The Boston Public Library Will Digitize & Put Online 200,000+ Vintage Records

It may be a great irony that our age of cultural destruction and—many would argue—decline also happens to be a golden age of preservation, thanks to the very new media and big data forces credited with dumbing things down. We spend ample time contemplating the losses; archival initiatives like The Great 78 Project, like so many others we regularly feature here, should give us reasons to celebrate.

In a post this past August, we outlined the goals and methods of the project. Centralized at the Internet Archive—that magnanimous citizens’ repository of digitized texts, recordings, films, etc.—the project contains several thousand carefully preserved 78rpm recordings, which document the distinctive sounds of the early 20th century from 1898 to the late-1950s.

Thanks to partners like preservation company George Blood, L.P. and the ARChive of Contemporary Music, we can hear many thousands of records from artists both famous and obscure in the original sound of the first mass-produced consumer audio format.

Just a few days ago, the Internet Archive announced that they would be joined in the endeavor by the Boston Public Library, who, writes Wendy Hanamura, “will digitize, preserve” and make available to the public “hundreds of thousands of audio recordings in a variety of historical formats,” including not only 78s, but also LP’s and Thomas Edison’s first recording medium, the wax cylinder. “These recordings have never been circulated and were in storage for several decades, uncatalogued and inaccessible to the public.”

The process, notes WBUR, “could take a few years,” given the sizable bulk of the collection and the meticulous methods of the Internet Archive’s technicians, who labor to preserve the condition of the often fragile materials, and to produce a number of different versions, “from remastered to raw.” The object, says Boston Public Library president David Leonard, is to “produce recordings in a way that’s interesting to the casual listener as well as to the hard-core music listener in the research business.”

Thus far, only two recordings from BPL’s extensive collections have become available—a 1938 recording called “Please Pass the Biscuits, Pappy (I Like Mountain Music)” by W. Lee O’Daniel and His Hillbilly Boys and Edvard Grieg’s only piano concerto, recorded by Freddy Martin and His Orchestra in 1947. Even in this tiny sampling, you can see the range of material the archive will feature, consistent with the tremendous variety the Great 78 Project already contains.

While we can count it as a great gain to have free and open access to this historic vault of recorded audio, it is also the case that digital archiving has become an urgent bulwark against total loss. Current recording formats instantly spawn innumerable copies of themselves. The physical media of the past existed in finite numbers and are subject to total erasure with time. “The simple fact of the matter,” archivist George Blood tells the BPL, “is most audiovisual recordings will be lost. These 78s are disappearing left and right. It is important that we do a good job preserving what we can get to, because there won’t be a second chance.”

via WBUR

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25,000+ 78RPM Records Now Professionally Digitized & Streaming Online: A Treasure Trove of Early 20th Century Music

The British Library’s “Sounds” Archive Presents 80,000 Free Audio Recordings: World & Classical Music, Interviews, Nature Sounds & More

BBC Launches World Music Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Should We Read Virginia Woolf? A TED-Ed Animation Makes the Case

Virginia Woolf dissuaded readers from playing the critic in her essay “How Should One Read a Book?” But in addition to her novels, she is best known for her literary criticism and became a foundational figure in feminist literary theory for her imaginative polemic “A Room of One’s Own,” an essay that takes traditional criticism to task for its presumptions of male literary superiority.

Women writers like herself, she argues, had always been a privileged few with the means and the freedom to pursue writing in ways most women couldn’t. These conditions were so rare for women throughout literary history that innumerable artists may have gone unnoticed and unheralded for their lack of opportunity. Her observation would have put her readers in mind of Thomas Gray’s revered “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” with its famous line about a pauper's grave: “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest.”

Woolf alludes to the poem, writing of “some mute and inglorious Jane Austen,” and makes a case that would-have-been women writers were exceptionally marginalized by gender—by its intersections with power and privilege and their lack. She famously constructed a scenario—brought into pop culture by The Smiths and Bananarama singer Siobhan Fahey—involving Shakespeare’s fictional sister Judith, whose talent and ambition are squashed for the sake of her brother’s education. It is hardly a far-fetched idea. We might remember Mozart’s sister Nannerl, who was also a child prodigy, whose career ended with her childhood, and who disappeared in her brother’s shadow.

