word craft


Story Behind the Story #53:
Seer of Shadows

Seer of ShadowsWhen you think of all the images you see there is no more ubiq­ui­tous art form than pho­tog­ra­phy. The first pho­to­graph is thought to have been made in 1826 (1827?) but it took a long time for it to become acces­si­ble to vast num­bers of peo­ple. I have long been inter­est­ed in pho­tog­ra­phy as a fine art, and for a good num­ber of years had what was called a “dark room.”

A dark room—for those who only know dig­i­tal photography—is the place where pho­to­graph­ic film was trans­formed into paper images. One stood in a dark­ened room (only red light) and worked with a pro­jec­tor, timer and a vari­ety of chem­i­cals, to cre­ate these images.  You may believe me: There is some­thing absolute­ly mag­i­cal about this process. To watch an image bloom in a shal­low bath of devel­op­er was tru­ly exciting.

I took pho­to class­es at the Rhode Island School of Design. The first (class) project I under­took was to pho­to­graph pub­lic writing-signs.

Dur­ing the time I was most engaged with pho­tog­ra­phy I wrote Who Was That Masked Man Any­way?—a book with­out any description—and City of Light, City of Dark, a graph­ic nov­el which depend­ed on visu­al images. I don’t think this was a coincidence.

Mary Todd Lin­coln spir­it pho­to­graph with Abra­ham Lin­coln, by William Mum­ler, copy­right Lin­coln Finan­cial Foun­da­tion Col­lec­tion, Allen Coun­ty Pub­lic Library

In the Unit­ed States, in the post-Civ­il War peri­od, pho­tog­ra­phy real­ly became popular—at least in a stu­dio con­text. This was the time when “spir­it pho­tographs” came into vogue. These were pho­tographs that reput­ed­ly caught images of spir­its and ghosts. One of the most famous such pho­tos was the ghost of Abra­ham Lin­coln stand­ing behind his wid­ow, Mary Todd Lincoln.

Need­less to say, such pho­tos were hoax­es, but the pub­lic did not know how dou­ble expo­sure prints were made.

All this con­sti­tutes the back­ground of my nov­el Seer of Shad­ows. The premise is sim­ple: it is 1872 and a boy, Horace Car­pen­ter, is appren­ticed to Enoch Mid­dled­itch, a pho­tog­ra­ph­er who makes fake spir­it images. But when Horace learns to take pho­tographs, his images have true ghosts in them.

This is a ghost sto­ry to be sure, but it is also about race and revenge in New York City at that time.

It is also about ear­ly pho­tog­ra­phy, and what I loved to expe­ri­ence in the mys­tic gloom of a dark room. For those of you who only know dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, Seer of Shad­ows will reveal what you have nev­er seen.


 “The Pho­tog­ra­ph­er Who Claimed to Cap­ture Abra­ham Lincoln’s Ghost,” Dan Piepen­bring, The New York Times. “William Mumler’s rise and fall in the late nine­teenth cen­tu­ry put him at the cen­ter of a debate over reli­gion, fraud, and the mate­r­i­al real­i­ty of our immor­tal souls.”

2 thoughts on “Story Behind the Story #53: <br>Seer of Shadows”

  1. My 7th Graders just fin­ished this sto­ry and they loved it! We went on to read non-fic­tion arti­cles about cre­at­ing daguerreo­types and William Mum­ler’s spir­it pho­tog­ra­phy! They also real­ly enjoyed Skyp­ing with you Avi! Thank you for tak­ing the time to answer ques­tions and to inspire our stu­dents to be both read­ers and writers!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.