Instant photography, nostalgia, and the paranormal
A wild ride through nostalgia about instant photography, the pitfalls of both analog and digital photography, the weirdly zeitgeisty history of the Polaroid Corporation, and the search for images we can "trust."
Table of Contents
A wild ride through nostalgia about instant photography, the pitfalls of both analog and digital photography, the weirdly zeitgeisty history of the Polaroid Corporation, and the search for images we can "trust."
- My attempts to doctor Polaroid photos
- Spirit photography
- Computational photography
This is the written version of an episode of Buried Secrets Podcast, which you can also listen to here or on your favorite podcatcher.
Spirit photography has a long and troubled history. When the subject comes up, my first thought is of hoaxers like William H. Mumler and William Hope, whose photographs were debunked in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. Much of the early belief in spirit photography seemed to rely on people not understanding the new technology of photography. Back then, people didn't know about how easy it was to doctor photos and shoot double exposures. (See also: the endearingly fake Cottingley fairy photos.)
Nowadays, we know how easy it is to Photoshop an image; we understand that photographs can be deceptive. How can you trust a digital photo that you know can be easily modified? Also, in an age when people are heavily filtering images that they post online, and maybe even making cosmetic changes to own their appearance in photographs, we have been trained not to trust pictures. We know that's trivially easy to fake things in digital photographs.
Instant photography's allure
Maybe this is my own nostalgia talking, but there's always been a certain appeal to instant photography. It's incredibly immediate and physical. You take the photograph, the camera spits out a packet of glossy paper and chemicals, and in ten minutes or so, it's developed into a picture.
Polaroid photos immediately allow you to have a keepsake of a particular moment in time. They provide a physical reminder of where you just were, who you were with, or what just occurred. I love bringing my Polaroid or Fujifilm camera on trips, because it's nice to have that physical souvenir of a place, rather than just a bunch of smartphone photos.
In the interest of full disclosure: I don't consider myself a photography expert by any means. (I barely count as a competent amateur.) But I have been using a Fujifilm Instax Mini 8 camera for about eight years, and a Polaroid Now I-Type camera for the last two years, so I have a decent amount of experience using two types of instant cameras. (Based on what I've seen online, the Fujifilm Instax line seems to be more popular than the more expensive and—in my limited experience, at least—more glitchy Polaroid Now line.)
Even in the age of digital photography, and despite their limitations, I'm always amazed by instant photos because they're tangible objects that I get to hold in my hand. They aren't digital detritus like the photos that pile up on our phones. They feel real. They are real. (Whether or not the images they show are real.)
Instant photos feel real
So when trying to create a record of something as insubstantial as a ghost, of course it makes sense to want to do that through a physical means. Because, again, instant photographs allow you to take a particular moment in time—something that can only be experienced by being there physically—and turn it into an artifact immediately.
I think there's something in the desire to try to capture a non-corporeal entity like a ghost in an incredibly physical and immediate form of media. It almost feels like a way to "prove" the existence of ghost.
In addition to being harder to fake than digital photography, a Polaroid of a ghost or paranormal phenomena translates an insubstantial thing into a very real-feeling photograph. It literally takes the image of the ghost from the theoretical, invisible, untouchable realm of the unknown and turns it into a physical photograph that you can hold. The desire to want to catalog your paranormal experiences using Polaroids makes complete sense. If you see a potentially paranormal anomaly in your instant photo, it feels like the phenomena is more real because it was captured in the picture.
So it makes sense that instant photography has become increasingly popular when trying to photograph ghosts. After all, where's the room for fakery when an image is immediately output in a physical form?
Well, it turns out there are multiple ways to manipulate instant photos, and there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of them as paranormal evidence, which I'll go into below.
There are people who I respect who have a lot of faith in instant photography, so I'm not ready to dismiss it as evidence of the paranormal. I'm always ready to be convinced that I'm wrong, so it's very possible that in the future I might come across a compelling reason to trust instant photography as a reliable ghost hunting tool. Personally, I absolutely believe that spirit photography is possible (with both film and digital cameras). It just isn't very probable, and it's easy to fake, so my first thought is always that an image probably isn't real.
I'm not really interested in debunking or casting doubt on the use of instant photography in paranormal investigation (though I think it's helpful to know any tool's limitations). However, if instant photography is vulnerable to manipulation, and that fact is well known and accessible via a simple online search, then why would such an unreliable medium be so trusted in ghost hunting?
At least part of that answer is nostalgia. Whether instant cameras are reliable for ghost hunting or not, it's obvious that they're popular. I've seen so many aesthetic images of ghost hunting kits that include Polaroid cameras. And even knowing what I now know about Polaroid manipulations, I understand the impulse to trust an instant photo over a digital one. It just feels more real.