In the TED-Ed video at the top, Woolf scholar and doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin Iseult Gillespie describes the import of Woolf’s thought experiment. Shakespeare’s sister stands in for every woman who is pushed into domestic labor and marriage while the men in her family pursue their goals unhindered. “Woolf demonstrates the tragedy of genius restricted,” just as Langston Hughes would do a couple decades later. Her particular genius, says Gillespie, lies in her ability to portray “the internal experience of alienation…. Her characters frequently live inner lives that are deeply at odds with their external existence.”

The video outlines Woolf’s own biography: her inclusion in the “Bloomsbury Group”—a social circle including E.M. Forster and Virginia's soon-to-be husband Leonard Woolf. And it sketches out the innovative  literary techniques of her novels. Woolf thought of herself, as Alain de Botton says in his short introduction above, as a “distinctively modernist writer at odds with a raft of the staid and complacent assumptions of 19th century English literature.” One such assumption, as she writes in “A Room of One’s Own,” includes an opinion that “the best woman was intellectually the inferior of the worst man.”

Woolf’s own modernist breakthroughs rival those of her contemporaries James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Her favorite women writers rank as highly as men in the same canon in any serious study; but this is of course beside the point. It wasn’t the truth or falsehood of claims about women’s inferiority that determined their power, but rather the social power of those who made such claims.

Domineering fathers, spotlight-stealing brothers, moralizing clergymen, the gatekeeping intellectuals of “Oxbridge”—Woolf’s portmanteau for the snobbery and chauvinism of Oxford and Cambridge dons: it was such men who determined not only whether or not a woman might pursue her writing, but whether she lived or died in penury, mute and inglorious. Woolf knew much of what she wrote, having grown up surrounded by the cream of 19th-century literary society, and having had to “steal an education from her father’s study,” as de Botton notes, while her brothers went off to Cambridge. She was nonetheless well aware of her privilege and used it not only to create new forms of writing, but to open new literary spaces for women writers to come.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Florence Welch’s Radio Documentary About the Making of David Bowie’s Heroes (Free for a Limited Time)

Image by AVRO and Becky Sullivan, via Wikimedia Commons

As of this moment, you have 22 days left to stream a one-hour radio documentary hosted by Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine). It takes a close look at the making of David Bowie's landmark album Heroes, released 40 years ago. The documentary (streamable here) explores "the personal and musical factors that influenced the album’s writing and recording in Berlin in 1977." It also covers,  according to the BBC, the following ground:

Florence will feature [archival material] of the late David Bowie explaining why he chose to live and work in Berlin and the impact the city’s history had on the masterpiece he created. She’ll also meet the album’s producer Tony Visconti to get an insight to the unique recording techniques he employed to interpret Bowie’s creative vision and how the characteristics of the famous Hansa Studios, which are situated in a huge former chamber music concert hall, contributed to the album’s influential sounds. Iggy Pop, who was living with Bowie in Berlin during the recording of the album, recalls how a battle with drug addition, bankruptcy and a legal dispute with his ex wife for access to his son all provided inspiration for the album’s lyrics and Brian Eno, who collaborated with David throughout the LP’s recording, explains the unique musical structures he and David employed to compose the innovative songs.

Berlin’s radical cultural diversity had always fascinated Bowie and Florence will explain how the opportunity to live and work in the city during the turbulent political period prior to the fall of `the Wall’ provided the perfect austere environment for David and his collaborators to experiment with music inspired by several German techno bands of the 70’s, including Neu!, Kraftwerk and Can.

