Photographing History: Investigating a Ghost at the White House

Photographing History: Investigating a Ghost at the White House

1950s image alleged to be a ghost

An interesting photograph circulating for a few years now on websites and blogs is purported to be a ghostly figure at the White House. Near the center of the photo you can quite clearly see what appears to be a man; the only problem is that you can see through him. According to sources, the photo was taken by a former National Park Service employee, White House photographer Abbie Rowe, during massive renovations on May 25, 1950. It first caught the eye of a man named Bob Martin while reading David McCullough’s book Truman. Since then, it has been spread around as a ghost photo.

At first glance, this seems like an intriguing image. I’m sure plenty of people see it and think it’s undeniably a ghost. That wasn’t my initial reaction, and knowing it was a government photograph only helped confirm in my mind that this is likely a very mundane image. Why is that? Well, let’s just say that I’ve seen something similar before and had it explained to me by an expert.

Years ago while researching local Ohio hauntings, I stumbled across a series of photographs of Jaite Paper Mill in Sagamore Hills Township, Ohio, just three miles away from the house where I grew up. In my background research, I found an archive from the Historic American Engineering Record – a federal program which has documented hundreds of old buildings and other manmade structures of historical and architectural significance across the country – showing drawings and photos of the building shortly after it closed. One photo in particular caught my eye, I was excited at the possibility of having found a ghost caught on film by a photographer hired by the government. The image, taken in 1984 by Jet Lowe, showed a transparent man in the old paper mill.

Lowe’s photo inside Jaite showing “ghost” at left

I wondered if Mr. Lowe knew what he had captured, so after extensive digging I found his email address and sent him a polite email with the image attached, asking about the “anomaly.” I was in luck; Mr. Lowe wrote back. “Good eye!” he said. It was a ghost, but not the supernatural type. This “ghost” is a photography accident. He explained that to take the images, he set up his camera with a long shutter time and walked around with a flash bulb, illuminating dark areas of the rooms. If a photographer takes just a little too long to move, his image is forever imprinted on the film. This figure wasn’t a dead factory worker. It was Jet Lowe himself!

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Second Jaite photo with multiple “ghosts”

Although these images were taken over thirty years apart, photographic techniques used by professionals were very similar in both decades. And there’s another slight giveaway: the shadows on the ground. In the White House photo, the ground directly in front of the “ghost” is extremely bright, as if lit by a flash. In the Jaite photograph, it’s more difficult to see that distinction, but it’s a little clearer in a second photograph Mr. Lowe mentioned, taken the same day at Jaite. At the bottom right, you can see Jet Lowe once again, holding a large object (containing the flash) as he brightens up the far right side of the photo. He moved several times, so there are three separate “ghosts” close to each other.

Full 1950 Rowe photograph of renovation

Were it not for tracking down the original photographer, I could have spent the next decade believing this was proof that Jaite Paper Mill was a haunted place. And I learned valuable information about photography that day. But does that mean this is the explanation for the White House ghostly image? Perhaps. It could even be a worker who paused there to see what the photographer was doing (as the other observers to his left seem to be doing) before going back to work. Some people claim that it can’t be the result of a long exposure because the other figures are so clear. But when you look at the whole photograph, you can see at least three blurred workers just left of center in the image.

The only person who can give the full story is Abbie Rowe. Unfortunately, Mr. Rowe died on April 17, 1967. Without his commentary, this falls under the category of “unexplained,” but judging by the rest of the photograph, it’s nothing paranormal.


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12 Comments

  1. Kaer

    12/13/2011 at 5:58 PM

    Fantastic research! It would be nice if ghost hunters were this thorough with their “investigations”.