The unreality of digital photography
It's incredible that digital photography is so accessible now. But the fact that we carry around smartphones that are capable of taking great pictures can make those images feel cheap, ordinary, and somewhat... unreal.
Unless you pay for a cloud service that backs up your photos as you take them, you could lose all of your recent shots if you lose your phone. Or you could be like me: I had an external hard drive fail and lost several years worth of photographs in an instant. There's something chilling and alienating about a part of the visual history of your life being wiped out. Those lost photographs (most of my pictures from 2012/2013 until about 2017) still upset and haunt me. So I think I have a particular ambivalence for digital photos; in the back of my head, I always feel like they could all disappear in an instant.
But whether or not you've ever lost your phone or had a hard drive crash, there is something ghostly and untrustworthy about digital pictures. At their core, they are insubstantial, simple to modify, and easily lost.
All that being said, instant photographs can be more easily manipulated than you might think (check out this 2008 forum thread, where commenters offer some possible debunkings of ghostly Polaroids).
While I was researching this, I found a list of fifteen reasons why Polaroids are making a comeback, and was surprised to find that reason number seven was that Polaroid photos are "Easy to Manipulate." According to the article, which was published on thephotographyprofessor.com:
If you are still interested in doing some post-production type editing on your photos, you are in luck. There are all kinds of techniques you can use to manipulate your pictures, and some of them can be really unique. This is just one more benefit of using Polaroids for artsier photos.
One of the techniques you can use to customize your photos is pushing around the chemicals underneath the photo paper before they have fully developed. When the image appears on the paper, the fixer is still working so the chemicals can be moved around with a cotton swab or a pencil. This can create some incredibly unique effects.
Another technique you can use is exposing the photo to more light before the fixer has finished working. By shining a flashlight or other light source onto the image, you will double expose the film and create elements that would not have otherwise been in the picture.
There's even a Wikipedia page detailing ways to manipulate Polaroids (Though it does note that newer Polaroid film is more difficult to manipulate than the older film types, which are no longer being manufactured.)
As the picture develops, modifications can performed by applying pressure on the surface of the film, using tools that do not scratch the outer plastic layer. Alternatively a pattern can be superimposed on the image by laying the film face-down on a textured surface and applying pressure.
I also found an interview with a photographer on uniquephoto.com that went into more detail about ways to manipulate Polaroids:
After the print comes out of the camera, you have some time as it develops when the emulsion and the developer paste underneath are soft and manipulable. You can use a simple tool like a regular dried-up ballpoint pen and push the emulsion around, break it up, or push right down through the image to the black backing. Heating or cooling the print as it develops can affect it, too.
Is Polaroid manipulation possible on new cameras?
That's what I asked myself after writing a couple blog posts about manipulating instant photos. I own a modern Polaroid camera from 2021, so I decided to do some experiments.
I followed the instructions in the articles I just read from. Here's what I tried:
- folding and massaging the images while they were developing.
- shining lights into certain parts of the image. (I punched holes in a black piece of paper, put that over a developing Polaroid photo, and then shined a bright lamp over it, so the light hit just those punched-out bits of the photo.)
- using an eraser to apply pressure to different parts of the image
Did any of it work?
No, not really.
- My first experiment just tore one of the layers within the photo, leaving a slightly ragged looking hole in the image under the plastic film. (But it was really barely noticeable.)
- I saw no results from shining light in specific parts of the image
- I can barely see the lines I drew on the photo using the eraser. I'm not sure whether I'm just seeing residue from the eraser or a change in the emulsion.
So that means that modern Polaroid film can't be doctored to fake paranormal results?
Like I mentioned, my camera is consistently inconsistent in how it renders images. Many, many photographs taken under ideal conditions contain weird artifacts in various parts of the frame. That's not something I'm doing intentionally, but, still, some of my photos look really weird for technical, non-paranormal reasons. And I'm sure I'm not the only one.
Also, if you're taking pictures under non-ideal-conditions, weird stuff happens.
- Exposing developing photos to sunlight can mess up the development process (for me, they usually end up blown out and overexposed.)
- If you're taking pictures in temperatures of less than 55 degrees Fahrenheit, images will start to look blue and (in my experience) a bit streaky. In the heat, photos can develop with an orangish cast.
- If you do something, like, say, drop your camera in just such a way that the film cartridge falls out, you can get all sorts of weird effects. (Obviously speaking from experience here.)
Also, some cameras, like mine, offer double-exposure options. So you could easily mimic the original nineteenth-century double-exposure hoaxed spirit photographs, as well.
Why do we feel so nostalgic about Polaroids?
As someone who was born in the 1980s, instant photography holds a special place in my heart—Polaroid-branded instant cameras in particular.
In the course of doing this research, I realized that there are some compelling and interesting reasons why people might feel so nostalgic about Polaroids aside from "I remember them from my childhood." So I wanted to pause and explore them here.
