If I write a story about a famous photographer, I should probably show off some of his photographs.
Here’s the first spirit photograph Mumler ever took, and let me be blunt: it’s not good, or convincing. It’s out of focus and overexposed, which just makes it look extra fake. If you told me that Mumler was actually a cardboard cut-out in this photo, I would believe you. He looks like a painting, not a photograph.
Here are some of my other favorites, presented entirely without context. Those last two figures are William Lloyd Garrison and Mary Todd Lincoln (as if you didn’t recognize them).
Mumler’s technique clearly improved over the years. His human figures are in focus and the contrast levels are good. On the other hand, the spirits are still so washed out you could never tell who they were supposed to be without some prompting. The effect that sold Mumler’s technique to so many people, that his spirits could wrap around objects in three dimensions, is unconvincing and sloppily executed. (Then again, UFOlogists keep mistaking pie plates and light fixtures for flying saucers UFOs so maybe the population as a whole is more gullible than I care to admit.)
All photos are courtesy of the Getty Museum, through their Open Content program.