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Fade to Brown: The Curious History of a Famous Phantom Photo

Is it possible to see spirits of the deceased? It has long been claimed, after all, that a disembodied spirit–a ghost, in essence–can manifest as an apparition that moves about largely unnoticed, save only for when it becomes visible and frightens any nearby onlookers who happen to catch a glimpse.

Of course, one can only guess by what means by which such an apparition might become a tangible form and materialize in this way. On the other hand, for many, those things which the eye cannot see may become visible using other method; primarily this would entail the use of sophisticated technology that enhances one’s natural ability to perceive worlds beyond.

And yet, it has long been the claim that something so simple as photographic process of capturing light on film may be useful in revealing the presence of invisible specters in an environment. Such was the case with a very famous haunt alleged to reside at a large manor in Norfolk, Great Britain, known as The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall after the dark colored dress she wore. For year, many have claimed a photograph that allegedly shows her descending a staircase may be some of the best proof of her existence, as well as that of spirits in general. But despite the appearance of an apparition in the picture, were the circumstances under which the ghost was allegedly photographed truly reliable?

The story goes that a photographer, Captain Hubert C. Provand, was commissioned by Country Life Magazine in 1936. Though their stated objective had been to photograph the house for an article that would be appearing in the magazine, but during the Captain’s visit, he and his assistant, a Mr. Indre Shira (apparently a pseudonym) had set up the camera aimed at a staircase when the latter spotted an apparition moving down the staircase toward them. He quickly advised Provand to remove the lens cap so that a photo could be taken, and the image that resulted appears to show a woman’s figure descending the staircase.

Famous ghost researcher Harry Price had been convinced that the story the men shared was indeed true, based on conversations he had with them, in addition to examination of the original negative, which appeared to remain un-doctored in any way. And yet, despite the well-known examinations of the photograph, it is less often mentioned that there are a number of things that can be seen in the photo which appear to indicate that, despite not being a “fake,” it was likely an image that had been taken rather poorly.

In 2006, Alan Murdie wrote for the Fortean Times about the strange “anomalies” that one can begin to spot within the famous frame upon close inspection:

Anomalies in the picture become apparent when a light and uncropped copy of the Brown Lady photograph is examined. The anomalies do not centre upon the figure – upon which the eye naturally concentrates – but what is going on in the foreground and background. On the left hand side as the viewer sees the picture, (i.e. on the Brown Lady’s right hand side) hangs a framed picture on the wall. Immediately beneath, seemingly hovering in the air, is a duplicate image of this picture. Equally, when one looks at the length of the banisters, they do not connect, and the angles suggest that the camera has been shaken and the staircase accidentally photographed twice. Several luminous patches are also visible which suggest a doubling of the image throughout.

In other words, the photo originally taken in 1936 by Provand and Shira seems to have a number of defects which shed doubt on the likelihood that the “ghost” in the picture is indeed a spirit of the deceased Lady Dorothy Walpole, as many have speculated over the years. But what is even more odd about the photograph is the way that the image not only has obvious “anomalies,” but that on a few occasions in the past, these have been conveniently cropped out of the photo, and by people with apparent knowledge of the flaws. Does this mean that the flaws were overlooked as insignificant in relation to the “ghost” of Raynham Hall, which the photographers claimed that their image showed? Or were the flaws overlooked intentionally, and despite the clear manner in which they indicated that the “Brown Lady” seen in the image may have indeed simply been an unintentional photographic mishap?

The absolute truth may never be known in relation to the story of The Brown Lady and her famous photo. However, when looking at the entire set of information regarding this case, we do see that there are a number of elements that should bring to question whether the photo could have simply been faulty, rather than the bigger question to which so many tend to gravitate: does life exist after death? Indeed, maybe it does… but as things turn out here, our Brown Lady’s debut may not have been the “proof” we were looking for, after all.

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  • I think I figured it out…

  • Well crud, that was supposed to be a gif.

