Ghost images. An illusion of the afterlife?

Do these intriguing pictures show evidence of the paranormal or is there a more rational explanation?

The Yorkshire Post picture archive contains some fascinating glimpses into the Victorian era but occasionally these photographs appear to show something that could be described as ‘spooky’.

Close examination of certain photographs reveal transparent and blurred images of people and objects that look as though they were never really there in the first place.

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Ghosts? Phantoms? A gateway to the afterlife? In some ways it would be nice to think so but in reality these tantalising spectres are a result of the early photographic techniques used at the time.

Leeds, Town Hall, 1858.

Today, using the cameras housed in our smartphones we can photograph just about anything.

It doesn’t matter how dim the scene is, something can always be captured in an instant.

Back in the late Victorian era though, things were very different.

Photographs from this time were recorded on a chemical layer painted onto the surface of a piece of glass.

Known as glass plate photography, this process meant that a huge amount of light had to be captured before an image could be made because the chemicals involved were incredibly insensitive compared to the lightning speed of modern day sensors.

The way to produce a photograph was to expose the plate to light for a long time resulting in a single exposure that could be several minutes long.

Then the lens cap or shutter was closed and the plate removed for developing.

Of course, it was impossible for the photographer to stop movement in the scene during the exposure but because the film was so slow the subjects had to be in the scene for quite a while before their image registered on the glass plate.

If they passed through quickly they may not be recorded at all and this explains why many Victorian photographs have a certain ‘emptiness’ to them.

One of the most intriguing photographs in our collection is the one of Leeds Town Hall under construction.

There are many ‘ghosts’ in this picture.

There is quite obviously a group of people standing on the right of the picture who seem to be looking up at the unfinished bell tower.

In the foreground there are suggestions of movement but maybe the most interesting ‘ghost’ is the man wearing a top hat standing on the pavement at the front of the building.

The architect himself perhaps?

Our photograph of the Rose and Crown in 1888 shows a girl in a voluminous skirt standing just in front of Foster’s shop window as another man walks in front of her.

More strikingly, a frightening ‘spectre’ stares out of the square window of Hyam & Co. in our photograph of Bridge End, Leeds.

This does indeed resemble a shock frame from a contemporary horror film. A ghostly woman with a clutch of ghostly children but in reality a family fascinated by the prospect of being captured by our cameraman.

One of the best examples in our collection is the picture of Boar Lane in 1869 where a horse and carriage has stopped outside the Bank Street warehouse.

Stopped just long enough, in fact, for the buttons on the driver’s tunic to register on the glass plate.

There is at least one other ‘phantom’ to spot in this picture. He looks as though he is just about to step in front of the horse.

This type of optical illusion doesn’t have to be consigned to antique photographs.

A modern camera with the ability to create long exposures can be used to replicate the effect and indeed the ‘night shot’ mode built into modern devices often throws up the same kind of phenomenon.

It goes without saying that imaging applications such as Photoshop do the job all the more impressively.

The blurred and indistinct figures of today may become the ghosts of the future.