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Photographic Trust and Psychic Phenomena: Colin Evans and his Famous Levitation Trick

There is a long-standing discussion in studies of spiritualism centred on the credibility of photographic evidence. Can a photograph be trusted as a source of evidence to prove the legitimacy of spiritualism?


A significant amount of material has been written on this topic, and yet despite the extensive coverage it remains one of those topics that people continue to debate when discussing the history of spiritualism


So much of this discussion often focuses on what the photograph shows, and whether we (as the viewer) can trust our perception.


Take for example, this famous photograph of the now disgraced early twentieth-century Welsh medium Colin Evans. It was taken in 1937 at Wortley Hall in Finsbury Park, London.


Photograph of Colin Evans taken at a séance at Wortley Hall in Finsbury Park, London, c. 1937.


During the late 1930s, Evans wowed audiences with his incredible performances. While much of the activities in his séances centred on him supposedly receiving messages from spirits, which he shared with his audiences, the showstopper was his levitation.


At first glance, when the viewer sees the above image, what they perceive seems to be Evans levitating several feet above the ground. It is a spectacular display, but it is a well-curated illusion.


As is often the case with psychic photography, it's not just what the image shows that is important, but also what it doesn’t show. In the case of the Evans photograph, it's the easily missed elements, or those elements that are not visible in the frame, that make the levitation appear real.


For example, what's not clear from the photograph is that the room where Evans performed was completely dark, with almost no visibility. This gave him a tremendous amount of power for creating the ideal conditions to produce his illusion.


What also isn’t clear from the photograph is that there is a camera with a flash set up in the room to capture Evans when he levitated. That in itself is fairly standard for early to mid-twentieth century séances, where cameras and photography was routinely used for collecting data during investigations.


The key difference in the case of Evans is that hidden on his person is a control so that he could choose when to ignite the flash and capture the supposed levitation.



Photograph of Colin Evans taken at a séance at Wortley Hall in Finsbury Park, London, c. 1937.


How the illusion worked was simple. When the flash went off and lit up the room the audience was momentarily blinded. It was in that moment that Evans would jump into the air with his legs tightly together and arms at his side so that when the photograph was taken it would look as though he was levitating in the air.


Evans would explain to his audiences that spirits were responsible for lifting him up. However, it was a fantastic illusion.


If you look closely at the second image again, you can also see that there is a long chord attached to something in Evans’ hand. That is the control that he used to ignite the flash on the camera.


After gaining a lot of positive attention and followers through his popular séances, sceptics started to take notice of his performances. Some of the more experienced sceptical investigators noted that there was a suspicious looking chord in all of the photographs showing his levitations. Moreover, his feet were usually blurred.


What these sceptical observers hypothesised was that Evans used the flash to misdirect his audiences so that he could jump into the air without being noticed to create the levitation effect. The darkened conditions of the séance room were essential for the ruse to succeed.



Photograph of Colin Evans taken at a psychic test at Conway Hall in London, c. 1938.


To test this theory an investigation was held at Conway Hall in London in 1938, and sure enough in the photograph produced during the experiment you can see the chord attached to something in Evans’ hand along with blurry feet.


Today, Evans is remembered as a classic example of a fake medium. But his photographs also serve as useful tools (and reminders) for understanding how fake phenomena can look real if you have a gifted trickster executing them.


Whenever someone uses photographs in spirit or psychic investigations it is important to pay close attention to the full details of the images produced, and not only consider what the photographs show, but also what they don’t show.


REFERENCES


Louis Kaplan, The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.


Peter Lamont, Extraordinary Beliefs: A Historical Approach to a Psychological Problem, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013.


Simone Natale, ‘A Short History of Superimposition: From Spirit Photography to Early Cinema’, Early Popular Visual Culture, 10 (2012), 125–145.


Joe Nickell, Camera Clues: A Handbook for Photographic Investigation, Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2005.


Harry Price, Fifty Years of Psychical Research, London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1939.


Efram Sera-Shriar, ‘Photographic Plates and Spirit Fakes: Remembering Harry Price’s Investigation of William Hope’s Spirit Photography at its Centenary,’ Science Museum Group Journal 17 (2022), 1-25.

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