Shannon Taggart is no stranger to the deceased. After all, she is a séance photographer.
In fact, getting familiar with ghosts was her goal. In 2001, Taggart began working on a documentary project about Lily Dale, New York. The 140-year-old town is home to the world’s largest Spiritualist community. More than 50 professional registered mediums call Lily Dale home, along with a community of Spiritualists who believe in the possibility of communication with the spirits of the dead.
Taggart even has a personal connection there.
“My cousin received a message from a medium revealing details about my grandfather’s death that proved to be true,” Taggart said. “This happened in Lily Dale.”
Taggart began documenting Lily Dale through pictures, thinking it would only be a short project. It didn’t turn out that way. Getting mediums to agree to be photographed, particularly at such delicate moments, was initially a challenge.
When Taggart started, she found mediums to work with through research. If she thought one would make a good subject, she’d reach out. From there, if they were interested she would share her work with them — photos she’d taken for Time, Newsweek and The New York Times. Slowly, word got around.
“Spiritualism is a small movement,” Taggert said. “Word got around that I was respectful towards their beliefs, so people I approached trusted me based on my reputation in the community.”
Part of the reason the Spiritualists are okay with it is because Taggart isn’t trying to manipulate the situation or show something that isn’t there. She tries to keep it pure, letting the camera do the work.
“My process is to always be open to surprises when shooting. I try to stay true to the psychological reality of the situation,” Taggart said. “I seek to make pictures about the invisible interaction between a veiled presence and a visible body. I’m not creating anything in post. I’m using the camera’s automatic mechanism, experimenting with light and long exposures.”
Through her work, the St. Paul, Minnesota-based photographer has had some of her own powerful and absurd spiritual experiences.
“After my mother died, my brother and sister said they wanted to get tattoos about her,” Taggart said “The next morning, my friend Lauren, a medium in Lily Dale, texted me. She said my mom came to her with a few messages for me and the last thing she said was, ‘Tell them no tattoos!’”
Taggart is currently focusing on books and is a part of several exhibitions, including a recent one at the University of Northern Iowa in early 2023. Her book Séance represents 20 years of research and photographs about the religion of Spiritualism. Filled with historical essays, pictures and stories, it was named one of Time magazine’s Best Photobooks of 2019 and has just been re-released in an updated edition. A new illustrated book about The Society for Research on Rapport and Telekinesis (SORRAT) will be out in the fall of 2024, while her solo exhibition “Séance” will continue to travel throughout the next couple of years.
With it all, Taggart hopes people see a bit beyond what their eyes show them.
“My goal is to make work that touches on the mystery of both photography and Spiritualism,” she said.