By Dakota Parks for Inweekly
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, Shannon Taggart is not out to convince you one way or another. For the past 20 years, Taggart has photographed Spiritualist practices in the United States, England and Europe, documenting séance circles, mediumship and devices used to aid communication with spirits. As a participant, observer and researcher, her evocative images honor the rich history of Spiritualism and its community of practitioners while embracing ambiguity—leaving the interpretation of orbs, otherworldly blurs and glowing colors within her images up to the viewer to decipher.
Pensacola Museum of Art is currently displaying a selection of Taggart’s images in an exhibition called “Séance: Photographs by Shannon Taggart.”
Spiritualism is an American-born religion that believes in communication with spirits of the dead. Taggart was first introduced to the religion as a teenager when her cousin received a message from a medium at Lily Dale, a hamlet in New York state that is home to the world’s largest Spiritualist community. Uncovering this strange family secret inspired Taggart to document this community and led to her career examining the connection of Spiritualism to art, science, technology and its intrinsic bond with photography.
Both Spiritualism and photography emerged in the mid-19th century and quickly became intertwined as the religion attempted to use the new technology to reveal the existence of spirits. This connection can also be seen in Taggart’s work with red hues overcasting images as dark room séances typically contain red lights, a tradition connected to film photography and light sensitivity—though many also believe this soft red glow is the only light suitable for contact with spirits.
“There was a real belief that you could completely reveal the unseen with photography and witness the spirit world in photographs, just like X-rays and microscopes,” Taggart explained. “Spiritualism and photography expose each other’s complicated relationship with physical reality. I’ve met Spiritualists who believe that one day we will prove the spirit world through photography. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do think photography absolutely has metaphysical possibilities. But it has a complicated relationship with being pure evidence because there is a magic to photography. You’re always getting something other than what you see with the naked eye—playing with light and freezing time.”
These metaphysical qualities of photography led Taggart to experiment with the mechanical functionality of her camera, leaning into accidental motion blurs, long exposure, flares and synchronicities between her subjects and the final product in her photographs. During one session in Lily Dale, for example, Taggart photographed a medium holding a red flashlight while everyone in the room observed a second face, like hers but different, floating next to her. Some claimed it was her doppelgänger, the spirit of her grandmother or maybe even the Voodoo queen Marie Laveau.
“I only saw a woman holding a flashlight,” Taggart said. “I tried to take a straight exposure shot, but later, on the film negative, I saw a blurred second face just like everyone was clairvoyantly describing. When I first began documenting mediums, I struggled with the problem of capturing a veiled presence in a visible body, but by using the mechanisms of the camera and leaning into these synchronicities, I began to capture the invisible part of the story.”
As Taggart continued to document Spiritualist communities and reference its artistic iconography in her own work, she began to take on the role of a researcher, constantly demystifying the history and practices of Spiritualism alongside her own work.
“I became inspired by Spiritualist art, and I was trying to reference it in my own work, but people didn’t know what I was talking about. People had never seen ectoplasm pictures or spirit photographs before,” Taggart said. “My artist talks were always frontloaded by historical background before I could even show the audience my own work.”
Out of this necessity to contextualize her images, Taggart published her first photobook, “Séance,” in 2019, which synthesizes Spiritualist history, research and art alongside her own images. Taggart’s photography exhibition that’s currently on view at PMA invites viewers inside Taggart’s book—into a world of floating trumpets, apportation, ectoplasm and dimly lit séances.
“Though portrayals of séances and mediums are common in popular culture, few people are actually privy to contemporary Spiritualist practices. Taggart’s photographs give us a glimpse into this intimate community, revealing how 21st-century Spiritualists combine traditional elements like séance circles and medium cabinets with new technologies in the centuries-old pursuit of trying to communicate with the dead,” PMA Chief Curator Anna Wall said. “Whether or not you believe in the paranormal, I think many of us can relate to the desire to reach those that we’ve lost. For me, it’s this grief, and the community that forms around this longing, that lies at the heart of Taggart’s beautiful images.”
Although Hollywood blockbusters may paint Spiritualist practices in a negative light, lumping the religion in with the occult, witchcraft and general spooky happenings to scare the masses, Taggart explained that this intimate community is often misunderstood or feared by secular society. This community of individuals, united by grief, deeply held beliefs and the desire to convene with their departed loved ones, is nothing like popular culture depicts.
“Spiritualism is very different than what most people picture in their head. Honestly, the vibe at a Spiritualist church or a séance is very loving and grandmotherly,” Taggart said. “No one is trying to summon spirits to change the world or do their bidding. The whole point is to prove there is another side and that we can contact it—that death is not the end of the transition. Many of these people never thought they would come to places like these, but a personal experience or death of a loved one drew them to a medium, to a séance, to these enchanted places like Lily Dale.”
Taggart’s images capture these intimate moments and enchanted domestic spaces, filled with makeshift medium cabinets and sacred objects like tables for table-tipping, séance trumpets, handkerchiefs, coins and transcommunication devices. “Séance” intertwines and juxtaposes these material objects like bent spoons and séance props alongside immaterial and whimsical images of trailing colors, halos, mediums falling in and out of trances and ectoplasm spilling from mouths.
Over the years, Taggart has participated in hundreds of readings, healings and séances, quietly finding her seat around séance circles and integrating herself in these spaces like an anthropologist with her camera. Often, she is not the only photographer in the room, as many mediums actively experiment with photography and documenting themselves in trances. Although Taggart explained that there is nothing inherently scary about these practices, the unexplainable phenomena can still be unsettling to some.
“There is one story in the book that some people might consider scary,” Taggart said. “I was sitting with a medium I’ve worked with many times, named Sylvia Howarth, and she said to me, ‘I never sit in the dark, because every time I sit in the dark, something strange happens in the kitchen the next day.’ I didn’t think anything of that, and later that evening, she did a sitting in the dark. The next day, I was in the kitchen and went to get a teacup out of her cupboard, and when I grabbed the cupboard, the ceramic knob to her cupboard exploded in my hand and cut my hand open. That could be very scary because if what she was saying is true, there was an unpredictable energy left over in her home.”
If you ask Taggart today whether or not she believes in spirits, the answer is complicated and ever-changing, seeped in ambiguity—just like her photographs. More than anything, she is interested in harnessing this ambiguity and exploring time, consciousness and the human psyche within her images.
“I’m very interested in how our consciousness embeds itself in photographs,” she explained. “When you look at the works of great photographers, you’re seeing the world through their eyes, their thoughts and consciousness. Even more, once you photograph somebody, it becomes a spirit photograph, because it will live on after that person dies. My approach is not to prove anything, which does confuse some Spiritualists because their great tradition of art and photography was all in hopes of proving spirits exist to nonbelievers. My goal has always been to honestly report on what I observe and to draw attention to this very serious, intellectual and important history—both in terms of innovation and creativity.”
“SÉANCE: PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHANNON TAGGART” WHAT: An exhibition featuring the photography of Shannon Taggart WHEN: On view now-Dec. 4 WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St. DETAILS: pensacolamuseum.org, shannontaggart.com
AN EVENING WITH SHANNON TAGGART WHAT: A book signing and artist talk WHEN: 6-8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 30. WHERE: Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson St. COST AND DETAILS: The event is free and open to the public, but seating may be limited. You can register in advance at uwf.edu/downtownlectures.