Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, was a Spiritualist. So is Dan Aykroyd, the creator of Ghostbusters. Spiritualism is a religion based on communication with the spirits of the dead that spread during the second half of the 19th century and it influenced both Woodhull's and Aykroyd's work. Woodhull's desire to create a better life for herself and her fellow Americans was directly informed by her belief in an afterlife. Aykroyd wove Spiritualist ideas into his movies: the existence of ectoplasm, for example. In other words, Spiritualism, though often dismissed as New Age fantasy, is a very real part of American history. According to an estimate by The New York Times in 1897, Spiritualism had more than eight million followers in the U.S. and Europe before the turn of the 20th century.
Aykroyd's great-grandfather was a member of the world's largest Spiritualist community, Lily Dale, New York, a small town near Lake Erie founded during Spiritualism's heyday in 1879. It was a summer meeting place for Spiritualists and Victorian freethinkers, home to both séances and radical social justice movements.
"Fifth-generation medium Gretchen Clark laughs as her deceased brother interrupts a reading to tell her a joke," Lily Dale, New York, 2001.
Photographer Shannon Taggart grew up in Buffalo, 50 miles northeast of Lily Dale. "I didn't really know anything about Spiritualism until my cousins went to Lily Dale for readings when I was 16," she told me recently. "They got a really intense message from my grandfather that shocked my whole family. It's always really stuck with me, the question, How could someone know something like that?"
When Shannon became a professional photojournalist years later, she decided to spend a summer shooting a personal project at Lily Dale. "I thought it would be a quick little project about this strange town. But I ended up getting completely fascinated with Spiritualism itself." Sixteen years later, she is assembling a book of images and research made during countless return trips to the town and to Spiritualist centers in Europe. It's a photographic guide book to Spiritualism that's as experimental and amazingly strange as the religion itself.
What did you expect to see when you first went to Lily Dale?
I didn't really know. It's a very tiny town on a lake, and once you pass the gates and go inside, it feels very magical. I felt like I was time traveling. There are all these Victorian cottages. It's a very analog town. There's authentic Spiritualist art hanging in all the buildings, and beautiful furniture. It felt like no other place I had been. At that point, I couldn't understand how these same, very lovely people I was meeting believed they were conversing with dead people. I had to wrap my brain around that. But I was very open. It was really the people of Lily Dale who very graciously taught me about their beliefs and the history. I had no idea what I was going to find.
"Planchette for automatic writing," Arthur Findlay College, Stansted, England, 2012.
How would you define Spiritualism? Is it a religion, a practice?
It's a religion. There isn't a dogma but there are ten tenets — the most important being that life continues after death. All of Spiritualists' efforts are to illustrate that and provide healing for those in grief. Spiritualists also believe it's a philosophy and a science. Spiritualism came about at a time when science was discovering a lot of invisible forces at work, through germ theory, x-rays, and microscopes. Spiritualism combined with scientific method to try and prove the spiritual realm. Unfortunately, that was a very messy relationship. There was too much of a complicated relationship with truth. Which is a theme in my book.
Why did this community come together in Lily Dale in particular?
Spiritualism began just outside of Rochester, New York. At that time, Buffalo was the richest city in the United States. The movers and shakers in Spiritualism were also really influential. They had money to build this summer camp, and there was a train to Lily Dale from Rochester. The land that Lily Dale was built on has always been considered spiritual. It had meaning for Native Americans. Also, Susan B. Anthony used to go there. It was one of the only places where women could speak publicly on a platform, before they won the right to vote.
"Dorothy with a purple orb that she interprets as her deceased husband Bob's presence," Lily Dale, New York, 2001.
What drew you to spend 16 years researching Spiritualism after that initial summer?
I was introduced to this outsider photography history that exists within Spiritualism, which I was really inspired by. This moment of history was not in any of the textbooks I learned from at school. I also became really interested in the social history: how many Nobel Laureates were involved in Spiritualism and its connections to radical reform and the women's rights movement. Spiritualism often gets lumped in with everything New Age, so discovering that it has this badass intellectual history and this crazy presence in the history of the arts [was amazing]. The Surrealists were famously inspired by Spiritualist techniques and now art historians are reassessing the history of abstract painting and revisiting painters like Hilma af Klint and Georgiana Houghton. Both of these women said their brushes were led by spirits.
