Shannon Taggart, Séance

JTF (just the facts): Published by Fulgur in November 2019 (here). Hardcover, 300 pages, with 194 color and black and white photographs, combining images taken by the artist and archival images. Includes texts by the artist, Dan Akyroyd, Tony Oursler, and Andreas Fischer. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Séance is also available in a special edition (here). This version includes a signed book in a custom hand-made solander box, with a signed and numbered print. Also includes a unique fork or spoon, bent psychically at Lily Dale and housed in a special compartment. In an edition of 77 copies.

Comments/Context: The Spiritualism movement that appeared in the 1840s was based on the central belief that the human spirit exists beyond the body, and thus there is the possibility of communication between the living and the dead, assuming we could figure out how to have such a conversation. Spiritualism was practiced by many public figures in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including Carl Jung, Abraham Lincoln, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the artists Hilma af Klint and Dora Maar, who channeled spirituality through their work. Today, however, this practice is largely hidden from the public eye, and the majority of us are mostly unaware of its continuation. Since photography and Spiritualism originated at roughly the same moment in time, they have long been intertwined, and in 2005, the exhibition The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult at the Metropolitan Museum of Art looked at the historical intersections between the two. Yet there are few contemporary projects exploring this subject today.

I always found the conversations around ghosts, auras, spirit séances, and other paranormal activities haunting and fascinating, and was excited to discover work that deals with this subject. The photographer Shannon Taggart has dedicated almost twenty years of her life to researching and documenting the séances and modern practices of Spiritualism. Her first encounter with the subject was as a teenager, after her cousin was told a strange family secret about their grandfather’s death by a medium. This took place in Lily Dale, a small town in upstate New York and home to one of the most active Spiritualist communities in the world. Taggart found the fact that this stranger knew very personal details about her family fascinating. This accident sparked her curiosity in Spiritualism, and in 2001, over a decade later, she returned to Lily Dale to photograph the local community. Over the years, she became immersed in the world of mediums, and her extensive research and photographs were recently published in a photobook entitled Séance.

Séance is a horizontally-oriented photobook, with a black cover featuring a tipped-in image showing a circle of hands on top of a table in dimmed light. The title of the book and artist’s name are printed underneath in gold. All of the photographs in the book are horizontal with generous white space around them. They appear without any captions, inviting us to follow its visual flow without interruption; the last section of the book has thumbnails accompanied by background stories which I found both enchanting and informational. The book is described as “part documentary and part ghost story,” and in addition to Taggart’s photographs taken in Lily Dale and England, it includes historical photographs and writings discussing the movement’s influence on art and culture. In a foreword, Dan Aykroyd, the actor/comedian and a co-creator of Ghostbusters, himself a fourth-generation Spiritualist, describes the book as “the most comprehensive and exciting written treatise to date on Spiritualism and its headquarters: Lily Dale, in New York State.” 

Taggart’s photographs run a full range of styles and moods, from eerie and haunting to straightforward documentary. She does not seem interested in systematically proving or disproving Spiritualism, she is instead curious with and fascinated by the phenomena, and her photographs are thoughtful observations of all that is taking place. The first photograph depicts spooky rows of wooden benches at night (a sacred place in Lily Dale, where the mediums have given messages since the late 19th century); this particular place is also significant for Taggart as this is where her grandfather’s message was received. It is followed by a spread pairing two images: a medium on a stage delivering messages and second captures mediums looking at a wide open door as they prepare to communicate with the beyond. Then a picture captures a woman in a green blazer with her head back, the movement adding a blur – this is Gretchen Clark, she is a fifth-generation medium, and she is caught laughing, as “her deceased brother interrupts a reading to tell her a joke.” This opening sequence introduces the subject, mixing personal elements with the real and the spectral. 

Séance goes on to extensively document Spiritualist practices in the United States, England, and Europe. Taggart visited Lily Dale multiple times over the years to explore various Spiritualist practices, and while there, she participated in hypnosis sessions, automatic writing (channeling information and spirit energy through writing), and the study of ectoplasm (a physical substance supposedly created paranormally on the bodies of mediums for spirits to take form in). Throughout the photobook, there are images of odd objects –  bent spoons, handkerchiefs, love letters from spirits, a radio, a planchette used for automatic writing experiments, a swan with a halo – all these items were/are used to communicate with various spirits. Taggart uses each photograph to share an insightful story that brings to light more details and a very human element to the visual narrative. 

Obviously photographing Spiritualism is a challenge – how can one capture the invisible? Technical mistakes, imperfections, shadows, bright flashes, and experiments with light and exposure help Taggart to find her visual language – these blurs of distortion and motion often reveal additional layers that seem to evoke the invisible presence. In one image, a woman in a dark room lights her face with a flashlight, and there is a second face next to her, similar and yet different. Another photograph, which I find captivating, captures medium Kevin Lawrenson, lit by a red light; he is sitting on a chair and his body seems transparent, a bizarre light emitted from his stomach. It is obvious that Taggart developed trusted and close relationships with her subjects (rather than taking a skeptical or unbelieving attitude), and she documents them with respect and care, “showing the psychological truth of the experiences”. 

The last sequence of photographs is one of my favorites; it shows the medium Gordon Garfoth, photographed during a spontaneous séance. We see him in green light as he sits on a chair, his face distorted by movement. In one photo, it looks like he has a truncated mustache, at first sight resembling that of Hitler; Taggart almost deleted the picture but Garfoth loved it, and so she kept it. A few months later, he showed her a photo of his great-grandfather, and the similarity between the two images was uncanny – Garfoth believes the spirit of his great-grandfather was present during the session. 

Taggart’s images are heartfelt and strange, and I think it doesn’t matter whether one believes in these spirits or not – her photographs are still enchanting and remarkable. In a way, she becomes a medium herself, transmitting the world of her subjects through her art. She explores the mystery of both Spiritualism and photography, capturing the space between the real and the elusive or imagined. Séance stands as a surprisingly compelling in-depth photographic study of Spiritualism as practiced today, looking carefully at the hidden community that attempts to connect with the unseen. Taggart’s photographs approach this subject with intelligence and respect, and the book invites us to take a measured and open look at this mysterious supernatural world. 

Collector’s POV: Shannon Taggart does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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