Hot on the heals of Crimson Peak’s release, we wanted to track down an expert who knows all about photographing the paranormal. In the movie Dr Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam – Sons of Anarchy) shares his hobby with childhood friend Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska – Alice in Wonderland), he collects glass plate photographs of ghostly images. We were lucky enough to get some time to chat with Gordon Rutter, a writer and photographer who authors works on this very subject. His current book Ghosts Caught on Film 3 was just what we were looking for when finding out more about the ghostly goings on in Crimson Peak.
Ahead of our interview with Gordon, he sent us some images of famous ‘ghosts’ that had been captured using various photographic equipment, absolutely perfect material for picking his brain.
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, taken in 1936 is supposed to show the image of a ghost on a staircase. What is your explanation of this image?
That one when you look at it, I think personally that it’s possibly the type of camera that was used, because the photograph was taken in 1936, that particular one would have been taken by a camera where when you focus it, the lens moves in and out on a set of cloth bevels. I have a sneaking suspicion that there might just be a little hole in those bevels and that’s just a little bit of light hitting it at just the right angle and it has just let a little bit of light come in and it’s missed the lens and so is not in focus, so it is just a blurry part in the middle.
I have heard some people say that the photograph is a double exposure, so they’ve perhaps had one version of the photograph where they’ve taken it with a person standing there and then without moving the film on and without moving the camera, they have then taken the person out and rephotographed the scene again, which would give you a normally exposed background and then a faint image of the person. Normally when that happens, unless you are incredibly careful, you would get some slight double image on say the banisters or the paintings that are going up the wall in that image. There is absolutely no evidence of that.
Of course, it could be a ghost, obviously that is one explanation or it could be a little bit of light shining through the cloth bevels.
Would there have been a vast difference in the cameras used to take the Tulip Staircase image in 1966 and the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in 1936?
Yes, definitely, I mean obviously we don’t know unfortunately, specifically what type of camera, but the types of camera that were common in the 1960s and particularly the type of people who were taking it, just a husband and his wife on their holidays, just taking holiday snaps. So, that is going to be the boxed Browning type of camera, so you would basically have a plastic box with a lens at one end and an eyepiece at the other, you would literally just press the shutter and it would just take care of everything itself.
Whereas the camera from the Brown Lady would be a really, really massive job. You would have to mount it on a tripod, possibly even have to put individual glass plates in the back every single time you took a photograph. Whereas the 1960s camera, once you have taken the photo you just wind the knob and the film advances and you’re ready to take the next picture.
The two photographs by William H. Mumler, Mary Todd and Master Herrod really struck me with their clarity. Would there have been the technology to fake these images, given that they were taken not too far away from the advent of photography?
Yes. Yes, is the short answer. Unfortunately the photographer who took those photographs ended up in court in New York accused of faking spirit photographs. He was a gentleman by the name of WIlliam Mumler and at the time 1860s/1870s, photography was, as you say, was still a very new thing and you had to either be very rich to be able to do it or you would do it as a job. Mumler was doing it as a job and he was charging an absolute fortune to produce portraits of people. I believe he was charging something like $1 and that was in the 1860s which was something like one or two months wages for a normal working person.
He (Mumler) was taking these photographs and one day he took a photograph and it had, unfortunately this one doesn’t survive, but he took a photograph which had one of these ghostly images on it. He was just about to throw it away thinking, ‘oh I’ve mucked it up here’ when the person who the photograph was of said ‘Oh! That’s my aunt such and such and she just died last week, you’ve got a photograph of me and my dead aunt, oh my gosh that’s brilliant, that’s fantastic.’
So, this person was enormously happy with this photograph and of course Mumler, rather than throwing it away and having to take another one just said, ‘Oh, alright, if you’re happy with that.’ They told all of their friends, so everyone started coming to Mumler and said ‘oh, you took a photograph of such and such with her dead aunt, could you do one with one of my dead relatives?’ Mumler was, you know, a businessman and he worked out what had actually happened and he started taking these photographs and he said that to obviously take a photograph with a ghost on it, is a lot. lot harder than taking a normal photograph, so he would have to charge a little bit extra. He was eventually charging $10 per shot, that is basically, pretty much an annual salary for a working person of that time.
What it was, was photographs of this time, were taken either on glass plates or on metal plates and these were covered with chemicals. If you made a mistake, what you could do is you could actually wash the plate and start again by putting fresh chemicals on and that’s exactly what he’d done! He hadn’t quite washed it enough and it left a very faint image of the mistake on the picture and consequently when he put the new chemicals on, that faint image was still there and it came through on this other picture and that is what he did with the two photographs you have been sent I am afraid.
The one with Abraham Lincoln was the biggest fluke in the universe, it’s like him winning the lottery twice in a row. What he did was to take photographs of his secretary but a lot of famous people who were dead, you know just copying images of them in books and what have you. The reasoning being there that if a famous dead person such as Abraham Lincoln comes and sees you, then that must mean you’re very important and people are going to love that. So, he had this batch of pictures prepared that were randomly scattered and he would just pick one and it would have an image on, meaning they go away happy.
When Mary Todd came in to get a photograph taken she actually gave a false name, she didn’t let on to who she was – (Mary Todd was the widow of Abraham Lincoln) – he didn’t recognize her, she came in, sat down, explained that she wanted a ghost photograph and he just reached into the bag, pulled out a prepared plate, placed it in the camera and processed it. Low and behold, just by chance it was the one with Abraham Lincoln on and when she came to collect it a few days later, she came over all faint and sat down, then confessed that she had not used her real name, said who she was. She again told all of her friends and you know President Lincoln’s wife saying she had a photograph of him appearing with her, that again, you know, the masses were beating a path to his door!
It wasn’t until someone was collecting their photograph from the secretary, realised that the image, the woman in the photograph was actually the secretary who was handing him the picture, that was really when the game was up.
Do you have a favourite paranormal image and if you do why?
Oh gosh, I think one of the ones, because there are several I really like, one of the ones is a photograph of a man just sitting in a car in the 1950s/1960s. He had just taken his wife to see her mother’s grave on the anniversary of her death and while they were there they had taken a few photographs. When they got home they realised, this is something we don’t get now, but they realised there were only a couple of shots left at the end of the reel, so they took shots of anything to finish off the reel.
One of the shots taken was of this gentleman sat in the car. When the shot came back, sat in the back of the car was a quite clear image of the woman’s mother, who they had just bee to visit. She was sat in her customary position where she could engage in back seat driving.
It i just a fairly mundane story until you get to the ghost thing and it is quite straight forward and you can see when you look at it you know it is just the sort of photograph to finish off a reel. That’s a really nice one.
What do you think is so special about photography that allows us to capture, or potentially capture ghosts?
Well, one of the things that photography does, is that it takes photos with light of course, but there is loads of different wavelengths of light that we are not able to see ourselves, but the sensor on the camera, the film, the camera and whatever, these things are sensitive to these wavelengths. So, if there are ghosts around us all of the time, perhaps they are only visible on these wavelengths and that’s why cameras are picking them up but we aren’t able to pick them up ourselves because we can’t see in infrared and we can’t see ultraviolet. You can look at flowers and when you put them under ultraviolet lights they show up all of these patterns and show up all of these guidelines for bees so they can fly into them.
There is a world out there that we can’t see, but it’s still there and cameras can pick up some aspects of that world.
Crimson Peak is available on Blu-ray™ and DVD on 15th February courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK)