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Profs & Pints DC: Photos of Ghosts

October 5, 2022 @ 6:00 pm - 8:30 pm EDT

$12. – $13

Profs and Pints DC presents: “Photos of Ghosts,” a look at the history of purported photographs of apparitions and the controversies surrounding them, with Beth Saunders, art historian and curator and head of special collections at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Since its invention in 1839, photography has been hailed for its ability to record an accurate image of reality. Its presumed truthfulness has made the new medium an ideal tool for scientific investigation, and the camera was quickly harnessed to record phenomena previously unseen by the naked eye. They include microscopic bacteria, distant nebulae—and more than a few ghosts.

Join Beth Saunders, a curator and art historian who has published on apparition photographs and the art of conspiracy, for a fascinating look at the history of spirit photography and its associated controversies and hoaxes.

She’ll look at three key moments in the history of spirit photography that sparked public debates between skeptics and believers, beginning with the sensational fraud trial of Boston and New York-based photographer William Mumler, who rose to fame in the 1860s with portrait photographs featuring apparitions of the deceased loved ones of those depicted. She’ll examine what Mumler’s activities tell us about the role of photography in Spiritualism—a religion whose adherents believe in the continuity of life after death—and about the darkroom techniques that detractors regard as providing a rational explanation for spirit photographs.

From there, she’ll discuss the case of Ted Serios, a man who in the 1960s claimed to be able to project his thoughts on photographic film. She will describe how his defenders attempted to refute his critics by citing his use of instant Polaroid technology, which did away with darkroom trickery. Similarly, during the 1970s devotees of the Virgin Mary used Polaroids to record her saintly visitations, arguing that the instantaneous images, being were harder to tamper with, offered spiritual proof.

Finally, Dr. Saunders will discuss the legacy of spirit photography within the digital age, including orb photographs made with cell phone cameras. As part of this she’ll look at the impact of Photoshop and of computer-generated deep fakes.

She’ll discuss how tracing the history of spirit photography explains the enduring faith we have in photography overall, and she’ll consider why photographs still hold compelling evidentiary power despite their potential to be manipulated.

Regardless of whether you have seen any ghosts, you’ll love seeing this talk. (Advance tickets: $12. Doors: $15, or $13 with a student ID. Listed time is for doors. Talk starts 30 minutes later. Please allow yourself time to place any orders and get seated and settled in.)

Image from a William H. Mumler portrait of a man sitting in the presence of the ghosts of children. J. Paul Getty Museum / Creative Commons


October 5, 2022
6:00 pm - 8:30 pm EDT
$12. – $13
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Little Penn Coffeehouse
801 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20004 United States
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