When you're done listening, we'd strongly recommend watching this wonderful video where Tony Visconti, the producer of David Bowie's 1977 album, takes you inside the LP's making. Don't miss it. It's a gem.

via NME

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Ralph Steadman’s Hellish Illustrations for Ray Bradbury’s Classic Dystopian Novel, Fahrenheit 451

Hunter S. Thompson and Ray Bradbury would at first seem to have little in common, other than having made their livings by the pen. Or rather, both of them having developed as writers in the mid-20th century, by the typewriter--though Thompson famously shot his and a young Bradbury once had to rent one for ten cents per hour at UCLA's library. In one nine-day rental in the early 1950s, Bradbury typed up Fahrenheit 451, still his best-known work and one whose central idea, that of a future society that methodically destroys all books, has stayed compelling almost 65 years after its first publication.

Thompson's best-known work, 1971's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, deals in different kinds of frightening visions, some of them brought to illustrated life by the English artist Ralph Steadman. Thirty years later years later and with his name long since made by his collaboration with Thompson, Steadman would bring his talents to Bradbury's dystopia. Brain Pickings' Maria Popova quotes him describing the theme of Fahrenheit 451 as "vitally important." According to Dangerous Minds' Paul Gallagher, when Bradbury saw Steadman's illustrations, commissioned for a limited edition of the book around its fiftieth anniversary, he said to the artist, "You’ve brought my book into the 21st century."

Steadman repaid the compliment when he said that he considers Fahrenheit 451 "as important as 1984 and Animal Farm as real powerful social comment," and he should know, having previously poured his artistic energies into a 1995 edition of George Orwell's deceptively simple allegory of the Russian Revolution and its consequences. More than a few of us would no doubt love to see what Steadman could do with 1984 here in the 21st century, a time when we've hardly extinguished the societal dangers of which Orwell, or Bradbury, or indeed Thompson, tried, each in his distinctive literary way, to warn us. Book-burning may remain a fringe pursuit, but the fight against thought control in its infinite forms demands constant vigilance — and no small amount of imagination.

You can see more illustrations of Fahrenheit 451 at Brain Pickings and Dangerous Minds. Also, you can purchase used copies of the limited print edition online, though they seem quite rare at this point. Editions can be found on AbeBooks--for example here and here.

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Gonzo Illustrator Ralph Steadman Draws the American Presidents, from Nixon to Trump

Ralph Steadman’s Surrealist Illustrations of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1995)

How Hunter S. Thompson — and Psilocybin — Influenced the Art of Ralph Steadman, Creating the “Gonzo” Style

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Cult Director John Waters Hosts a Summer Camp for Naughty Adult Campers: Enrollment for the 2018 Edition Opens Today

I hated sports at camp, so at this camp I think we should reward every team that loses. This would be the camp where the fat people get picked first in dodge ball. 

- Filmmaker-cum-Camp Director John Waters

I can think of many children who would scramble toward the refuge of the compassionate statement above, but Camp John Waters is a decidedly adult activity.

The Pope of Trash shares actor Bill Murray’s relish for oddball settings in which he can meet the public as something close to a peer. But whereas Murray specializes in surprise drop-in appearances—reciting poetry to construction workers, crashing parties—Waters favors more immersive experiences, such as hitchhiking coast to coast.

His latest stunt brought him and 300 fellow travelers to a rustic Connecticut facility (from Sept 22-24) that normally hosts corporate team building events, family camps, and weekend getaways for playful 20-to-30-somethings keen to make new friends while zip lining, playing pingpong, and partying in the main lodge.

ARTnews pegged the inaugural session thusly:

 The Waters camp combines two of the more absurd developments in contemporary leisure: the celebrity-based getaway (see also: the Gronk Cruise) and a certain recreational aesthetic that seems to advocate for a sort of developmental purgatory.

Here,  there were no reluctant, homesick campers, weeping into their Sloppy Joes. This was a self-selecting bunch, eager to break out their wigs and leopard print, weave enemy bracelets at the arts and crafts station, and bypass anything smacking of official outdoor recreation, save the lake, where inflatable pink flamingos were available for aquatic lollygagging.

