Spirit Photography: Old-School Photoshop

Published May 11, 2015
Updated January 12, 2018

Oklahoma mom Sierra Sharry lost her husband in 2014, but found a way to honor his memory by having him photoshopped into a family photo in April 2015. Her deceased husband appears as a ghostly figure and completes a picture the couple wasn’t able to capture while he was alive.

Spirit Photography Sharry

Sierra Sharry’s ghostly family portrait. Source: Huffington Post

While tools like Photoshop are new, Sharry’s photo is rather old as a photographical concept. Coinciding with and enabling the rise of spiritualism, trick photography has been used since the late 19th century as an attempt to bring the living closer to the dead.

Spirit photography was first popularized by photographer William H. Mumler in the 1860s. Mumler discovered double exposures by accident and from then on, he would use this technique to add images of the deceased to pictures of their living loved ones. He worked as a medium and used his photography to surreptitiously convince his clients that the dead were indeed still around, but in spirit form. When people identified some of Mumler’s “spirits” as living Boston residents, however, Mumler was tried for fraud. Though found not guilty, his career and reputation plummeted.

Spirit Photography Deane Self Portrait
Spirit Photography Deane Doyle
Spirit Photography Deane Woman
Spirit Photography Female Ghost
Spirit Photography: Old-School Photoshop
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Nevertheless, the popularity of his spirit photos inspired others to capitalize on human gullibility and pursue the craft. These photos remained popular into the early 1900s and incorporated various techniques to “prove” the existence of ghosts, including double exposures, invisible strings, magazine cut-outs and dolls. Some photographs were captured during séances and involved ectoplasm, a spiritual substance supposedly “exteriorized” by mediums. In reality, mediums used cotton balls, cheesecloth and egg whites to make it.

Most experts agree that these old spirit photos are fraudulent, but it doesn’t change the fact that many people just want to believe that the souls of their loved ones live on. In the case of Sierra Sharry, she merely wants to ensure that her son will always have a family photo with Dad.

Susan Sims
When she's not fighting crime or cleaning the garbage disposal, you can find Susan writing about travel, science and things that go bump in the night.