The ever-inspiring Pam Grossman (recently interviewed here by S. Elizabeth) just tipped us off about the forthcoming release of a fascinating new book by Brooklyn-based photographer Shannon Taggart, who specializes in contemporary spirit photography.
Entitled SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm, the book combines Taggart’s ethnographic study of Spiritualism with her processes for photographing spiritualist transformations, including such things as mediums in the midst of channeling spirits, automatic writing, table tipping, spoon bending, healing, and more.
“Spiritualism, the American-born religion, attempts to demonstrate through the intercession of a medium that death is not the end, but a transition. I 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. Since then, I have been deeply curious about how a total stranger could have learned something my family had kept confidential.”
“In 2001, I began photographing at the place where my grandfather’s message was received: Lily Dale, New York, the town which is home to the world’s largest Spiritualist community. I quickly immersed myself in Lily Dale’s world, receiving readings, experiencing healings, joining in séances, attending a psychic college and sitting in a medium’s cabinet, always with my camera. I expected to spend one summer figuring out the tricks of the Spiritualist trade. Instead, Spiritualism’s mysterious processes, earnest practitioners, surprising cultural history and bizarre photographic past became a resource and an inspiration for my own work. I began a sixteen-year quest to document contemporary Spiritualism and to find and photograph ‘ectoplasm’ – the elusive substance that is said to be both spiritual and material.”
“Photographing Spiritualism presents a unique challenge: how do you photograph the invisible? Sitting in the charged atmospheres of the séance rooms I encountered, I wondered how to approach the exchange between a veiled presence and a visible body? Technical mistakes led me to explore the inherent imperfections within the photographic process. Unpredictable elements (blur, abstraction, motion, flare) seemed to insinuate, or refer to, the unseen. I began to use conventions that are considered wrong, messy, or ‘tricky’. I crossed the boundary of what is commonly considered unprofessional in the practice of photography: I invited anomaly. In playing with the process, the invisible was automated. My camera rendered some striking synchronicities. The resulting images consider the conjuring power of photography itself. I include these pictures that use photography’s own mechanisms to question spiritual realities: photographs that contain both mechanical and spiritual explanations and require an interpretation.”
SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm is currently available for pre-order via Unbound, a crowd-funded publisher. This means the book may be ordered at a variety of support levels, some of which include bonus items such as a bent metal utensils, grave rubbings, archival prints of Taggart’s photos, readings from a clairvoyant, and experimental photography sessions with Taggart. Everyone who pre-orders a copy of SÉANCE will have their name printed in every edition of the book.
By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about Lily Dale, we recommend checking out the book Lily Dale: The Town That Talks to the Dead by Christine Wicker.