“Who really wants to go wall climbing?” the founder himself snorted in his welcoming speech, adding that he would if Joe Dallesandro, the Warhol superstar who according to Waters "forever changed male sexuality in cinema," waited up top.

Naughty references to water sports aside, certain aspects of the camp were downright wholesome. Pine trees and s’mores. Canoes and cabins. Presumably there was a camp nurse. (In Waters' ideal world, this position would be filled by Cry Baby's Traci Lords.)

Waters’ recollections of his own stint at Maryland’s Camp Happy Hollow seem primarily fond. It makes sense. Anyone who truly loathed summer camp would be unlikely to recreate the experience for themselves and their fellow adults.

Camp Waters harkens back to the 1950s transgressions its director merrily fesses up to having participated in: unfiltered cigarettes and short sheeted beds, circle jerks and panty raids. From here on out the subversion will be taking place in the sunlight.

Another special camp memory for Waters is regaling his cabin mates with an original, serialized horror story. He retells it on Celebrity Ghost Stories, above:

At the end there was this hideous gory thing and then all the kids had nightmares and their parents called the camp and complained — and I’m still doing that! It was the beginning of my career…. It was a wonderful lesson for me as a 10-year-old kid that I think helped me become whatever I am today. It gave me the confidence to go ahead, to believe in things, to believe in behavior I couldn’t understand, to be drawn to subject matter I couldn’t understand.

Registration for Camp John Waters 2018 opens today at noon, so grab the bug spray and get ready to sing along:

There is a camp in a place called Kent

It’s name is Camp John Waters

For here we come to spend the night

For we all love to fuck and fight

Camp John Waters - rah rah rah!

Camp John Waters - sisboombah!

Camp John Waters - rah rah rah!

Three cheers for Camp John Waters!

Could Waters’ own contribution to such camp classics as Meatballs, Little Darlings and Wet Hot American Summer be far behind?

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She attended Gnawbone Camp in Gnawbone, Indiana, recapturing that happy experience three decades later as the Mail Lady of Beam Camp.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

An Oral History of the Bauhaus: Hear Rare Interviews (in English) with Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe & More

Image by Detief Mewes, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bauhaus, which operated as an influential school in Germany between 1919 and 1933 but lives on as a kind of aesthetic ideal, has its strongest associations with highly visual work, like textiles, graphic design, industrial design, and especially architecture. But a good deal of thought went into establishing the kind of rationality- and functionality-oriented philosophical basis that would produce all that visual work, and you can hear some of the leading lights of the Bauhaus discuss it, in English, on the record Bauhaus Reviewed: 1919 to 1933, now available on Spotify. (If you don't have Spotify's software, you can download it here.) You can also purchase your own copy online.

"The bulk of the narrative is by [Walter] Gropius, an articulate and passionate advocate for this remarkable experiment in education," writes All Music Guide's Stephen Eddins. "Artist Josef Albers and architect [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe also contribute commentary. [LTM Records founder] James Nice is credited with 'curating' the CD, and it must be his editing that gives the album such a clear and informative narrative structure — one comes away with a vivid understanding of the development of the movement, both philosophically and pragmatically."

In between the spoken passages on the origins of the Bauhaus, form and totality, handling and texture, utopianism, and other topics besides, Bauhaus Reviewed 1919-1933 offers musical compositions by such Bauhaus-associated composers as Arnold Schoenberg, Josef Matthias Hauer, and George Antheil. You can hear some of the sound from the record repurposed in Architecture as Language, the short about Mies by Swiss filmmaker Alexandre Favre just below. In it that pioneer of modernism discusses the Bauhaus as well as his own individual work, all of it interesting to anyone with an inclination toward midcentury European-American architecture and design, none of it ultimately more relevant than the final words the master speaks: "I don't want to be interesting. I want to be good."

via Monoskop

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

20,000 Americans Hold a Pro-Nazi Rally in Madison Square Garden in 1939: Chilling Video Re-Captures a Lost Chapter in US History

Our country’s bipartisan system ensures that every election will give rise to a winning side and a losing side—and depressingly, a sizable group who refrained from casting a vote either way.

