Photobomb Ghosts At Penumbra

Ann Votaw’s spirit tintype by Jolene Lupo.

I have a soft spot for cemeteries.

Recently, I posted an Instagram photo of a crumbling headstone and got a like from Jolene Lupo, a stranger of the alive variety.

But upon closer inspection of her profile pic—a black and white of a marble-eyed brunette—I wondered if Lupo might not be a phantom.

My sleuthing revealed Lupo was not a hallucination but the tintype studio manager of Penumbra Foundation, a Manhattan nonprofit dedicated to historical photography. The more I scrolled through her feed, the more I became enchanted with tintypes—kind-of like metal Polaroids of the mid-1800s.

As the child of antique fanatics, I grew up going to flea markets. Yet I was familiar with tintypes of whiskered soldiers, not the bearded hipsters I saw on Penumbra’s accounts.

Penumbra’s tintype of Jake Gyllenhaal created a stunning cover for a recent edition of Deadline Magazine. A headshot of Al Roker made the newscaster seem less like a weatherman and more like a long-lost uncle.

I especially admired Penumbra’s macabre renderings. Modeled in the style of William H. Mumler, a 19th-century photographer, spirit tintypes traditionally contained a sitter and a ghost, who appeared during development. Manipulated without the client’s knowledge, these tintypes claimed to connect the living to the dead.

I wanted one.

After a few days of cyber stalking Lupo and Penumbra, I became familiar with all the ways a specter could visit a single gal like me: as a ghoul in a lantern, a thirsty vampire or a bony old lady in rags. While tintype photography is enjoying a nation-wide renaissance, Penumbra is unique in that it ventures into wraith territory.

In honor of my 43rd birthday, a boring number, I decided to splurge on a one-of-a-kind portrait. With increasing pressure to feed an online personae, I wanted a keepsake that romanticized my fine lines instead of eliminating them. My goal was to have a striking profile that illuminated my soul while leaving enough shadow to protect it.

When I arrived at Penumbra’s East 30th Street location, I recognized Lupo immediately. Small-boned and dressed in black, she reminded me of Mary Shelley re-incarnated.

The studio was spartan clean with wooden floors and white walls. Lupo led me down messier corridors to glimpse relics from a massive collection: a wooden baby holder for squirmy children, an adjustable neck brace and “Big Bertha,” a canon-shaped camera with a judgemental cyclops eye.

My attention turned to the spirit photo on the wall: a headless skeleton and a present-day gentleman in a suit and tie.

But I also appreciated a scene I saw on the website, two guys in blazers whose Ouija board session was interrupted by a transparent hand.

To modern eyes, the photos are pure kitsch, but in the 1800s, clients believed.

Lupo flipped through the studio’s copy of The Strange Case of William Mumler, Spirit Photographer. The paperback showed Mumler’s most famous work: a trifecta of celebrities that included Mary Todd Lincoln, her dead son, Thaddeus, and the 16th President of the United States, who had recently been assassinated.

Mumler made a career off grief, particularly from women who had lost sons and husbands in the Civil War. Clients like Mrs. Lincoln might have been influenced by spiritualism, a Victorian movement—with roots in feminism—that offered peepholes into the afterlife. In 1869, Mumler was charged with fraud, but the jury couldn’t prove how he generated his apparitions.

“I don’t think it matters so much how Mumler did it, as much as the fact that he was able to pull it off at all,” Lupo mused, “and without the help of the internet.”

I wondered if I might also struggle between tech and reality. Certainly I was a sucker for folklore, and Lupo could spin a tale.

Her surname is Italian for “wolf.” She is engaged to a man named Falco, Italian for “falcon.”

This wolf-falcon watched my face as I produced my beat-up copy of Jane Eyre, a prop I wanted in the photo. “What do you like about the story?” she asked, obviously fishing. I told her I loved Charlotte Brontë’s descriptions of a mad first wife chained up in an antic.

After this fun interview, I changed into a 1940s robe, a gift from my cousin. I didn’t have to wear a costume, but I wanted to show off one of my most unique vintage pieces.

In the studio, we played with angles and attitude. I would look down with closed eyes—convenient, since I’m a blinker—and open my lips to convey surprise. I practiced my position, holding my book with my left hand while my right rested on my chest.

Next, Lupo led me into the darkroom to show she had no tricks up her sleeve, other than a fumey solution containing ether and grain alcohol. “Cheers,” she said, as she poured the syrupy collodion mixture onto a 4 by 5 piece of aluminum. She placed this “wet plate” into a silver nitrate bath for three minutes. By the time Lupo stuck the prepared plate into the camera, a Super Speed Graphic, I was in position. We would get one shot. The final product would be a material object she would varnish, scan and hand to me in a cardboard jewelry box.

“Look down,” Lupo said under a red and black cape. “Look up a bit more. Now hold the book in line with your chin, so it is in the light.”

Lupo took the photo with what sounded and felt like a small explosion.


With modern lighting and electronic flash units, the exposure was instantaneous, but finding and holding the pose made my back ache.