The history of Polaroid
The Polaroid Corporation was founded in 1939 and rolled out the very first instant camera, the Land Camera in 1948.
Polaroid enjoyed decades on top of the instant photography world. Though it faced a slow decline starting in the late 1970s into the 1980s, it reached its peak revenue in 1991. Over the following decade, things got gloomier for the company, which finally declared bankruptcy in 2001. The company slowly trundled along after that, before finally stopping production of their analog instant film in 2008.
While I was reading about their corporate history, I realized that the dates in their story feel significant.
They read like a list of watershed dates from the last 85 years: They released the first instant camera during that initial blush of postwar American prosperity. They were a 20th century icon that declined as the world shifted between the 1970s to the 1990s. The company finally faceplanted in the year 2001 (a year that marked a major turning point, societally, from the optimism of the new millennium to the chaos and ennui following 9/11). Then they shut things down in 2008 (the year the Great Recession began making major headlines.)
Nostalgia is soothing
I'm sure someone could do a fascinating, detailed analysis charting the rise and fall of Polaroid and what it says about society, but to me, I see two things: uncertainty and change. Nostalgia erupts during times of change, and many people (myself included) self-soothe with nostalgia.
Because the timeline of the original Polaroid Corporation hits the big beats of change during the late 20th century into the 2000s, it strikes me as a particularly nostalgic brand.
Also, for people my age, instant photography is something that we remember from our childhood; for a long time, before the brand was resurrected, Polaroids were bygone tech from a bygone era.
It's easy to look at 1991, Polaroid's financial peak, and say "wow, things were so different in the early 90s; the world feels so much more complex now" (especially if you, like me, were a child at the time). Or you could look at 2001 and think about the dot-com bubble and think about how the late 1990s and early 2000s was a time of unparalleled (if foolish) optimism about technology. It's easy to look back at 2001 and think, wow, we had no idea what was coming; we were blissfully unaware. In both 1991 and 2001, everything was about to change in unimaginable ways.
Or you can look at 2008, which was defined by the existential horror of the Great Recession (though there was also an undercurrent of hope that many people felt at the time of Obama's election). 2008—especially early 2008, before the big crash in September—was a last glimmer of optimism, which was about to be snuffed out.
So when think of Polaroids, I'm brought back to the "idyllic" time before our hopes (as a society) were dashed. Maybe you feel the same way or—particularly if you're younger than me—maybe you have a vaguer sense of the vibes during the 90s and 00s, but you still recognize that faint sheen of optimism that coats the technology of that time.
Polaroid Corporation doesn't exist anymore (though, to be clear, I'm not one to mourn the demise of large corporate powers). Instead, the brand has been revived by a company called The Impossible Project, which was founded in 2008 to produce Polaroid film after Polaroid stopped making it. Impossible now does business as Polaroid B.V., but is more commonly called just Polaroid.
Polaroids and ghost hunting
In theory, I'm not convinced that there's a valid technical reason to trust instant photos over digital ones. It seems like if a ghost can be captured by an analog camera, it can be captured by a digital one. At least that's what I thought when I originally started doing this research.
The only justification I could think of is just a general tendency to trust analog devices more when it comes to ghost hunting. And that's what I'm trying to suss out right now: is there a real reason to believe that analog devices are better for paranormal investigation? Or is something else (nostalgia? alienation and mistrust of tech?) motivating the tendency to trust retro devices over contemporary ones?
Accidentally overriding reality: untrustworthy and automatically faked photos
While thinking and writing about instant photography as paranormal evidence, I came across a number of articles talking about how digital photography—especially smartphone photography—is beginning to feel less and less reliable. In fact, it turns out that in some circumstances, you can't trust the pictures that you take on your phone.
Two news stories illustrate this nicely.
The first is about Samsung's photo "enhancements" (which I'll get to in a sec).
The second is about how people thought that they were cropping out or redacting sensitive information on screen grabs on their Google Pixel phones because it looked like the images were cropped or redacted. But years later, it's been revealed that the "redacted" data was still available in the file and can be retrieved. That means that credit card numbers, names, addresses, and other sensitive information has been compromised. (By the way, [a second "acropalypse" bug was also found on Window devices, as well—another strike against feeling like you can trust the images on your devices.](https://www.msn.com/en-us/news/technology/oops-windows-screenshot-tool-may-be-saving-stuff-you-cropped-out-too/ar-AA18UGx3 Images aren't quite what they seem.))
Fakery in smartphone photography
Most of this episode has been about instant photographs, which tend to be as analog as can be.
On the other end of the spectrum, there's computational photography, which Wikipedia describes as image capture and processing techniques that use digital computation rather than optical methods.
