Shannon Taggart

Physical Mediumship, Spiritualist Ritual, and the Search for Ectoplasm

Spiritualism is a religion based on communicating with spirits of the dead. Hugely popular in the nineteenth century, it radically impacted scientific inquiry and popular culture before fading into obscurity. I became aware of Spiritualism as a teenager when my cousin received a reading from a medium. The woman revealed a secret about my grandfather’s death that proved to be true. Since then I have been deeply curious about how someone could know such a thing. In 2001 I began photographing where that message was received, Lily Dale, New York, the world’s largest Spiritualist community. I quickly immersed myself in the philosophy of Spiritualism, I had readings, experienced healings, joined in séances, attended a psychic college and sat in a medium’s cabinet, all with my camera. I expected to spend one summer figuring out the tricks of the Spiritualist trade. Instead I peered into something truly mysterious. I stumbled upon a hidden world, an abandoned system with a storied history that became a resource and an inspiration for my own photographic theory and practice.

For this talk I used historical references in combination with photographs made from 2001-2013. The presentation examined Spiritualist ritual, its uses of technologies and its links with Shamanistic spectacle. A comparison between the latent theater of the séance room and the literal theatrics of Haitian Vodou was explored in relation to the question how to photograph the invisible? This inquiry expanded to consider the play of photographic and other technological anomalies and how they are used to refer to the immaterial. The elusive substance of ectoplasm, and its variety of metaphorical and material expressions, served as the main point of focus. Images documenting the ‘New Age of Physical Mediumship’ compared and contrasted the ectoplasmic manifestations of physical mediums Sharon Harvey, Gordon Garforth and Kai Muegge.