As Lupo went into the darkroom to wrestle with my poltergeist, I got up to stretch.

“Get ready,” Lupo called, bringing out a container with my picture floating in it.

I set my phone to video mode and watched myself emerge. I thought my lanky limbs resembled those of Granny Holloway. My shadowed eyelids reminded me of Grandma Votaw or maybe Great Granny Blair.

At the last second, there was an addition above Jane Eyre.

“Oh,” I said laughing. Then “ooooooo.” To my delight, my spirit showed itself in the form of a “mourning ghost,” a veiled woman who was so sad, she had to cover her face.

No selfie has ever satisfied me as much.

Regular 4 by 5 portraits are $100. Spirit photographs are $125. Visit here to make an appointment

This article originally appeared in the Observer.

I’m Just Here For Savasana

“Final rest” can lend itself to macabre thoughts. Contrary to the cute T-shirt slogan, the pose is serious – even difficult. In Sanskrit, sava translates into corpse. When we practice savasana, we arrange our limbs in a funereal manner, sometimes with a bolster under the knees and a blanket beneath the head.

In America, we don’t like to talk about death, even though we see it each time we read about another shooting, another vigil. In less sensational terms, how many of us have lost jobs, family members ,or even a beloved restaurant that closed and gave way to Starbucks? These are all deaths, but in our culture, we don’t have a healthy collective way to process or celebrate them.

When I approached my 40s, I wanted more calm in how I approached change. The laugh lines around my mouth reminded me that my body was only a temporary structure for my infinite spirit. While my muscles loved to run and stretch, my soul — which was so big it frightened me — also needed tender care.

For my body, I began researching anatomical donation. Eventually, I donated it to a major hospital (I’m still using it right now), even going on a tour of the gross anatomy lab and attending cadaver memorials. In order to move forward, I wanted a better relationship with letting go.

To my surprise, med students often told me about unusual forces within the lab. Their beloved cadavers — spread open with bone saws — held secrets of scars and old surgeries that made them as real as any yia yia or abuela. Despite religious beliefs, many of these future doctors felt like the bodies watched them, not in a threatening way, but with the benign matter-of-factness of elderly aunts at a wedding.

In the memoir Body of Work, author Christine Montross, a doctor and poet, describes cutting off the face of Eve, the cadaver she shared with her fellow students, one of whom had a panic attack. “Despite the inertia of the dead,” Montross writes, “they actively affect us. Even now as the term winds to a close.”

In Thai medical schools, Montross notes, cadavers are especially holy because most citizens are Buddhist and therefore reluctant to intervene with reincarnation. Students refer to their bodies as “great teachers,” giving them ceremonies before and after dissection.

In a dance of intimacy unknown to most of us here in the West, Thai medical students memorize their donors’ names, forever walking with the dead in order to heal the living.

When we lie down for savasana, we are likewise communing with our ancestors. Corpse pose is not for the weak, a powerful conduit between space and time that is more than a slogan.

This article first appeared in YogaCity NYC.

The Year In (Dead) Bodies

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1900: Medicine - Anatomy - Musculoskeletal (locomotor) system - Muscles. Drawing. (Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Photo By DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

In my personal research on body donation, I encountered NPR reporter Fred Mogul at NYU School of Medicine’s most recent cadaver memorial in November. He was bugging the stage to collect touching speeches and songs sung by the Ketones, NYU’s medical school choir. I was representing The New York Observer for a 700-article, “The Kindest Cut.” My story centered around two second year students who lingered after the service to snack on bits of the remaining buffet. With me, they discussed the weirdness of dealing with disconnected hands and legs that looked like those of family members.

What impressed me was the admission that medical school was rewarding, but also really hard: “I never doubted that this was what I wanted to do,” said one of the future physicians. “I doubted that I was good enough to do it.”

Fred, meanwhile, had a longer-term project through NPR. He focused on a group of first year students and their relationship with donor Haig Manoukian, whom he met in a body bag on Table 4.

Haig was an Armenian-American whose parents fled the Turkish genocide of World War I. A musician, he played the oud and jammed with the New York Middle Eastern music scene before contracting prostate cancer. The choice to donate Haig’s body was his wife Michele’s. She considered many ways to remember Haig, who loved sharing his craft. Then she stumbled on body donation. “That pulled everything together for me,” she said. “I stopped crying. And I felt integrated. I felt like complete in some way. I just felt this is a real, this is the right decision.”

She said she hoped the students would make really good mistakes on him and feel all sorts of emotions, including humor.

“I didn’t want him to die, and I thought he’ll be alive in some way,” Michele said on NPR’s Only Human. “He won’t go into the dark. He’ll be in light. I didn’t care if it was fluorescent light. I wanted other people’s eyes on him. And I wanted their hands on him. I couldn’t let go. And so I thought, yeah, let’s do that. You know, it was selfish for me in a way, because I just wanted to think of him on 34 th Street. I didn’t want to think of him. I don’t know.”


