Photography and Spirit

Can film capture what our eyes can’t see? There are many examples – both historical and contemporary – of photographs of spirits or "ghosts". These images have been both derided as hoaxes or, at the other extreme, held up as irrefutable proof of the otherworld. One of two books in Reaktion’s new Series Exposures, "Photography and Spirit" examines these tantalizingly blurred images of phantoms, psychical emanations and religious apparitions.

Drawing on eighty images taken between 1860 and today, John Harvey explores spirit photography from the various perspectives of religion, science and art. Some of the photographs were taken by scientists, others by amateur and commercial photographers or mediums, and still others by robotic surveillance devices. The diverse origins of spirit photographs have inspired a multiplicity of interpretations and engendered, in some cases, high levels of scepticism. Harvey’s analysis probes the connections between the images, human imagination, larger cultural traditions and scientific thought. "Photography and Spirit" transforms what are often fringe objects of kitsch into revelatory artifacts of cultural history, drawing from them thought-provoking insights into the historical connections between the material and spiritual worlds, representations of grief, and human culture’s enduring fascination with the supernatural.

Uniquely blending art, science and human imagination, photo images of ethereal spirits blur the border between what is real and what is fantastic. "Photography and Spirit" challenges our preconceived notions and offers an intriguing new perspective on the nature of photography.

About author

John Harvey is Professor at the School of Art at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.


"economical and intriguing... Harvey restores the full sense of "spirit" in nineteenth-century science, religion and aesthetics, while charting spirit photography's persistence well into the twentieth century... a fascinating addition to the literature on delusional aesthetics" – Art Review

'"judicious, sympathetic and richly illustrated" – Marina Warner, Art Newspaper

"Harvey has done an excellent job in outlining how the three domains fed into the phenomenon of spirit photography, and how its fascination endures" – Fortean Times

"[John Harvey's] new work finds the emerging medium of photography in the second half of the nineteenth century provides a source for thinking through the visualization of the holy... wonderfully illustrated, and it is refreshing for scholars of religion to find a press like Reaktion Books that is not normally publishing in religious studies, yet taking topics in religion seriously, and provide a visual forum for the display of images" – Journal of the American Academy of Religion

"This book will fascinate readers with its photographs of spirit contact and spirit presence. If you want to look at ghosts on film, these 80 illustrations will more than satisfy your interest... Literate, well-written, and highly entertaining are the three words to best describe this book by John Harvey. Highly recommended!" – Lee Prosser,
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