In the late 19th century, spirit photography became popular amongst individuals who believed spirits could be caught on camera. These images were created through double-exposure photography and experimentation, often using uncleaned photographic plates and preexposed images to have the appearance of ghostly figures. Since then, double-exposure photography has come a long way, and what began as a way to capture images of departed friends and relatives is now a form of creative expression.
Double Exposure Photography: How It’s Done
Before digital cameras were invented, double exposure photography was either done in camera (with no way to rely on post-processing) or in the darkroom. Regardless of which method the photographer relied on, it was difficult to create a beautiful double-exposed image.
Today, some higher-end digital cameras can create double exposures right in the camera, with an LCD screen that shows you the result as soon as you take it. There’s no guesswork and no laboring away in the darkroom. If you aren’t lucky enough to own one of the cameras that can do it for you, Adobe Photoshop makes it extremely easy to layer images on top of each other with a couple of clicks of the mouse. This makes it simple for anyone from an amateur photographer to a seasoned expert to create interesting double exposures.
From Gjon Mili, Duane Michals, and Jerry Uelsmann in the age of film to newer photographers such as Freeman Patterson and Tamara Lichtenstein, here are some examples of how double-exposure photography can be used to create spectacular images.
1. Gjon Mili
An Albanian photographer who is known for his years of contribution to Life magazine, Gjon Mili is most well-known for his photographs that illustrate human movement through the use of external flashes. He was one of the first photographers to use stroboscopic photography – the use of a specially timed external light source to capture a sequence of motion. Many of his photographs have an eerie quality to them, one that seemingly could only be created through the use of multiple exposures.
Gjon Mili is unique in the sense that although he didn’t use multiple exposures to create his images, he was the inspiration for many photographers who became interested in double-exposure photography after him.
2. Jerry Uelsmann
Jerry Uelsmann, an award-winning American photographer known for his surreal montage photographs, used double-exposure photography to contribute to his unique approach of layering images.
Ueslman combined elements from various photographs to create new, dreamlike images, creating everything from a study with no roof to a transparent box floating over the ocean – all without the use of a tool like Photoshop. At times, Uelsmann even used multiple double exposures to get the desired effect.
3. Freeman Patterson
Freeman Patterson takes an interesting, unique approach to double exposure photography, straying away from the eerie and surrealist qualities of the technique and instead using it to create photographs that look like Impressionist paintings.
Impressionism is a style of painting that originated in the 19th century and was used to attempt to capture the changing effects of light and color over a period of time. Patterson uses two exposures of the same image, layered on top of each other yet shifted slightly, to give the same Impressionist feeling to his images.
4. Lee Kirby
Lee Kirby, like Gjon Mili (although much more modern), does not actually use the technique of double exposure in his images, yet the images themselves are inspired by photographers who have used double exposures in the past.
Instead of layering images on top of one another, Lee Kirby uses a projector to project the second image onto his subjects in a sort of real-life double exposure. In many of his photographs, Kirby combines the use of projection with blurred movement to create images that sometimes look more like paintings than portraits.
5. Duane Michals
Duane Michals is an American-born photographer who uses the technique of double exposure to create images that are dreamlike, whimsical, and a little eerie at times. His fascination with the dream state also extends into his fascination with creating and preserving memories, a theme that is seen in one of his well-known books, Sequences.
In this book, his photographs and double-exposed images are coupled with hand-written text that reveals more about his life and what the images mean to him.
6. Philippe Halsman
It is very likely that you have come across the famous surreal portrait of Salvador Dali jumping in the air while water flows across the composition and cats seem to be suspended in mid-air. This portrait was due to the artistic mind of Philippe Halsmann, of which Dali was a favorite subject.
In collaboration with Dali, Halsmann created an entire book entitled Dali’s Mustache, in which he cuts up negatives, enlarges portions of images, and uses double exposure to create unusual portraits of the surrealist artist.
7. Tamara Lichtenstein
Tamara Lichtenstein, a modern double-exposure photographer, focuses on taking portraits that are filled with happiness, beauty, youth, and sunny days.
8. Christoffer Relander
Christoffer Relander’s photographs are a prime example of what we can do with modern technology. His series of photographs, We Are Nature, is a series of stunningly beautiful double and triple exposures that are (almost unbelievably) done completely in-camera, with post-processing only being used for some tonal changes.
We Are Nature is a series of portraits of humans that seem as if they are slowly changing into different ferns and trees.
Experimenting with Double-Exposure Photography
Whether you want to use an older film camera to create double exposures in camera or try to manipulate images in photoshop, there are a variety of ways to experiment with double-exposure photography. To get more inspiration from interesting photography techniques, check out our photography student showcase.