, and Professor of History and Theory of Photography and New Media at the University of Toronto.

Dr. Kaplan told us a fascinating story about the photographer, William Mumler, who in 1869 was charged here in NYC with two counts of fraud and one count of larceny on account of the “spirit photographs” he was famous for producing.

William Mumler and spirit
Image from the American Museum of Photograpy Museum
Click for source

Spiritualism was a popular belief system in the late 19th century.  In a land plagued with heartbreaking infant mortality rates and the devastation of the Civil War, people were open to a belief system that promised an afterlife where decedents were able and willing to communicate with the living.

Mrs. French with spirit of child.
Image from Wikipedia
Click for source

William Mumler (who started out as an engraver) became famous for his spirit photographs.  His clients would sit for a photograph and in the finished product, their deceased beloveds would appear as ghostly images standing behind or beside them.

Sitter with two spirits.
Image from Wikipedia. Click for source

To many, Mumler’s photographs were visible evidence of an afterlife.  To others, Mumler was a charlatan swindler.

Skeptics in the NYC mayor’s office commissioned a sting operation to bust Mumler.  The city sent in a city marshall to pose as a bereaved customer.  Mumler charged him $10 for a dozen copies of a spirit photograph.  The price sounds fair nowadays, but back then it was exorbitant – only really rich folk could afford Mumler’s fees. Mumler produced a spirit photograph for the marshall, but the marshall didn’t recognize the particular spirit in the photograph.

Mumler was charged with two counts of fraud and one count of larceny.  His lawyer made a motion to dismiss the criminal charges and there was a three day hearing where the prosecutor called some of the most famous photographers of the era.  The photographers showed the court how they could manipulate images in their darkrooms.  P.T. Barnum got involved in the case against Mumler and one prominent photographer produced a famous spirit photograph of P.T. Barnum with Abe Lincoln standing behind him.

Image from Wikipedia. Click for source.

Barnum was out to debunk Mumler, saying something to the effect that “I know a humbug when I see one”.

Some believed that Mumler used blurry stock photos to create double-exposures  In fact, some of Mumler’s “spirits” were still alive.  Others believed that Mumler or his minions actually stole photographs of the recently deceased to provide the ghostly images behind his sitters.

Woman with spirit of her brother.
Image from Wikipedia.
Click for source.

Mumler’s lawyer argued that the prosecutor didn’t understand how the spirits operated and that just because the marshall didn’t recognize his spirit didn’t meant that spirit photography wasn’t valid – it was just that the wrong ghost appeared.  Famous, well-respected people supported Mumler.  In fact, in a later, unrelated case a judge noted that a belief in spirits was not per se evidence of insanity because in the Mumler case,

“A very learned and eminent man, whose name delicacy forbids me to mention, testified upon that trial to his belief in the existence of spirits, and that he was accustomed to hold intercourse with the spirits of dead friends. And yet that person is one whose name, if I should mention it, would be recognized among the soundest and foremost men in the state.”  People v. Waltz, 50 How. Pr. 204 (1874)

Can you guess what happened?

The court dismissed all of the charges against Mumler!

The judge wasn’t happy about it, but he ruled that the prosecution had failed to prove how Mumler had manipulated his photographs, so Mumler was free to go.  Mumler decamped New York for Boston where he continued his photography business but he never recovered his former fame and fortune – the cost of the legal proceedings wiped him out, according to the American Museum of Photography website.

And yet, three years later, the widow Mary Todd Lincoln came to Mumler for a spirit photograph that is now his most famous!

Mrs. Lincoln was a Mumler supporter.
Image from Wikipedia.
Click for source.

The Mumler case had a profound impact on the public’s perception of photograpy and led to a much more skeptical view of the veracity of photographs.

Of course I tend to be wary of photographic evidence.  But then again, last summer, a friend sent me a photograph of a cactus that she took on her phone camera when she was out west in the desert. I will swear that I saw the face of a man in that photograph.  Clear as day. No doubt. No question of Photoshop.

So, what is a picture worth these days?  I have no idea.


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