By Alessandra Koch
For The Austin Séance
LILY DALE, NEW YORK — I recently had the pleasure of visiting with photojournalist Shannon Taggart about her upcoming photo book, Séance. It’s a stunning work. Through 165 beautiful color photos and eight sumptuous black and whites, Shannon has documented her worldwide search for ectoplasm and her encounters with spiritualist mediums. The fascinating book takes us behind the medium’s curtain and through the dark rooms of the Lily Dale Assembly. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
We met at the famous spiritualist assembly here at Lily Dale where she was hosting a symposium with her friend Susan B. Barnes, a spirit artist and communications professor. Entitled “The Science of Things Spiritual,” the symposium was a perfect setting for us to talk about Shannon’s book and her life’s adventures. During Q&A sessions and between panel discussions she patiently answered question after question.
Shannon tells me she first became interested in the paranormal and Lily Dale as an adolescent, after her cousin returned home from a visit to a Lily Dale medium with eerily accurate information about their grandfather’s death. Shannon went on to study photography at Rochester Institute of Technology and then, In 2001, while working as a photojournalist, returned to Lily Dale hoping to document the tricks of the spiritualists’ trade. But instead she came away captivated by the mysterious processes she witnessed as well as the neglected photographic history of American spiritualists. Shannon has been returning regularly to the Assembly ever since, although her subsequent travels also have taken her to other spiritualist communities, such as the one at Arthur Findlay College in the UK. Shannon likens her life’s journey to that of the Fox sisters — as an “adolescent girl learns of a wrongful death by a restless spirit,” she said.
Shannon’s search for ectoplasm along the way is the connective cord that forms the sinews of her book. First introduced to the modern American public in the Ghostbusters movie, the term denotes a substance or spiritual energy “exteriorized” by physical mediums. Shannon describes it as a paradoxical substance, one that is both spiritual and material and that blurs the definitive worlds of life and death. “I’m trying to make a point that we have a cultural awareness of ectoplasm that’s detached from Spiritualism,” Shannon tells me. “I find that the visionary artist Paul Lafolley’s statement, ‘ectoplasm unites life with death,’ comes closest to describing ectoplasm authentically.”
Shannon presents in Séance fascinating photographs of many of the spiritualist practices she has witnessed firsthand in far-flung regions of the world. One image portrays a night sky in southern Italy that is completely saturated with spirit orbs. These orbs were “prayed for” by the Italians who brought Taggart up to the Sette Fratelli mountains. People there remain open to the possibility that these orbs are actually spirit guides, angels or ghosts, Shannon says. Another photo appears similar in style to Victorian spirit photos of ectoplasm. In it, controversial German medium Kai Muegge appears to be producing from his mouth a wispy, weblike substance — and it is so clearly formed that one can see a glove-like form waving at the camera.
With so much to discover around the world, I asked Taggart, “What brings you back to Lily Dale every year?” She tells me that all of her “happy accidents” with spirit photography first began here. Her affection for this community, for spirit photography and for spiritualists in general energizes her wonderful 304-page book. With its images of luminescent orbs and mysterious emanations, Shannon’s Séance belongs on the shelf of any serious scholar of modern-day spiritualism.
Shannon Taggart’s Séance with illustrated essays by Tony Oursler and Andreas Fischer and preface by Dan Akyroyd, is due out from Fulgur Press in October 2019. It lists for $65. It is also available for pre-order at this link.