Keeping in touch: photography and the supernatural 1839 – 1933

Robinson, Eleanor (2020) Keeping in touch: photography and the supernatural 1839 – 1933. Doctoral thesis (PhD), University of Sussex.

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This thesis explores the influence of photography upon the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century culture of the supernatural, arguing that the invention of photography helped bring about a change in the kind of ghosts experienced in popular culture and ghost fiction. Where most previous studies investigating photography and the supernatural have focused on its more immediate output, spirit photography, my project provides a fresh understanding of how spirit photography came about in the first place and how, in turn, the marriage of photography and spirit influenced the Spiritualist movement and the ghosts which haunted the literature of the long nineteenth century. My main contention is that over time, photography helped contribute to the desire for a more haptic communion with the dead, which is suggested by the treatment of photographs in ghost stories and in the ‘material’ phenomena which came to dominate spiritualistic practices.

The project is divided into four chapters. The first chapter explores the motif of the ‘shadow’ in two ghost stories by Charles Dickens and argues that the shadowy ghosts in those tales were the product of post-photographic thinking and shifting concepts of time and memory: asking questions about how, in the age of the photographic image, contemporaries ‘keep in touch’ with the past (and how future generations will ‘keep in touch’ with them). In the second chapter I analyse the growth of ‘magic portrait’ ghost stories, tracing their development in the context of the invention of photography and the birth of the National Portrait Gallery, arguing that the ‘magic’ photograph stories offer a different kind of haunting, which is usually generated by touch, and best compared to the aura emitted by a ‘relic’. In the third chapter I consider the photographic influences behind Spiritualism, arguing that the Spiritualist medium was acting like a camera in producing visions and physical manifestations of the dead, which ultimately contributed to the beginnings of ‘spirit photography’ and a more tangible understanding of spirits. In the final chapter I examine both séance and portrait spirit photographs, exploring the iconography that emerged from spirit photographs and demonstrating some of the concepts and iconography which informed spirit photography and which became immersed in popular culture via fin de siècle and early twentieth-century ghost stories. In this chapter I explore the ‘material’ proof and ectoplasmic effusions that mediums and psychic investigators sought, and at times produced, and trace connections between these activities and M.R. James’s obsession with haunting material in his ghostly fiction.

Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Schools and Departments: School of Media, Arts and Humanities > English
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology > BF1001 Parapsychology > BF1228 Spiritualism Including mediumship, spirit messages, clairvoyance > BF1371 Physical phenomena of spiritualism. Telekinesis. Psychokinesis > BF1378 Materialization > BF1381 Spirit Photogrpahy
P Language and Literature > PR English literature > PR0161 By period > PR0401 Modern > PR0451 19th century > PR0468.S86 Supernatural
Depositing User: Library Cataloguing
Date Deposited: 13 Jul 2020 09:30
Last Modified: 16 Mar 2022 15:48

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