  2. Patty R.

    12/21/2011 at 1:52 AM

    While at the Fairfield County, Ohio library one day I came upon a book about Zoar, Ohio and it´s beginnings. On the front was a photo of a big building with big windows and there were people out in front of it standing for a photo. To the far left was the image of a girl though you could see through her. I showed it to the librarian for her viewpoint as to why it looked that way and another older librarian came to see it too. She told us that in the first days of cameras the shutter stayed open and everyone had to freeze in place for some minutes for the image to be recorded on the plate. The girl most likely stood there for a time and got too antsy to stay still so she most likely left, which caught enough of her image to make it see-thru. If I remember rightly, the people in the photo had blurs next to their heads, most likely where they moved a bit while the image was being recorded.
    An old photo of my husband´s family is of the Adelphi, Ohio Methodist Church. In it is what appears to be a see thru man wearing an overlay of lace almost to his knees. My father in law said that no one at that church ever wore anything like that. Nothing else in the photo shows any hit of anything else strange in the photo though. The man in the photo that´s see-thru is holding one of those long brass things that candles are lit with and put out. I think a Catholic acolite uses these and also wears lace that looks like that. I told my husband that as I´d seen one of these Catholic services where this was used by young men wearing lace. He told me that this church had never been Catholic and had never been used by anyone for a Catholic service of any kind.

  3. Joe Burkhart

    07/28/2012 at 1:35 AM

    Visual transparency of a suggested bipedal humanoid form complete with wardrobe style clothing indicative of a working class man from that same time period?

    I’ll place my money on it being an authentic ghost.

    • Ken Summers

      07/28/2012 at 8:12 AM

      A very reasonable assumption to make. Much better than the easily-explained long exposure time. When in doubt, GHOST!!

  4. XDisk

    02/26/2013 at 9:46 AM

    As an amateur photographer, my first thought was “long exposure, someone moved”.

    Happens a lot.

    X.

  5. John Whyman

    05/27/2013 at 1:13 PM

    It is implausible that the ghost figure is due to a long exposure time. The people cannot stand still long enough to avoid blurring their image.

    • Ken Summers

      05/27/2013 at 1:27 PM

      It’s not that implausible, actually. We’re not talking about standing perfectly still for minutes, only seconds. Standing still and staring at one spot for 3-5 seconds is not an unfathomable feat and is all that would be required to create a transparent “ghost image”. Lowe–the professional government photographer I spoke to who showed up in his own photos occasionally as a ghost–was only wandering around with a flash bulb, pausing to set off the flash here and there to be captured without much blurring.

      If you look at these and other old images, you’ll notice some people are blurred while others aren’t. You can tell the amount of movement each person as doing at the time… and yes, there are other people in this very White House photo of you examine it. Those who are caught in the act of working are blurred.

      • John Whyman

        05/27/2013 at 3:44 PM

        Also consider that the faded figure does not indicate any movement. My major in college was photography yet I am not familiar with using multiple c1950 flash units but if that is the case, there would have no need for a long exposure. The ASA of the film needs to be considered as well. This photo appears to be prime evidence of ghosts.

        • Ken Summers

          05/27/2013 at 4:57 PM

          Yes, that faded figure doesn’t indicate movement (i.e. standing still), unlike the blurred figure on the left side (only legs are really visible(i.e. someone moving around working).

          If this is prime evidence of a ghost, then Mr. Lowe is heading up his own conspiracy to hide ghosts at Jaite mill (in the other 2 photos included in this article) and pretending to be the person/ghost/thing in the images. Instead of as he told me–that it was a longer exposure and he set off a flash bulb at several spots to expose all parts of the dark rooms–he used one astoundingly bright flash which picked up a ghost on two out of a dozen or more photos.

          In the Jaite images–which are not blurry either–Lowe stated that it was himself, caught while paused in one spot a bit too long setting off the flash bulb. So, instead of a similar situation where Mr. Rowe was captured by his own camera while setting off a flash, this has to be a ghost instead?

        • Ken Summers

          05/27/2013 at 5:28 PM

          A little background on Lowe: John T. “Jet” Lowe has been a photographer for over 42 years, spending the past 35 as a photographer for the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER). He holds an MVA in Photography from Georgia State University (along with a Bachelors in Art History and an MS in Industrial Archaeology). He currently lives in Baltimore. At my time of contact some 7 or 8 years ago, his email was [email protected].

    • Ken Summers

      05/27/2013 at 1:32 PM

      In the photo, you’ll notice bright star-like lights. I’m quite certain those are flash bulbs set off by the photographer in the darker areas to brighten them up. So this photo captures the moment PLUS several other moments when he walked around setting off the flashes.

  6. Joyce Small

    02/02/2016 at 2:59 PM

    I don’t know whatever possessed me to come
    to this website about ghostly sightings
    at the White House but I sure am glad I did.
    Some of these ethereal beings are so obvious.
    Great job.

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