  • In the following issue of FT, readers pointed out that most of the “flaws” are caused by a landing partway up the staircase, with a matching section of railing. There’s no disconnection in the bannisters, or a duplicate frame on the wall…

  • alanborky

    “Is it possible to see spirits of the deceased?”

    Yes it is Micah and in several forms but even when it’s your own father and you seem to upset him by asking “You do know you’re dead?” all you can really say is if it isn’t him it’s a bloody good impression.

    But then some kids get to find out when they reach adulthood their big sister’s really their mum and their dad’s really their grandad while some even get to find out they’re adopted and no one knows who their ‘real’ parents were or they were leftwing freedom fighters and the couple who brought up their kid to be a rightwing fascists were complicit in their murder.

    While we were waiting to learn whether me Mum was go’n’o die in hospital like me Dad I witnessed a ‘woman’ made of a cloud of gold ‘coins’ come down the stairs and I somehow knew she was go’n’o be alright.

    But whether that apparition really WAS a woman made of gold ‘coins’ and whether she had anything whatsoever to do with me Mum coming home you tell me.

    As for Alan Murdie’s criticism of the banisters that “don’t connect” and the angles which “suggest
    that the camera has been shaken and the staircase accidentally
    photographed twice” well one of the advantage’s of being an artist is you know how the eye works in actuality rather than theory so sometimes can make better sense of visual information than non artists. I suspect he’ll find they don’t connect because there’s a landing between them and the figure “seemingly hovering in the air” in all probability’s a manikin standing on the landing wearing an historically prized dress left behind by Queen Victoria or someone.

    The luminous patches’re probably to do with the architectural fixtures of the period which were designed to be highly reflective to amplify and distribute daylight round a house at a time when domestic electrification was still highly uncommon and candles and lamp oil considered too expensive for daytime use.

    None of which is to say whether the Brown Lady pic’s real or not.

  • Mark Sullivan

    I am an artist and a cabinetmaker, and the observations of “alanborky” are rather accurate. Pictures can be just as deceiving as the human eye. They don’t always portray what is actually”there” very well. Lenses distort perspective. And they don’t see with binocular depth of field like humans eyes do. Surprisingly, my wife is a film lab technician, and has seen some weird anomalies in film. My suspicion is though, that the picture portrays, for reasons still a mystery, what it seems to. A apparition of SOMETHING resembling a woman coming down the stairs.
    I think sometimes we get too clever by half. Sometimes things REALLY are what they seem to be. Remember, according to the two photographers, they noticed something coming down the stairs, then fired the photo. Large format photography, is and was expensive to practice, and one just doesn’t fire off photos will, nilly. They, as far as I know, were never to claim anything like this happened to them again. So lets give these two fellows the benefit of the doubt, from a time long before photoshop, that they actually experianced somthing out of the ordinary.

  • wlrpaul

    the ghost in the image has always looked like a statue of the Virgin Mary to me.

  • “a hovering picture frame” causes the ghost to be IN DOUBT? Wow, someone has crazy reasoning. And where’s the rest of the doubling? why just one other object? Why is the lower half of the wide rather than DOUBLED? Skeptics are dumb atheist morons. Might as well have said it was swamp gas. – Daniel Xavier Knight, friend me on facebook if you can.

  • Brian D. Parsons

    Harry Price and others provided their research to the Society for Psychical Research. Their findings pointed toward this being a hoax perpetrated by a pair of men who were not photographers or the fact that their highly faulty camera produced this image after an underexposed negative and there was obvious shaking of the camera causing the doubling of various parts of the image (modern photographers feel this was actually a double exposure). The file was found years later as the story was dismissed by the SPR and wasn’t publish worthy. Even back in the late 1800s they understood that ghosts were psychic phenomena (hallucinations for lack of a better term) and could not be photographed despite many claims. 100 years later we have forgotten everything we have learned.

  • Dave

    Skeptics are dumb? Well, who am I to argue with such well- thought out, scientific reasoning?

  • J.Griffin

    Incredulity is a certain indication of bias…
    which is NOT a scientific attitude.

    Bias is still bias-
    whichever way it leans or falls.