More than perhaps any other religious practice, Spiritualism has an iconography rooted in photography. Emerging in the 19th century from New York’s “Burned-Over District,” so nicknamed for its intensity of religious fervor, Spiritualism was centered on communicating with the dead, particularly through mediums and séances. It reached its popularity in the mid to late 1800s, when converts included Arthur Conan Doyle and Thomas Edison, and the Fox Sister mediums were gathering huge crowds at their popular Manhattan séances. Yet in Lily Dale, New York, thousands of believers still arrive annually for readings, healings, and messages from the mediums who live there.
It was one of those Lily Dale messages that inspired photographer Shannon Taggart to spend 16 years documenting contemporary Spiritualism. Currently, the Brooklyn-based artist is crowdfunding on Unbound for a book called Séance: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm that will coalesce her years of research and experience into a work that’s part art project, part ethnographic study. She states on the funding page that she “first became aware of Spiritualism as a teenager, after my cousin received a reading from a medium who revealed a secret about my grandfather’s death that proved to be true.” That relay from the afterlife occurred at Lily Dale’s Inspiration Stump, where mediums have been interpreting messages since 1879. In a 2012 photograph by Taggart, the place is eerily seen by night, its spectator benches lined up like waiting specters.
“Spiritualism and photography, they came about almost in the same time in the mid-19th century,” Taggart told Hyperallergic. “Almost immediately, they were brought together in an attempt to prove the Spiritualist dimension. It came about at this time that science was showing all these other hidden realms, like X-rays and bacteria, why couldn’t it show this spirit realm?”
Nineteenth-century photographers used double exposures or composites to insert “ghosts” into spirit photographs; their portraits of ectoplasm forming on a medium’s face during a séance visually evoked a phantom presence. Nearly from the beginning, photography and its complicated images were entwined with the public perception of Spiritualism.
“There are even these very uncanny geographical connections,” Taggart added. “The first séances with the Fox Sisters — the first time the women spoke to spirits on stage [in 1849] — was in Corinthian Hall. It’s down the street a half a mile from where Kodak built its headquarters in Rochester.” And she pointed out that this US-born practice is very much embedded in the country’s culture. For instance, the ectoplasm of the Ghostbusters films came about because co-writer Dan Aykroyd is a fourth-generation Spiritualist, and drew on its terms.
When Taggart began photographing Spiritualists in 2001, she was mainly working as a photojournalist. “When I started, I was photographing very straightforwardly,” she said. “Then I had this big purple orb show up, and I brought it back to this woman in the photograph, and she said, ‘Oh that’s my husband Bob.’ The more I had these happy accidents, the more they were articulating something about the invisible that I wasn’t expecting.”
While some of her images for the Séance book are more documentary, such as a 2002 overhead shot of spoons and forks that the medium Willa “bent with her mind,” others use the blurs, light distortions, and other photographic manipulation to represent the unseen energy of the subject or scene. A 2014 photograph of medium Kevin Lawrenson has his body transparent on a chair, a strange shape erupting out of his stomach like lightning.
“I’m doing things that are classically considered very unprofessional, really playing with the inherent mistakes in the process, flare, overexposure, underexposures,” she said. “I’m really trying to delve into the edges of the process. I’ve been finding all these metaphors for the invisible experience that are really synchronistic.”
In her work, there’s also a sort of meta echo of photography’s role in Spiritualism, with the red light of a séance appearing similar to the red illumination of a dark room, with images materializing in both. Over the years, as she got more access and engaged with the Spiritualist community, she traveled to a center for physical mediumship in France, and learned how to use a medium’s cabinet in the UK. While no longer quite the sensation it was in the 19th century, Spiritualism remains as a bridge between life and death, and as a way to emotionally engage with that divide.
“I feel that the kind of stereotypical view often is, oh, these people are just a bunch of charlatans, and it’s all fake, and they’re just trying to get money,” Taggart said. “I found it was more about healing and contemplating the transition from this world to the next. I think that almost everybody I met were very sincere practitioners. Once I could wrap my brain about what people were doing, I saw it as legitimate as any other religious practice.”
Séance: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm by Shannon Taggart is now funding on Unbound.