When Shannon Taggart was 16, her cousin visited a medium and was told an unsettling story about the circumstances of their late grandfather’s death, which she shared with the family. Around the same time, Taggart took a high school photography class and was introduced to the work of Diane Arbus. “That was the first time I really understood what photography could do, because I felt like I could see into her mind,” she says. Taggart had no idea then how important Spiritualism would become to her work.
A decade later in 2001, then working as a photojournalist, Taggart returned to Lily Dale – the hamlet in New York State where the medium had spoken with her cousin. Well known for its close ties with Spiritualism, Taggart imagined that her trip to Lily Dale would be just a summer-long project about the religion.
Ultimately, however, Taggart would spend the best part of 20 years travelling and meeting with Spiritualists, photographing them and learning about their practices in a personal quest to unpack the “boondoggle” of ectoplasm, a physical white substance said to ooze from mediums during séances. “Lily Dale changed everything about my photographic practice,” she says today, “it changed my approach to everything.”
This two-decade venture became the 2019 book, Séance, which combined her own ethereal images and still lifes with found works from the late 19th and 20th century, introduced with a foreword from fourth-generation Spiritualist and Ghostbusters writer and actor, Dan Aykroyd. Named by Time as a photobook of the year for 2019, it’s recently undergone a revision by Atelier Éditions, with new images and commentary from writer and filmmaker J. F. Martel.
We spoke to Taggart about embracing ambiguity and how Aykroyd came to be a part of the project.
VICE: What role did religion play in your life growing up, and how did that influence your approach to Spiritualism later?
Shannon Taggart: I was raised Catholic, so Spiritualism wasn't that far out for me with the beliefs I grew up with, but I was unfamiliar with it as a religion. Catholics don’t really disbelieve anything Spiritualist’s say, because Spiritualists believe there is an afterlife, and the lives of the saints are very similar to some of the lives of mediums.
You were initially introduced to Spiritualism as a teen, when your cousin visited a medium.
Yeah, they told her this secret about my grandfather's death, that proved to be true. My whole family was very shocked, and I just thought ‘how could a total stranger have known that?’. That question stayed with me. Once I became a professional photographer I was looking for a longer documentary project I could be creative with. I had no idea I was going to walk into some strange and interesting topic.
And can you speak on your return to Spiritualism and how this project started?
That first summer [in 2001], the Spiritualists at Lily Dale taught me their history, which was shocking because I found out Spiritualism was deeply involved with the women's rights movement, and was a vehicle to help progressive politics like marriage reform and abolition. Then I found out about spirit photography, which was truly shocking to me – I had no idea that Spiritualism had this photographic history, that it was really the first religion to use photography in an iconographic way.
Digging into that history, which is just so absurd, scary and grotesque, and also oddly beautiful, I became totally fascinated; they're the most uniquely unsettling pictures I’d ever encountered. I kept unpacking more, then in 2005 I abandoned [the project] for a number of years because I just thought, how do you photograph an invisible experience? So I did a lot of research and started to embrace the ambiguity and the confusion, rather than look at it as true or false.
How did you achieve the kind of intimacy with your subjects necessary for a project like Séance?
One of the reasons the project became so intense is because I met all these wonderful, eccentric people who had had these wild experiences I had never had, but which I believed. The stereotype when I first went there was, ‘you're going to meet a bunch of charlatans tricking people for money’, and that really is not what I encountered. I encountered sincere practitioners and saw a lot of sincere exchanges about weird human experiences, and I was really compelled by it.
The project has this anthropological element and this research element, which is why I did 60 interviews with people I had photographed over the years, adding their voices [to the book]. It was very collaborative in that way. There's a lot of trust because they're allowing me to photograph these very sensitive personal experiences, and I think people sensed my sincere curiosity, I wasn't trying to debunk, but engage.
Dan Aykroyd wrote the foreword for the book. How did that come about?
I have always been a fan of Ghostbusters – that's the first time I heard the term ectoplasm. Dan's father, Peter had written a book called A History of Ghosts and did some research in Lily Dale; they were a Spiritualist family. Dan came to Lily Dale and through mutual friends we connected – he is so knowledgeable about psychical research.
Culturally, have you noticed any shift in attitudes towards Spiritualism since you began the project?
For sure. I started in 2001, before the first major spirit photography show happened, before anybody acknowledged Hilma af Klint or any of the spiritualist artists. Now, I find there’s more awareness and an openness, especially in the art world because of Klint and Georgiana Houghton.
And in terms of your own experiences, can you speak on some of the things you’ve learnt over the past two decades?
In our contemporary, media, academic realm, the stereotype is that this stuff is very anti-intellectual, and what turned me on my head is finding that it actually has this intellectual history. Also, we – in this modern Western, academic culture, and its denial of these practices as important or real – are actually the anomaly. People have been speaking with spirits of the dead in every country, throughout every era in all of history. It's hard to bring those two worlds together, and I tried to look at it with more of an ancient lens rather than a contemporary lens, looking at how these practices had played a part in human history.