Unintentional Spooks

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If you’ve ever spent much time looking at photos of “ghosts” on the Internet, you know our eyes are very good at seeing what we expect to see — a face in the window, a shadowy figure in the bushes — rather than what’s really there. There are also a lot of tricks photographers can pull to create the effect of something supernatural lurking in the frame.

Sometimes, though, such an effect is unintended. Early photography was especially susceptible to capture accidents and development instabilities, many of which caused creepy or just plain weird things to crop up in pictures. This week, we look at spooky images to examine just how they might have been created. Of course, since this is Halloween, you could just enjoy being spooked. 🙂

Just why is this girl’s face glowing?

girl with glowing face

(Probably an exposure problem.)

Does this person even have a face?

mine worker with glowing face

(Probably. He also has a lighting issue.)

What is this sinister shadow creeping up on this miner?

coal miner with double

(Probably the miner himself — or at least an echo of him. This image was taken from a negative created with a wet collodion process, a difficult, fussy process of bathing a glass plate in various solutions. It easily lent itself to such shadows.)

The woman on the right seems perfectly nice, but there’s something…off about her.

woman with blurred face

(When blurry objects or people show up in an otherwise in-focus image, it’s usually because they were in motion. We have this problem even with our modern digital cameras, but it would’ve been much worse in early film photography, when exposures were longer, from several seconds to several minutes!)

Are these mine workers ghosts? Or are they just people somehow out of phase with our reality?

blurred mine workers

What about the cadet on the far right?

blurred and glowing cadet

This boy doesn’t look completely corporeal either.

double exposure, boy standing in grass

(He is, though. This is a “double exposure,” where the same negative is exposed at different times to different images, so that they appear to be one complex image — in this case, a boy and some tree branches, probably taken at relatively the same location. In the example below, this kind of effect is even more obvious:

town and trees double exposure

Sometimes, of course, photography problems are more mundane. Whose fingers are those?!

picture of picture with photographer fingers

If I’ve learned anything from our digitized photograph collections, it’s that even if you don’t get your fingers in the shot, it can be very easy to accidentally capture your shadow.

This one is a bit sinister…

woman on porch swing with shadow

…while this one looks kind of…alien.

two women with shadow

(I bet that E.T.-shaped shadow was cast by a female photographer. After all, look at the hairdos of the women in the picture.)

This one isn’t just looming, it’s broken free and is on the loose!

roland harper shadow on railroad tracks

But nothing beats this for weird!

people in uniform receiving awards

(This apparent floating head isn’t actually an accident of photography. It’s what happened when someone placed pictures on facing pages in a scrapbook, and a portion of one image literally transferred to another.)

I hope these images weren’t too unnerving. Believe me, there are plenty of strange photos in Acumen that are less scary than silly, like the one of this woman clinging to…

woman with clark gable cutout

…a cardboard cutout of Clark Gable?

Have a safe and festive Halloween!

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