There are times when the divide between the factions does not seem insurmountable, when leaders in the highest positions of authority seem sincerely committed to reaching across the divide….

And then there are other times.

Earlier in the year, the Women’s March on Washington and its hundreds of sister marches gave many of us reason to hope. The numbers alone were inspiring.

But history shows how great numbers can go the other way too.

With many American high school history curriculums whizzing through World War II in a week, if that, it’s doubly important to slow down long enough to watch the 7 minute documentary above.

What you’re looking at is the 1939 "Pro-American Rally" (aka Pro-Nazi Rally) sponsored by the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden on George Washington’s 207th Birthday. Banners emblazoned with such slogans as “Stop Jewish Domination of Christian Americans,” “Wake Up America. Smash Jewish Communism,” and “1,000,000 Bund Members by 1940" decorated the great hall.

New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia—an Episcopalian with a Jewish mother—considered canceling the event, but ultimately he, along with the American Jewish Committee and the American Civil Liberties Committee decreed that the Bund was exercising its right to free speech and free assembly.

A crowd of 20,000 filled the famous sports venue in mid-town Manhattan to capacity. 1,500 police officers were present to render the Garden “a fortress impregnable to anti-Nazis.” An estimated 100,000 counter-demonstrators were gathering outside.

Police Commissioner Lewis J. Valentine bragged to the press that “we have enough police here to stop a revolution.”

The most disturbing moment in the short film comes at the 3:50 mark, when another security force—the Bund’s Ordnungsdienst or "Order Service” pile on Isidore Greenbaum, a 26-year-old Jewish worker who rushed the podium where bundesführer Fritz Julius Kuhn was fanning the flames of hatred. Valentine’s men eventually pulled them off, just barely managing to save the “anti-Nazi” from the vicious beating he was undergoing.

Reportedly he was beaten again, as the crowd inside the Garden howled for his blood.

The uniformed youth performing a spontaneous hornpipe in the row behind the Bund’s drum and bugle corps is a chilling sight to see.

Director Marshall Curry was spurred to bring the historic footage to Field of Vision, a filmmaker-driven documentary unit that commissions short films as a rapid response to developing stories around the globe. In this case, the developing story was the “Unite the Right” white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, which had occurred a mere two days before.

“The footage is so powerful,” Curry told an interviewer, “it seems amazing that it isn’t a stock part of every high school history class. But I think the rally has slipped out of our collective memory in part because it’s scary and embarrassing. It tells a story about our country that we’d prefer to forget. We’d like to think that when Nazism rose up, all Americans were instantly appalled. But while the vast majority of Americans were appalled by the Nazis, there was also a significant group of Americans who were sympathetic to their white supremacist, anti-Semitic message. When you see 20,000 Americans gathering in Madison Square Garden you can be sure that many times that were passively supportive.”

Field of Vision co-founder Laura Poitras recalled how after meeting with Curry, “my first thought was, 'we need to put this film in cinemas,' and release it like a newsreel.”'  The Alamo Drafthouse cinema chain screened it before features on September 26 of this year.

The Atlantic has photos of the "Pro-American Rally" and other German American Bund-sponsored events in the days leading up to WWII here. Also read an account that appeared in a 1939 edition of The New York Times here.

The International Socialist Review covers the counter-demonstrations in many eyewitness quotes.

via PaleoFuture

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear 1,500+ Genres of Music, All Mapped Out on an Insanely Thorough Interactive Graph

If you are ready for a time-suck internet experience that will also make you feel slightly old and out of step with the culture, feel free to dive into Every Noise at Once. A scatter-plot of over 1,530 musical genres sourced from Spotify’s lists and based on 35 million songs,  Every Noise at Once is a bold attempt at musical taxonomy. The Every Noise at Once website was created by Glenn McDonald, and is an offshoot of his work at Echo Nest (acquired by Spotify in 2014).

