On May 15, 1934, a man named Mr. C.P. MacCarthy of Sheffield sent a letter confirming a meeting where he would “demonstrate under test conditions Fake Psychic Photography.” Decades later, his lantern slides of “supposedly paranormal and unknown forces caught on camera” turned up in the collections of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, which recently uploaded the profoundly strange photographs to their Flickr Commons.
A scan of the letter is included, where MacCarthy writes his “Psychic Photography From A New Angle” discussion will “indicate the increasing scope for fraud with the advancement of science — though not to disprove the probability of genuine Spirit Photography.” That last comment showing he was something of a believer. Tyne & Wear explains that not much “is currently known of the Psychic demonstration. Who sat on the invited committee? Who was Mr MacCarthy? Why was he investigating Psychic Photography?”
All we have to go on are the lantern slides, yet standing alone they are an unsettling, surreal assortment. Even out of context, each implies the intervention of something supernatural, whether it’s a shawl hovering against darkness, or text reading “Kate Fox,” a likely reference to Kate of the famous Fox Sisters mediums. As a commenter points out, one of the slides reproduces William Henry Fox Talbot’s 1835 shot of a window at Lacock Abbey, known as the oldest surviving photographic negative. It’s possible others might be culled from sources lost to time.
MacCarthy wasn’t alone in demonstrating against psychic photography. Harry Houdini created a debunking spirit photograph of himself with Abraham Lincoln, and publicly warred with believers like Arthur Conan Doyle, who got taken in by the “Cottingley Fairies” photos supposedly showing two girls with the mythical sprites. MacCarthy would have been right on the edge of this fad for psychic photography, but in the growing shadow of imaging technology, new possibilities may very well have implied the opening of portals to the unknown.