The “spirit photographs” of William H. Mumler (1832–1884) serve as a touchstone for reflections on photography and its impact on public perceptions of reality in this meticulously researched study of America’s dalliance with spiritualism in the 19th century. Trained as an engraver, Mumler began dabbling in photography in 1862, and the portraits he produced of ghostly loved ones hovering near mortal sitters captivated a culture obsessed with intimations of the afterlife. His best-known photo shows Mary Todd Lincoln being caressed by the ghostly hands of her husband six years after his assassination. Although accused of doctoring his photos and prosecuted for fraud in 1869 in a widely publicized trial, Mumler was acquitted for lack of proof and he eventually earned respect for developing the process by which photos could be directly transferred to newsprint. Manseau (Rag and Bone) provides comprehensive context for his chronicle of Mumler, placing him at the intersection of the Spiritualist movement and the rise of the photographic art, and in the context of the Civil War, which acquainted Americans with death on an unprecedented scale (and which yielded iconic photos by Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner that were themselves sometimes manipulated for effect). Ultimately, as the author eloquently puts it, Mumler’s trial was as much about “the very nature of the soul and the religious commitments of the country” as it was about a huckster exploiting (and providing reassurance to) the gullible. 29 b&w photos. Agent: Kathleen Anderson, Anderson Literary Management. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 07/17/2017 Release date: 10/10/2017 Genre: Nonfiction
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