Fred Mogul’s wonderful reporting has been released in sections on NPR, “Every (Dead) Body Has A Story” and “A Guide to Donating Your Body To Science.”

Mindful Monday: On Skype Call With Tibetan Lama, Death Answers

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAXiAAAAJDE0ZDZlNzMyLWJlYjMtNDBiZi1hZTQ5LWRkYzI3MzJkZDQzMANo one should die in distress in the 21st Century, according to Buddhist master Tulku Lobsang Rinpoche.

Having witnessed passings in the West and his native Tibet, Rinpoche believes the end is “the most important thing in your life.”

While many of his countrymen die bravely, he has seen unnecessary anxiety among other cultural groups.

“We believe our body can last about 100 years and then generally our job is finished,” he said. “Secondly, we believe the planet is not our home. The planet is a hotel.”

Rinpoche, the eight incarnation of the Nyentse Lama, who took his title at the age of 13, was on personal retreat in Austria when he paused for a YogaCity NYC interview with Ann Votaw. Born in 1976, the lama appeared youthful and smiley as he talked about one of the world’s darkest topics.

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAT2AAAAJDRiNmU0ODVkLTY5OGQtNGFkYi1hOGJkLWU4YThlMmU3ZmQ0YgAnn Votaw: Why are you interested in fearless death? 

Rinpoche: A long time ago I went to Switzerland and saw a hospice where people were dying. There I discovered that many Westerners were not ready to die. This made me interested to talk more about death because mostly people come to fear death. They’re afraid of losing all that they have. A second reason is they’re going somewhere they don’t know. That’s the reason I try to talk about it.

Votaw: What was the hospice in Switzerland like? 

Rinpoche: The people had one week or two weeks to live. Stressful. They were not ready. It is a really, really unacceptable situation in the 21st century with very educated people. They’re born in a free country. Free thought. Free speech. All possibilities but they’re not ready, and therefore, that makes me interested to talk so much about fearless death, yes? [laughing]

Votaw: Yes. Do you know anyone who has had a fearless death? 

Rinpoche: Many Tibetans, not only masters, just normal people, they are much less afraid to die. I don’t know if they have 100% no fear, but they’re really less fearful. More ready. More calm. More peaceful. They live with whole families and see dying people and suffering loved ones. Therefore, mostly when older people in Tibet die, I always say their dying looks like a lion. They really know what’s happening.

Votaw: Can Americans have a fearless death? 

Rinpoche: Very possible. Enlightenment is a way to be free of the birth and the death. Many changes in our life. Nobody have freedom from change. Change is just happening. In Enlightenment, we become free of the change of identity .

The problem with the West is we need two things for Enlightenment. One, we need to use our faith. Two, we need to use our intelligence. But mostly in the West, I don’t say everybody, but somehow they don’t have faith. I’m born in Tibet where everyone believes in some kind of Buddhism. Nobody need ask you if you believe in Buddhism or not. We build this kind of faith very, very young. Some people in the West don’t like to say, “I have a faith.” That’s the general philosophy of people in the Western World. They need to hide. If you have a status position and have an education, you never say, “I have faith.”

Votaw: Describe faith versus intelligence?  

Rinpoche: People in the West, in general, are suffering between faith and intelligence. As a result, their end looks like a highway. Everybody drive on the highway. Good people. Bad people, and you have all kind of things happening and then I think you are less calm.

Faith is an emotion. Intelligence has perfect eyes, but emotion has power. Therefore, if we have both, it is best, but we at least need one, either faith or intelligence. Intelligence must come with questions. Faith comes with the answer. You’re not satisfied with my answer? No problem. But then you don’t have a question with your intelligence. Most of the people are afraid to die because they don’t know what to ask. “Don’t know” is a really, really painful reason.

In Buddhism, death means not losing. Death means changing. I think we need to make a friend of losing and changing. How you sleep is exactly the same as how you die. How you dream, exactly the same after dead. How you wake up, exactly the same as your birth. Therefore, each 24 hours, we have a small death or small change.

Votaw: Can you make recommendations for New Yorkers seeking fearless death? 

Rinpoche: Yes. Yes. Yes. [laughing] Always the people who live in the big cities forget everything. They sometimes forget to eat. They sometimes forget to sleep. They forget everything they do because there is so much rush. Therefore, they forget the most important things. New York is one of the big cities of the world, and I think it is very important to hear about the fearless death because death is one of the most important things that happen in your life. Because death is guaranteed to happen. Death is one big, big question. Death is not happening after your life. Death is happening in your life. And the death is the most important question. Therefore, you must have an answer and hear it many, many times.

[This article first appeared August 2014 in YogaCity NYC.]

Ann Votaw is a freelance writer and editor who is a recreational therapist in New York City. If you liked this piece, read Mindful Monday: Yoga Teacher Nancy Preston Quietly Fights Noise In Inwood. Stay tuned for more insightful interviews each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on LinkedIn. For other articles on spirit and thought, follow Ann on Twitter @AnnVotaw or her blog at