Scientific mystery

Communicating With the Dead: 20 Years of Photographing Spirits

Shannon Taggart started photographing mediums in Lily Dale, New York, USA in 2001, out of curiosity whether members of the spiritualist community could actually communicate with the dead. Two decades later, her project has brought her more questions than answers.

Despite growing up just an hour’s drive from Lily Dale, a lakeside village where people gather to communicate with the dead, photographer Shannon Taggart didn’t visit until she was 26 years old.

The largest spiritualist community in the world

She was interested in capturing images of the small, quaint town that became a summer retreat for mystics in the late 19th century, after the spiritualist movement originated in New York State and spread worldwide. Spiritualists believed that the afterlife existed around us and could be sensed through mediums.

Today, there are 65 Spiritualist churches in 20 states across the US and over 280 Spiritualist churches in the UK. But the Lily Dale Assembly says it’s the largest Spiritualist community in the world, with 32 registered mediums and six others in training.

In the summer, thousands of visitors come to Lily Dale for spiritual events. Taggart’s own family has also communicated with the dead through a medium.

Shannon Taggart spent 20 years photographing mediums, séances and spirit calling ceremonies.

In 1989, during a ceremony, a medium entered Taggart’s cousin Rita and told Rita that their grandfather had actually died of suffocation, not brain cancer.

When Rita returned home, her father confirmed that it was true. Someone at the hospital had left him alone with food in his mouth, causing him to choke to death.

Curious, Taggart visited Lily Dale in the summer of 2001 to learn about the practice of spirit calling and the activities of mediums.

Taggart said, “People often think that mediums are fraudsters who just want your money and that it’s all just a fancy dress party. But what I found in Lily Dale was truly the opposite.”

There is a one-room schoolhouse converted into a historical museum; a temple turned into a healing center; a church; a wooden auditorium; and an old-growth forest, where mediums sit facing a tree stump – a location believed to hold spiritual energy.

A portrait of the Fox sisters, who became famous mediums in the mid-19th century and were catalysts for the Spiritualist movement in New York.

The first visit of the photographer to the town propelled the two-decade-long project “Summoning Spirits” – a rich visual archive of the activities of mediums and the predecessors of spiritualists around the world.

Taggart released a book in 2019, with a second edition containing new images and text published late last year. An exhibition touring on “Summoning Spirits” is currently on display at the North Iowa University Art Gallery this month.

Like Taggart, many people she met have been drawn to Lily Dale for a meeting they can’t explain: a message seemingly transmitted from the other side, or a vision they believed to be a deceased loved one. Others come to heal wounds or seek a new purpose.

Although Taggart initially came to seek specific answers on whether spiritualists communicate with the other world, she soon realized her task would be challenging.

She has been to many countries, visiting Arthur Findlay College in the UK, which attracts international students and is the birthplace of the Scole movement in Spain, aimed at proving the existence of the spirit world in the 1990s.

Taggart has witnessed public healing sessions, secret summoning, and séances; received spiritual readings; met famous figures in the spiritual world, including controversial students.

“I’ve had many genuinely fascinating experiences. I’ve had mysterious experiences. I’ve had entirely illogical experiences. I can honestly say that I have more questions than answers at this point,” Taggart said.

One swan on Cassadaga Lake. As Taggart continued her work, she experimented more with her images, combining techniques of editing used by early spiritualist photographers.

The influence of spiritual photography

Around 1869, the first spiritualist photographer, William Mumler, took a portrait of former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, dressed in black, with the clear ghostly image of the late President Abraham Lincoln embracing her from behind to protect her.

Mumler’s portraits of clients appearing to have ghosts accompanying them made him famous but also notorious. He pushed the boundaries of what reality photography of the time could convey, although today we can easily identify his work as double exposure.

After achieving business success, Mumler was brought to trial – although he was later acquitted – on charges of fraud.

When Taggart first saw Mumler’s photos, she was moved by the sadness and gentleness that the portraits revealed. Their subjects hoped to obtain tangible evidence of their deceased loved ones.

Gretchen Clark, a fifth-generation medium in Lily Dale, laughed at a joke her deceased brother had just told her. Shortly after, Clark told Taggart that she had a message from the photographer’s late aunt.

Taggart was also surprised to learn about the close historical connection between photography and spiritualism that she did not learn about in her photography courses at the nearby Rochester Institute of Technology.

She said, “I often give the example that spiritualism and photography are like Catholicism and painting because spiritualists use this new medium to try to prove their faith, as well as illustrate it.”

Other artists of the era incorporated spiritualism into their work. The Swedish abstract painter Hilma af Klimt and the English medium and artist Georgiana Houghton both believed that their work was guided by spirits but were overlooked by art history until recently.

Through her own research, Taggart has traced the movement’s influence across vast cultural spheres of the 19th century, from art and literature to politics, including women’s suffrage in the early period.

Some images of spiritual mediums and spiritual curses

The portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln taken by Mumler shows a ghostly image of former US President Abraham Lincoln standing behind her.

A university student named Arthur Findlay sat in a cabinet with a spiritualist medium. Taggart spent a week at the school to attend and observe the courses.

Muegge claimed to have created ectoplasmic hands and other forms, as well as produced images of the dead.

Sylvia Horwath, the medium, performed “a kind of séance based on energy combined with dimensions of time and space.” Horwath has been practicing mediumship since the age of 8.

At Arthur Findlay College in the UK, people come from all over the world to study mediumship. The country has hundreds of spiritualist churches.

Taggart was fascinated by the cabinets of the spiritualists, where practitioners conducted séances and touched the world of spirits.

Taggart traveled to Germany to meet Kai Muegge, who still conducts extraterrestrial séances.

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