Communing with the dead: A photographer spent 20 years documenting seánces
Jacqui Palumbo, CNN
Though photographer Shannon Taggart grew up only an hour from Lily Dale, New York, the lakeside hamlet where people congregate to commune with the dead, she didn’t visit until she was 26 years old. She was interested in documenting the quaint cottage town, which first formed as a summer retreat for paranormal practitioners in the late 19th century, after the Spiritualist movement took root in the state and spread around the world.
Spiritualists believe the afterlife is all around us, perceptible to mediums who see and hear beyond. There are more than 65 churches or camps in 20 states across the US today, and more than 280 in the UK, but the Lily Dale Assembly says it is the largest community in the world, with 32 registered mediums and six more in training. Each summer, thousands of visitors — both ardent believers and the undecided — arrive for events and workshops.
Taggart’s family had had its own brush with clairvoyance in Lily Dale. In 1989, a medium singled out her cousin Rita, who occasionally visited the town, at a service, relaying to her in dramatic fashion that their grandfather had actually died by choking, not due to the brain cancer he had been battling.
“She thought that the woman was crazy, and that it was such a strange thing to tell her,” Taggart said in a phone call. But when Rita went home, her father said it was true — someone at the hospital had left him alone with food in his mouth.
So Taggart arrived in Lily Dale the summer of 2001 with an open mind, the medium’s inexplicable knowledge filed away with a question mark.
“The stereotype is usually that psychic mediums are charlatans who like to take your money, and it’s all a carnival. But what I found in Lily Dale was really the opposite,” Taggart said. “I found very sincere practitioners, not making a lot of money, who are called to this type of work.”
Taggart soon found she loved Lily Dale’s atmosphere, which seems preserved in time, she explained. There’s a former one-room schoolhouse converted into a historical museum; a healing temple and a church; a wooden auditorium; and an old-growth forest where seating for medium demonstrations faces the stump of a Hemlock tree, a site of supposed spiritual energy. Paper flyers advertise community activities such as astral traveling and spoon bending, she described.
The photographer’s first visit to the town prompted what would become a two-decade-long project, “Séance,” an extensive visual archive of mediums’ practices and Spiritualist outposts around the world. She released a book in 2019, with a second edition featuring new images and text published late last year. A touring exhibition of “Séance” is currently on view at the University of Northern Iowa Gallery of Art.
Like Taggart, many of the people she met were drawn to Lily Dale because of an encounter they couldn’t explain: a message seemingly relayed from the afterlife, or a sighting they perceived as a loved one passing over. Others come to heal from grief, or look for a new purpose.
Though Taggart initially came seeking concrete answers on whether or not Spirtualists interface with another realm, she soon learned her mission would be tricky. She traveled to different countries, visiting Arthur Findlay College in the UK, which attracts international practitioners, and the home of the founders of the Scole Experiment in Spain, which set out to prove the existence of the spirit world in the 1990s. She witnessed public healings, closed-door seances and mediumship classes; received psychic readings; and met famous figures in the Spiritualist worlds — including controversial practitioners ensnared in what she called “para-drama.”
“I’ve had a lot of truly compelling experiences. I’ve had mysterious experiences. I’ve had absolutely absurd experiences,” she said. “I can honestly say I have more questions than answers at this point.”
The influence of spirit photography
Around 1869, the first “spirit photographer,” William Mumler, took a portrait of the widowed former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, shrouded in black, with the apparent spectral figure of Abraham Lincoln holding her shoulders protectively from behind.
Mumler’s portraits of his customers seemingly accompanied by ghosts made him famous, but also notorious. He tested the boundaries of the realities photography of that era could show, though today we more easily identify his work as double exposures. After his business flourished, Mumler was put on trial — though he was later acquitted — on accusations of fraud.
When Taggart encountered Mumler’s images for the first time, she was nonetheless moved by the grief and tenderness the portraits revealed, their subjects hoping for tangible evidence of their dead loved ones. She was also surprised to learn of photography’s entwined history with Spiritualism, which she said had not been taught to her in her undergraduate imaging courses at the nearby Rochester Institute of Technology.
“I often use the example that Spiritualism is to photography as Catholicism is to painting because the Spiritualists use this new medium to try to prove their beliefs, (as well as) illustrate them,” she said.