My book won't just be my pictures. I'm also going to have a lot of historical imagery, so that you can really understand what I'm doing. I'm building off of this bizarre photographic history. This is my attempt at a next chapter. I'm really hoping to make a book that's interesting to Spiritualists. As far as I know, I'm the only person working in an anthropological, journalistic manner [about Spiritualism] and documenting some of the physical mediumship — the people who are trying, very earnestly, to do Victorian-era séances.
"Healing table, Montcabirol Center for Physical Mediumship," Mirepoix, France, 2014.
Is there a clear archetype of a Spiritualist? Or are Lily Dale's residents a real range of people?
Visitors are all types. The people who are living there are probably 50 and older, but they do have a children's week every summer where kids can take healing or medium classes. The religion seems to be aging. People tend to get interested when they're older and have had a lot of loss in their life. But I've met people who've come to Lily Dale for really unexpected reasons.
What are the main Spiritualist methods for trying to communicate with the dead?
There's clairvoyant mediumship. There's spiritual healing, which is similar to the laying on of hands or reiki but the healers believe they are working with the power of the spirit world. Then there are things like table tipping or physical mediumships where there are séances in at which they try to create a physical effect. That's less popular now. There's also a very interesting newer movement of using technology in combination with mediumship. It's called instrumental transcommunication. It's using a radio or cameras or video to try and amplify a connection you might have or create evidence. Spiritualism has always been tied to technology. The Fox sisters, who founded Spiritualism, referred to their coded knocking as the "spiritual telegraph."
"Naomi listens for an answer from a 'ghost box', a device that surfs radio frequencies for spirit messages," Lily Dale, New York, 2015.
How did you approach documenting these practices?
In the beginning, I approached it very much as a straight documentarian. But I soon became really frustrated with the pictures in relation to the experiences I was having. I felt like they weren't being true to the psychological reality of the events, these charged atmospheres. Then, I started having some happy accidents with my camera — like being in a séance and having a long exposure and having the blur of the image create a metaphor for what people were saying was happening that I couldn't see. There were also anomalous things, like once a purple orb showed up on a woman's shoulder. She told me it was her deceased husband.
I'd never thought of assigning meaning to photographic anomalies, and actually, in many ways, that's very unprofessional. But I started mixing it up and breaking boundaries with it. I got really inspired by the people who practice instrumental transcommunication — they're always looking for that glitch, that thing that you can read into — so I started doing that with my camera, becoming really open. The project merges this journalistic, anthropological study with my own experimental photography.
"Rev. Jean heals Jennifer," the Healing Temple, Lily Dale, New York, 2003.
Did you ever have experiences that you couldn't explain?
Yes. To be really honest, I have had a lot of mysterious experiences. But I also had a lot of really absurd ones! And ones that I think were totally phoney. It's the flickering between those types of experiences that keeps me fascinated. I had a medium tell me, "You're going to have a child on Christmas," and two years later I gave birth on Christmas Eve and it was not expected. Now I'm nervous because they keep giving me a message that I'm going to have a little girl, and I have no plans to have another baby. But there have also been profound messages from loved ones that actually made sense. Somebody gave me a past life regression, it's like a hypnosis technique, and I had this really vivid waking dream. I never expected that. All of it has really helped me be a more creative person and break out of boxes.
"Séance: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm" is now available for pre-sale via Unbound.
"Inspiration Stump, a sacred spot in Lily Dale where mediums have given messages since 1879, and the place where my grandfather's message was received," Lily Dale, New York, 2012.
"Physical medium Kevin Lawrenson does a spiritual healing," Montcabirol Center for Physical Mediumship, Mirepoix, France, 2014.
"The utensils Willa bent with her mind," Lily Dale, New York, 2002.
"Myra Basey's automatic writing message from Elvis," Peterborough, Engand, 2012.
"Orb hunting with cameras, after praying for orbs to appear," Sette Fratelli Mountains, Sardinia, Italy, 2015.
"Smoke scrying experiment with medium Susan Barnes," Arthur Findlay College, Stansted, England, 2016.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Shannon Taggart