Death by Camera

With the rising popularity of photographic portraits for all, photographers found ever more innovative ideas to get customers though the doors. It became fashionable, if that’s the word, to photograph those who were either very close to death or had actually passed over. In some quarters it was even thought that the camera could capture the precise moment when the soul left the body, although verifiable evidence for this is hard to find. The photograph below seems to show one poor soul who was either about to expire or  had already done so.


One photographer went even further along this route. In the 1870s, the inventive Monsieur Buguet of Paris was claiming to call back the dead to be photographed and was making a mint from this trade in returned souls. With two accomplices, Firman, an American, and Leymarie, a fellow Frenchman, he colluded in producing hazy spirit photographs of the dear departed for the not inconsiderable sum of two to four thousand francs. Not everyone was happy with the results. Having paid thousands of francs for a portrait many found that, as often as not, the resulting photograph bore very little resemblance to their lost loved ones.

This was not surprising. Buguet and Co had some hundreds of photographs of all ages and both sexes which they utilised to create the spirit photos. Their receptionist was trained to ask discreetly about ‘some indication of the physiognomy’ of the dear  departed when potential customers came to enquire about obtaining an image. Sifting through his archive of snaps, Buguet could often come up with a near match as far as the face of the subject was concerned. An image would be constructed with one of these ‘heads’ surrounded by swathes of gauzy fabric, intended to give the required spirit-like appearance. However, by June 1875, the game was almost up for the fraudsters.

Customers began to complain that the spirit images, for which they were asked to pay so dearly, were inconsistent with their memories of loved ones. Eventually, the case came to court. Though Buguet still had his supporters, including a Russian marquis, the Comte de Bullet and two French colonels, things  went badly for him. The court found the trio guilty of fraud. Buguet and Leymarie were sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, while Firman escaped with a lighter sentence of six months incarceration. The scandal surrounding the spirit photographs kept readers of the world’s newspapers on the edge of their seats for weeks. The story was repeated over and over in every paper worth its salt. Eventually the furore died down and Monsieur Buguet slipped quietly into to history. Until the next time!

Published by qvictoria

A collector of Victorian photographs for many a long year. I'm interested in both the individual photographs and the studio advertising on the 'backs' of the images, Victorian graphic design at its most varied and interesting. My collection of "cartes de visite" photographs is housed in plastic pockets within a series of albums, numerically arranged in order as they are acquired. There are now roughly 3000 photographers and images in all. I use directories, newspapers and genealogical information to research the life and work of each photographer and their studio but there aren't enough hours in the day. This photo is one of my collection, chosen for the gentle expression in the face of the sitter.

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