Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

I just stumbled upon some online galleries of 19th-century “headless” photographs, in which the human subjects seem to be decapitated.

The first link came from Twitter, and then I started clicking away until I found this and this and this. Oh, and old-time “spirit” photographs and a collection of vintage kitty cats.

Now, earlier this year I learned from Rob Gibson how the “spirit” photographs were made: Two people would pose for the first half of an exposure, and then the photographer would put the lens cap back on while one of the people moved out of the field of view. Then the photographer would make the second half of the exposure. In the resulting image, one person would look “solid” and the other “ethereal.”

Some of the “headless” photographs definitely look like paper-image cut-and-paste jobs. Others … it’s a little harder to discern. I know one commenter wrote, “Glass plates or it didn’t happen!” But paper calotypes would have been easier to cut and manipulate, don’t you think?

At any rate, these historical photographs give us some insight into what our ancestors considered humorous, believable, shocking, or just plain bizarre.

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