Séance: A Photography Project on Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm

Seance hands. Photograph by Shannon Taggart.

Can you capture the supernatural with a camera lens? For the past 16 years, that has been photographer Shannon Taggart's goal, and in pursuing it she has traveled from the world's largest Spiritualist community in Lily Dale, New York, to France, Spain, and the Arthur Findlay College in England. Her work has been published in such esteemed publications as TIME, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine and Discover.

Shannon's personal interest in Spiritualism began as a teenager, after her cousin received a reading from a medium who revealed a secret about her grandfather’s death that turned out to be true:

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.

However, Shannon soon learned that this would be no 'point and click' excursion in photographic technique:

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.

Now, after many years in the séance room, Shannon has plans to publish a book on the topic of Spiritualism that will include many of her photographs, as well as historical images and original text "that will contextualize Spiritualism’s surprising cultural history and bizarre photographic past": SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm. To bring the book project to fruition, Shannon is looking for pre-publication support from the community via a crowd-funding campaign:

My book on Spiritualism will merge ethnographic study, journalism and art. I will contextualize Spiritualism’s history and highlight its surprising connections to nineteenth-century social reform, scientific inquiry, artistic practice and popular culture. Ultimately, this work seeks to amplify the reflexive relationship between Spiritualism and photography and to explore the ideological, material, geographical, historical and metaphysical correspondences between the two. Erik Davis, author of media studies cult classic TechGnosis and expert on the intersection between technology and the religious imagination, will contribute the foreword.

Below I've embedded a short video from Shannon describing the project. You can also find a short excerpt and some images from the book at Shannon's website. To support the project, head to the crowd-funding campaign page for SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm and check out the large range of pledge rewards on offer to backers.

Link: SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm