I was excited when I saw that photographer Shannon Taggart had a new book coming out this year. Séance is a collection of her photography in the community of Lily Dale, New York, the world’s largest populace of spiritualists. She’s spent 18 years documenting this community and I was fortunate enough to interview her about her work in 2013 for the North Adams Transcript. I was taken by her images, which were dynamic and kinetic, making spiritualism seem alive and not something trapped in the past, even as they also communicated aspects that were definitely antiquarian. Like spirits, they seemed to exist at all times at once. What follows is that article from 2013.
Photography’s relationship with the paranormal is often perceived as a method to prove the phenomenon, but photographer Shannon Taggart doesn’t look at it as so cut and dried. To her, the photograph can be just as mysterious as the phenomenon, and it’s better for it.
Taggart’s work is on display at MCLA Gallery 51 as part of “Rewilderment: Passing Through the Veil Between Worlds.”
For the show, Taggart documented ritual performances by C. Ryder Cooley and Sarah Falkner. Taggart’s past and current work made her the perfect choice, specializing in capturing many aspects of the spiritualist community, particularly in Lilly Dale, N.Y., where Taggart first encountered the movement and became interested. Her cousin had a reading that revealed a secret about Taggart’s grandfather, a moment that stayed with her. She became fascinated in neither the truth of the phenomenon nor the falsity of it, so much as the people and practice on its own terms.
Spiritualism is a religious practice born in upstate New York in the 1800s, built around the concept of communicating with the dead. Widespread though it was at one point, it has only just clung on as an organized belief system of the last 150 years. Taggart looks at her work as part ethnographic study, part storytelling, and part opportunity to experiment more in her photography.
“I’ve found it’s much more of an active religion in England, so I’ve been spending a lot of time there,” Taggart said.
“The big part of the project that I’m working on currently is about physical mediumship, which is a very Victorian. It’s bringing back all these Victorian practices of sitting in a dark room with a cabinet and trying to make manifestations happen. It’s ritual and performance, and it uses some of the aesthetics of magic, so it’s a subculture within a subculture, and that is really only happening in the UK, that I can find. And other parts of Europe.”
What Taggart has discovered is a friendly community, but one that exists with its own contradictions, the only way, she thinks, it could have stuck around for so long.
“There’s the paradox that spiritualists began because they are anti-dogma, anti-organizational, anti-religion,” she said, “but then, in order to function as a tradition, they kind of have to be that, so there’s a lot of conflict within the spiritualist community about how churchy and dogmatic you want to be and still maintain the tradition.”
In capturing this world, Taggart’s photos work to capture many perspectives — the mysterious qualities inherent in the subject matter, but also charming ones, weird ones and some completely surprising moments of normalcy.
“Sometimes things happen where there’s a humor that comes out with it,” said Taggart. “When you have all these boundaries, there’s this element of complete absurdity that happens, too.”
Taggart sometimes employs the practice of long exposures in her work, which she says is directly inspired by the spiritualists and their idea of automatism, in which works are produced by external spirits through the medium, a term co-opted by the surrealists and explained as the result of the unconscious at work. Taggart is interested in both sides of the view — or, more appropriately, the line between them, which helps her create work that represents the believers without becoming pure endorsement of the beliefs, and keeps the appeal open.
“My ultimate goal is to be both, because I think that’s the most interesting place to be,” Taggart said. “It’s also a great way to give multiple entry points into the work, so no matter what side of the fence you are on, you can get something from it. It’s funny, because I end up confusing both sides as well, and I think that adds another dimension to the topic. It jumps off of the practice in a way.”
Taggart says that sometimes, her subjects do want something more concrete from her work than she might be searching for, especially when it comes to her practice of long exposures. The spiritualists can sometimes approach photography as a method for capturing evidence, but Taggart characterizes it as a “trickster medium” that gets some of its strength from “its accidentand- error ability.”
“They take it at face value and then they think about it and ask, if we do some that aren’t long exposures, because they want to really catch something,” said Taggart. “So we did do some like that, but they don’t understand when I say I want to go with it, I know it’s a long exposure and I want to see what it gets us — but they think, if it’s not going to be proof, why do you want to do that? Some mediums get confused by that.”
“I use this analogy with long exposures that it’s like flying a kite- a kite doesn’t just go up in the sky, you have to run with it and let the wind catch it. I try to explain the long exposures could give you a metaphor for what you say is happening, but you have to be willing to play around with things. I don’t see it as trickery. I don’t see myself as purposely making fake images and trying to fool anybody. Even though we might not agree on what it is or the technique, I think they understand where I’m coming from. And I’m never trying to trick anybody. I really do believe there is something interesting happening, but I don’t think it’s scientific proof like they would love to have. I see it very much as art.”
Taggart believes that photography as proof is a slippery slope any how, since there has never been a clear consensus among spiritualists historically.
“I could take a picture and some people see one thing in it and other people see something else,” she said. “If you could talk to many different spiritualists and go through historical pictures, they would say, ‘well, this one is true and this one is false,’ and you could talk to another spiritualist and they would say the same thing, but with the opposite conclusion, so it’s confusing about what would even be deemed as proof.”
“I just photographed a visual medium who produces an ectoplasm that you can objectively see that looks very similar to the Victorian-era pictures.
“That I documented. It was right in front of my face, so you could say that was proof, but there are people who believe he may be faking, or if they see him as a fake, that would be proof of either.”
Taggart points to the phenomenon of orb photos as a perfect example of how what photography brings to the discussion is much more sublime than either belief or skepticism offer, and that is something inherent in the form.
“Some people believe orb photos are proof of being able to photograph the spirit world,” said Taggart. “Many people don’t, or pictures have been debunked with technical explanations for some of the orb pictures, but that almost doesn’t matter, because some people still believe it’s proof and some people don’t, and photography really offers you both in its accident and error.”
“Even in the 1800s and they were playing around with camera- less techniques, just using the chemistry trying to prove there’s a life force or prove a soul or see if we could photograph thoughts and feelings. They made images and came up with abstract metaphors and photography leant itself to that. The wonderful thing about photography is that it does offer you both. It’s this paradoxical medium. The whole thing about what photography can really prove is an interesting thing to ponder.”
And in walking that inbetween reality, Taggart thinks that photography captures the real circumstance of spiritualism better than any believer or skeptic ever could, because it understands that the strength is in the experience more than any hard reality we reach for.
“It’s an inherent property of any of these topics,” she said. “The line is the only place to be. I know many mediums who actually question what’s going on with them. They don’t really understand it. I think there are always questions for everybody. Even true skeptics. It’s not that they’ve never had a mysterious experience, it’s just they assign a different conclusion to it. I think it’s hard to be a 100 percent skeptic and not see any mystery in the world at all.”