McDonald explains his graph thus:

This is an ongoing attempt at an algorithmically-generated, readability-adjusted scatter-plot of the musical genre-space, based on data tracked and analyzed for 1,536 genres by Spotify. The calibration is fuzzy, but in general down is more organic, up is more mechanical and electric; left is denser and more atmospheric, right is spikier and bouncier.

It’s also egalitarian, with world dominating “rock-and-roll” given the same space and size as its neighbors choro (instrumental Brazilian popular music), cowboy-western (Conway Twitty, Merle Haggard, et. al.), and Indian folk (Asha Bhosle, for example). It also makes for some strange bedfellows: what factor does musique concrete share with “Christian relaxitive” other than “reasons my college roommate and I never got along.” Now you can find out!

Click on any of the genres and you’ll hear a sample of that music. Double click and you’ll be taken to a similar scatter-plot graph of its most popular artists, this time with font size denoting popularity and a similar sample of their music.

I’ve been spending most of my time exploring up in the top right corner where all sorts of electronic dance subgenres hang out. I’m not too sure what differentiates “deep tech house” from “deep deep house” or “deep minimal techno” or “tech house” or even “deep melodic euro house” but I now know where to come for a refresher course.

Spotify and other services depend on algorithms and taxonomies like this to deliver consistent listening experiences to its users, and they were attracted to Echo Nest for its work with genres. Echo Nest was originally based on the dissertation work of Tristan Jehan and Brian Whitman at the MIT Media Lab, who over a decade ago were trying to understand the “fingerprints” of recorded music. Now when you listen to Spotify’s personalized playlists, Echo Nest’s research is the engine working in the background.

McDonald says in this 2014 Daily Dot article this isn’t about a machine guessing our taste.

“No, the machines don’t know us better than we do. But they can very easily know more than we do. My job is not to tell you what to listen to, or to pass judgment on things or ‘make taste.’ It’s to help you explore and discover. Your taste is your business. Understanding your taste and situating it in some intelligible context is my business.”

If you’d like a more passive journey through the ever expanding music genre universe, there's a Spotify playlist of one song from each genre (all 1,500+) above. See you in the deep, deep house!

via Kottke.org

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the FunkZone Podcast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at tedmills.com and/or watch his films here.

Eerie 19th Century Photographs of Ghosts: See Images from the Long, Strange Tradition of “Spirit Photography”

We might draw any number of conclusions from the fact that rats’ brains are enough like ours that they stand in for humans in laboratories. A misanthropic existentialist may see the unflattering similarity as evidence that there’s nothing special about human beings, despite our grandiose sense of ourselves. A medieval European thinker would draw a moral lesson, pointing to the rat’s gluttony as nature’s allegory for human greed. And a skeptical observer in the 19th and early 20th centuries might take note of how easily both rats and humans can be manipulated; the latter, for example, by pseudo-phenomena like Spiritualism, which encompassed a wide range of claims about ghosts and the afterlife, from seances to spirit photography.

One such skeptical observer in 1920, Millaias Culpin, even wrote in his Spiritualism and the New Psychology of the “’scientific’ supporters of spiritualism,” most of them “eminent in physical science.” They are easily convinced, Culpin thought, because “they have been trained in a world where honesty is assumed to be a quality of all workers. A laboratory assistant who played a trick upon one of them would find his career at an end, and ordinary cunning is foreign to them. When they enter upon the world of Dissociates, where deceit masquerades under the disguise of transparent honesty, these eminent men are but as babes—country cousins in the hands of confidence-trick men.”

Such adherents of Spiritualist beliefs were taken in not because they were naturally credulous or stupid, but because they had been “trained” to trust the evidence of their senses. So-called spirit photographs, like those you see here, allowed people to “show material evidence for their beliefs.” Photographers who created the images, Mashable explains, could "easily make two exposures on a single negative, manipulate the negative to create ghostly blurs, or overlap two negatives in the darkroom to produce an extra face within the resultant frame."

