Photographer Shannon Taggart is drawn to what she calls “psychological spaces.” She describes these as “invisible realities, like an interior experience you can’t really see,” and relishes the challenge of making visuals to describe them. Taggart says she values photography’s ability to open up new worlds, and she hopes readers of her new book will be transported while they explore the strange realm within it.
Taggart first became aware of Spiritualism as a teenager, after a stranger somehow uncovered a family mystery: “My cousin received a reading from a medium who revealed a secret about my grandfather’s death.” As Taggart discovered, Spiritualism is an American-born religion that believes we can communicate with the dead. Later on, she set out to document Spiritualism around the world, a path that led her from New York to England, Spain, and France.
Among the many places she traveled, a key was close by—in New York state itself. Lily Dale, New York is home to one of the largest Spiritualist communities in the world. Tagggart requested permission to shoot there and was welcomed by the community. She took her camera with her to readings, healings and séances; she also explored a psychic college and a medium’s cabinet.
What she thought would be the work of one summer turned into a 16-year project. While she expected to document (or expose) the tricks of the trade, what she found instead was more complicated than theatrics and deception. A straightforward documentary approach seemed inadequate, so she began to combine fine art photography, anthropology, journalism and historical photography to tell the tale.
In her new book, Séance: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm, Taggart writes, “Spiritualism developed at a time when photography and other scientific developments were exposing many forces operating beyond human perception. Disease-causing bacteria could be photographed through microscopes; the vastness of the universe was glimpsed through astrophotography; electricity was made visible when placed in contact with photographic materials; X-rays revealed the body’s interior. What else, people wondered, could photography uncover?”
Taggart wants to illuminate this chapter in the history of photography. Her work fits neatly into a lineage of other attempts to bridge the physical and spiritual worlds: “The crazy photographic history and records of the movement…are bizarre, unsettling, and absurd, but also speak about human love and longing.”