It turns out that computational photography can modify the images we photograph with smartphone cameras in various ways.
An article in The Verge sums up the recent Samsung computational photography controversy well:
This week, Samsung drew criticism for the technology its newer phones use to “enhance” photos of the Moon. A user on Reddit, ibreakphotos, conducted an experiment by creating a blurred photo of the Moon and then taking a picture of it using their Galaxy S23 Ultra. Even though the photo was completely blurry, their Samsung device appeared to add details to the image that weren’t there before, like craters and other marks, calling into question whether the highly detailed Moon photos people have been taking with their Galaxy devices really are photos of the Moon.
The Verge article is a fascinating read; not only does it document the Samsung moon-augmentation scandal, but it also talks about how many, many images of the moon that we see have been modified.
Part of that is because it's so easy to do these days:
And while faking the night sky once involved “sandwiching negatives, doing things in the darkroom,” as Nordgren says, it’s become far easier and more prevalent in the age of Photoshop.
“One of the biggest things people do is sky replacements,” Lynsey Schroeder, a professional astrophotographer tells The Verge. “They’ll take the Milky Way from a different photo and Photoshop it in so that it looks like it was there.” An expert would immediately know that it’s fake. “But to the general public, they don’t know.”
As someone who's reworked plenty of photos in Photoshop, I can say that this sort of photo manipulation is trivially easy. As popular apps like Facetune allow people to easily modify photos on their mobile devices, people have learned to trust digital photography less and less.
But Samsung's wholesale replacement of the moon in photos—using a "deep-learning-based AI detail enhancement engine"—strikes me as a step beyond that.
Samsung has apparently been using AI in their cameras since the Galaxy S10, and their "Scene Optimizer" technology since the Galaxy S21 series. Though I can tell you that pictures of the moon on my Galaxy S22+ still look like garbage. So they've clearly made some major changes for their latest devices. Either that, or I guess I gotta try using my phone's 100x zoom, which I had no idea existed before I did this research.
It's one thing for someone to decide to modify their own photographs; it's another for apps themselves to rework images in the process of capturing them without the user's consent or knowledge.
In the case of someone photographing the moon and getting a completely different image, there was never a "real," unedited version of the image. You can't revert between the edited and original versions; the edit is the only one that exists.
Samsung isn't the only company that has introduced "computational photography" into its cameras. Apple's live photos and portrait mode could be considered computational photography, and as AppleInsider points out, "users are beginning to ask where to draw the line between these algorithms and something more intrusive, like post-capture pixel alteration."
This raises so many questions, but the problem of memory resonates the most to me.
Many people (myself included) use smartphone photos as an aide-mémoire. I'll often take pictures not because something is beautiful or because I'm expressing myself artistically, but because I want to remember something. I'm not going to post that image to Instagram, but I will scroll back in my phone, see the timestamped, unaesthetic mirror selfie in a venue bathroom, and think "oh, right, that's the day that I went to that concert."
For me, the visual information that I collect in the form of photos is more for constructing and preserving my memories than anything else.
So my question is: If our everyday smartphone photos help us remember reality and our pasts, what happens when, unbeknownst to us, our cameras are modifying the images?
It becomes a form of memory modification. At that point, you aren't the arbiter of your own memories; the images on your phone can override your recollections.
As AppleInsider eloquently puts it, "the final image doesn't represent what the sensor detected and the algorithm processed. It represents an idealized version of what might be possible but isn't because the camera sensor and lens are too small."
There's something truly chilling about that.
So here we are, in a place where large tech corporations have the power to override reality—and perhaps even our very memories. No wonder instant photography, despite its limitations, feel like one of the best ways to access paranormal realities. They could even be one of the best ways to access our mundane reality and our own memories.
Analog photos in a digital world
This raises other questions when it comes to paranormal photography.
If smartphone cameras are increasingly depicting "idealized" images of the world, smoothing out anomalies and removing deviations from what an computer might consider "normal," what does that mean for paranormal photography?
Is it possible that phone cameras might capture paranormal phenomena, but the AI in the phone's camera wipes that out, replacing it with "expected" reality?
Or could strangeness seep in anyway, through synchronicity and glitches?
It's funny—when I originally wrote the blog posts that became this episode, I was ready to debunk instant photography in particular but analog photography in general. I was ready to say that a preference for analog photography in ghost hunting is nostalgic at best and dishonest at worst.
But now I'm not so sure. As computational photography continues to dominate our picture-making, will our only hope of capturing anomalies be old-school, analog photography?
Earlier versions of parts of this episode come from my blog posts about instant photography and paranormal investigation, why we feel nostalgic about Polaroids, and accidentally overriding reality.
Want more paranormal nostalgia? Check out my episode about spirit boxes and paranormal nostalgia or some of the other things I've written about nostalgia.
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