The audience for this work was "vast," and many fit Culpin's generalizations. In 1921, for example, paranormal investigator Hereward Carrington wrote of “a number of ‘spirit’ and ‘thought’ photographs, the evidence for which seemed to me to be exceptionally good.” In describing other pictures as “obviously fraudulent” or “extremely puzzling,” Carrington made critical distinctions and appeared to use the methods and the language of science in the evaluation of objects purporting to prove the existence of ghosts.

It may seem incredible that spirit photography had widespread appeal for as long as it did. The photographs first began appearing in the 1860s, emerging “from a small Boston portrait studio” and first made by William H. Mumler, the genre’s inventor and “most prominent early proponent,” writes Mashable.

Mumler was neither a photographer nor a medium. He originally worked as a silver engraver, while dabbling in photography in the local studio of a woman named Mrs. Stuart. One day in 1861, in the midst of developing a self-portrait, Mumler reported that the dim figure of a young cousin who had died twelve years earlier emerged in the final print.

These ghostly images continued to appear—on their own, the story goes—and the studio’s receptionist, a part-time medium, helped popularize them. Soon Mumler “received visitors from across America, including the recently widowed Mary Todd Lincoln.” Most of these visitors did not work as scientists or professional paranormal investigators. They were ordinary people bereaved by the mass death of the Civil War and deeply motivated to accept physical confirmation of an afterlife. Moreover, before the rise of Fundamentalist Evangelicalism in the 1920s, Spiritualism was on the front lines of an earlier culture war: spirit photography was “a tangible symbol of the overarching argument of mysticism versus science and rationalism.”

The three images at the top of the post date from the earliest period of spirit photography, between 1862 and 1875, and they were all produced by Mumler in Boston and New York, where he moved in 1869, and where he was charged with fraud, then “acquitted of all charges because they could not be sufficiently proven.” (See many more of his photos at Mashable and the Getty Museum online archive.) Though his business suffered, spirit photography only grew more popular, particularly in Spiritualist circles in Britain, where Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the hyper-rational Sherlock Holmes, was one of the most ardent of Spiritualist believers.

Doyle supported a British photographer named William Hope, who began taking spirit photographs in 1905, founded a group called the Crewe Circle and later “went on to prey on grieving families,” writes River Donaghey at Vice, “who lost loved ones in WWI and desperately wanted photographic proof that their relatives were still hovering around in spectral form.” Even after Hope and his crew were exposed, Doyle continued to support him, going so far as to write a book called The Case for Spirit Photography. The four photographs above and below are Hope’s work (see many more at Vice and the Public Domain Review). They are seriously creepy—in the way movies like The Ring are creepy—but they are also, quite obviously, photographic fictions.

Even as viewers of photography became savvier as the century wore on, many people thrilled to Hope’s work until his death in 1933, maybe for the same reason we watch The Ring; it’s a fun scare, nothing more, if we suspend our disbelief. As for the true believers in spirit photography—they are not so different either from us 21st century sophisticates. We’re still taken in all the time by hoaxes and frauds, maybe because it’s still as easy to push the buttons in our brains, and because, well, we just want to believe.

Related Content:

Arthur Conan Doyle & The Cottingley Fairies: How Two Young Girls Fooled Sherlock Holmes’ Creator

Discover “The Ghost Club,” the Historic Paranormal Society Whose Members Included Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle & W.B. Yeats

Browse The Magical Worlds of Harry Houdini’s Scrapbooks

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Drone Footage Captures the US Postal Service Eerily Delivering Mail to Neighborhoods Razed by the California Fires

About 90 miles north of here, a series of fires, fanned by high winds, have destroyed 191,000 acres and left 31 people dead. In the town of Santa Rosa alone, the fires consumed more than 2,800 homes overnight, turning entire neighborhoods into cinders and ash. Captured by a drone, the footage above shows the complete devastation. It also adds a surreal touch--the US Postal Service dutifully delivering mail to empty street addresses.

If you would like to assist with the relief effort (monetarily or otherwise), please visit the Santa Rosa Fire Department website.





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