Other artists of the era channeled Spiritualism into their work — the Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klimt and British medium and artist Georgiana Houghton both believed their work was guided by visitants, but have been overlooked by art history until recently. Through her own research, Taggart identified the movement’s fingerprints across wide swathes of 19th-century culture, from art and literature to politics, including the abolitionist and early women’s suffrage movements.
“Spiritualism or mediumship is often framed in this anti-intellectual way…(but it’s) actually deeply tied to 19th-century innovation and creativity,” she said. “Wherever you find 19th-century innovation, you will find spiritualism. And it’s been written out of a lot of histories.”
Taggart found herself struggling with traditional documentary photography as she continued to work on “Séance.” Though many Spiritualist rituals can be photographed, so much of the experiences are internal or beyond an observer’s perception, she explained.
“How can I show the psychological truth of these events — things that people really seem to be feeling and experiencing — but I cannot see?” Taggart recalled thinking. She even paused the project for a few years, feeling stuck on how to show the intangible, before returning with a new outlook.
“(I started to) embrace the ambiguity, embrace the confusion, and tried to play with how unstable a topic it was,” she said. She chose images with technical accidents and toyed with longer and longer exposures to see what would happen within each frame over time, echoing the techniques of early spirit photographers.
In one image, a glowing orange aura hangs like a halo around a swan on Lake Cassadaga in Lily Dale. In another, a flare of light levitates over the grave of Arthur Findlay. Her images of mediums in trances are blurred and distorted, heightening their eeriness.
“Those accidental pictures actually talked about reality in a way I couldn’t with my conscious mind,” she said. “Everything in Spiritualism is about creating proof of the afterlife, and I just abandoned any desire to prove… That ended up being a lot more fruitful.”
Searching for the intangible
Out of all the things that fascinated Taggart about Spiritualism, the ghostly substance “ectoplasm,” eluded her the most. It has been depicted in spirit photography as a shimmering white, viscous liquid or a smoky cloud. In the 1984 movie “Ghostbusters,” it’s a slimy green goo. (The movie’s writer and co-star Dan Aykroyd, who hails from a family of Spiritualists penned the foreword in “Sèance.”)
“(Ectoplasm) is supposed to be a physical substance that connects this world to the next world, like it connects life and death,” Taggart explained.
While the popular image of the medium has become someone who can see or hear the dead — leaving others to witness a one-sided exchange — ectoplasm seances, in which mediums produce or expel the material, are meant to offer a more physical embodiment. Photographer-mediums in the 19th century often depicted the phenomena — the French medium Eva Carrière used flash photography to create images of herself vomiting so-called ectoplasm, or holding light between her hands (Like Mumler, Carrière’s images are now easily explained by simple photographic techniques).
Throughout “Séance,” Taggart searches for evidence of ectoplasm, connecting with practitioners who do still purport to produce it. Most of the contemporary mediums she met did not work with the ambiguous material, though she said they believed in it.
One who does is the German medium Kai Muegge, whose techniques are contested within Spiritualist circles. In Taggart’s ghostlike images of Muegge, he expels weblike and foggy white matter, taken in darkness during short intervals when the lights were turned on and off.
“It was totally surreal, because it was like seeing those vintage pictures jump to life right in front of my eyes,” she said.
Though Taggart is still ambivalent on her experiences with ectoplasm, some of the moments that moved her the most were far more subtle, such as psychic readings she received that came to pass. In 2017, a medium friend, Lauren Thibodeaux, who appears in “Séance,” passed a message to her just after her mother died, and after Taggart had privately spoken to her siblings about getting tattoo tributes in her honor.
“The next morning. Lauren messaged me, she said, ‘Well, your mom came to me,’ and she sent me this big, long text about all this stuff that my mom said,” Taggart recalled. At the end, Thibodeaux relayed the message: “‘Tell them no tattoos.'”
Taggart was bewildered — there wasn’t any way Thibodeaux could have known about the conversation with her siblings. (None of them moved forward with the tattoos.)
Throughout “Séance,” Taggart’s images, along with extensive interviews with Spiritualists, occupy a liminal space between truth and perception. But for Taggart, the complexity is the point.
“(Making the work) has changed me in a lot of ways,” she said. “I think it’s definitely made me appreciate the ambiguity of the religious experience.”
‘Séance‘ is available now through Atelier Editions.
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