Text and photos by Shannon Taggart.
I asked these spirit figures if I was seeing them or if I was seeing what was in my own brain.
They answered “both.”
Eileen Garrett, twentieth century medium
Spiritualism is a loosely organized religion based primarily on a belief in the ability to communicate with spirits of the dead. I first became aware of Spiritualism as a teenager after my cousin received a reading from a psychic medium. The woman revealed a strange family secret about my grandfather’s death that proved to be true. Since then I have been deeply curious about how someone could possibly know such a thing.
Spiritualism began just outside of Rochester, New York in 1848 when two young girls, Kate and Margaret Fox, claimed to be in contact with the spirit of a murdered man buried underneath their home. This small act developed into a movement that grew to preoccupy a broad spectrum of the American and British public during the second half of the nineteenth century. It also managed to seduce, enrage and affect some of the most influential people of the time including William Butler Yeats, Carl Jung, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony and Harry Houdini.
Spiritualism became the religion of the rebellious and its platform anticipated the social revolutions of the 1960’s. It played an enormous role in the success of the women’s suffrage movement. It also supported the abolition of slavery, sexual freedom, marriage reform, health reform (including vegetarianism and homeopathic medicines) and children’s rights. The exact number of Spiritualists is unknown but it is estimated that those participating in Spiritualist séances at its height number around eleven million in America. Spiritualism’s popularity began to wane near the end of the nineteenth century with the exposure of many respected mediums as frauds. Although it never fully regained its credibility, Spiritualism has enjoyed numerous cycles of rebirth and is still being practiced today.
In 2001 I began photographing at Lily Dale, the world’s largest Spiritualist community. In 2003 I traveled to the Arthur Findlay College for Psychic Science in England and later focused on churches in Rochester, New York. Since this venture began, I have immersed myself in the history and philosophy of Spiritualism, experienced numerous spiritual healings, had more readings than I can count, took part in a myriad of circles and séances, attended classes, witnessed a multitude of church services and sat in a medium’s cabinet, all with my camera. Despite this exposure, I find I am no closer to any definitive answer of what it all means. I feel as if I’ve peered into a mystery.
My entire photographic process changed during the course of this project. It was because of necessity that I first started experimenting with the long exposures. I found myself in countless low light situations, where I could not move around and things were taking place that I desperately wanted to photograph. It was just not possible to shoot the way I usually did. So I stayed seated, began to use a tripod and opened the shutter however long required to make a picture. Amazing things started to happen. I quickly realized that this technique was enabling me to render visually what everyone in the room claimed was actually happening but was not visible to the eye. Discovering what took shape within the long exposures was truly exciting and oddly meaningful. There were double faces when people claimed they were channeling spirits, streams of light around objects that were supposedly charged with psychic energy and strange figures that appeared, seemingly from nowhere. The blur was acting as a venue to some other place. I recognized that these forms taking shape in my photographs were metaphors. This new approach was allowing me to bring the abstract into the physical via my camera.
I had the pleasure of being involved in many absurd and wonderfully surreal situations while working on this topic. One of my favorite examples happened while photographing a woman working in the Lily Dale Museum. When I got the film back after the shoot I found a lone frame where a large purple circle seemed to hover over her shoulder. It must have been some type of lens flair, but I couldn’t figure out how it occurred technically. I brought a print in to show her and very nonchalantly she handed it back and said, “Oh, that’s just my dead husband Bob.” A week later I passed her by in the street and overheard her telling a friend, “That’s the girl who photographed Bob in the museum.” My other best-loved incident involves a story told to me during my first week in Lily Dale. Two mediums were teaching me about Spiritualism and they shared an adventure they claimed to be true. On a road trip through Pennsylvania they visited a famous civil war cemetery. Simultaneously, they spotted the spirit of a soldier wandering around, confused and distraught. One of them yelled aloud to get his attention, “Hey buddy – you’re dead!” They decided there was only one thing to do – get him in the car and drive him back to Lily Dale. It took some convincing but they finally got him home with them and then successfully orchestrated his cross over to the other side.
People are curious if I personally have had any strange experiences while making these pictures. The truth is, there were many. Somehow they all sound very silly when I try to put them into words, so I keep them to myself. I realize now it doesn’t matter if any of these incidents can be scientifically proven or even validated. If an event deeply affects your mind, your heart and your soul, it is real.
My intention with these photographs is to document this religion’s practices and to illustrate what it means to be a Spiritualist, but also to address certain themes. They are meant as a meditation on mortality and the alchemy of human ritual. They are meant to question consciousness. They are also an attempt to examine how the individual experiences the spiritual uniquely. Finally, the images are an effort to manifest the unseen, and to pose the question – “What if?”