As spiritualism’s popularity grows, photographer Shannon Taggart takes viewers inside the world of séances, mediums and orbs

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(Conversation) The word séance is reminiscent of dark rooms, media with entrances, bizarre events, and images of spiritual voice. To many modern audiences, these visions may look more like a past, or perhaps a movie, than a living belief system.

For the past two decades, American photographer Shannon Taggart has explored modern spiritualism, a religion in which believers believe in communicating with the dead.

Her photo series “Séance,” recently exhibited at the Alvin O. Kuhn Gallery in Baltimore County, University of Maryland, provides a window to this often misunderstood religion.

As a curator and art historian who has studied the art of phantom photography and conspiracy theory, I was drawn to Taggart’s images. Because it provides a lens for investigating the role of spirituality in modern life.

In an era defined by global pandemics, intensifying political divisions, and the threat of climate-changing planets, I wonder: Is spiritualism due to a major resurgence?

Spiritualism is knocking

Spiritualism emerged near Rochester, New York, in 1848 when two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, claimed to have heard a mysterious rap on the wall of their bedroom. Adolescents claimed to communicate with the spirit of a man who died at home many years ago through Knock’s system. The news of the phenomenon was immediately transmitted, and the girls appeared in front of the crowd, demonstrating their intended abilities.

Soon, reports of similar phenomena happening all over the United States appeared in the press, and the possibility of talking to the deceased stimulated a popular imagination.

Spiritualism first grew privately. The people who led the communication with the dead, called the medium, worked outside their homes, where they organized a séance circle and held a rally in which small groups tried to come into contact with the spirit world.

Over time, spiritualists have begun to appear publicly at conventions and outdoor summer camp meetings. By the 1870s, they began to take root and established like-minded communities and research centers, including the 1879 Lily Dale Spiritualist Colony.

In addition to holding a séance, spiritualists practice healing and believe in the gift of prophecy. The medium says they convey a message from the dead to the living, including reports about the future.

Many spiritualists wanted to realize their current utopian vision of the future by supporting progressive political objectives such as the abolitionist movement, women’s rights and indigenous peoples’ rights.

In particular, spiritualism has given women an unprecedented role in religion, providing an audience and platform for delivering both personal and political messages. Suffrage Marion H. Skidmore, Elizabeth Cadystanton, and Susan B. Anthony all spoke at Lily Dale. Therefore, the spiritualist view represents a fundamental departure from traditional religious and political authority.

Ghost in the machine

The ability of the Fox sisters to communicate with the dead became known as “spiritual telegraph,” with reference to Samuel B. Morse’s invention at the time. As spiritualism developed, believers embraced technology as a tool for spiritual communication and as a tool for proving the existence of spirituality.

Photography has become the “perfect medium” for creating iconography of spiritualism. Whether it’s astrophotography, micrographs, or radiographs, the camera can make what you can’t see. Despite the proliferation of modified photographs in the 19th century, the status of photographs as an expression of the truth of reality is maintained and may be claimed, but remains largely intact.

Photography also played a leading role in the memorial culture of the 19th century. Because the camera can freeze time and make an absent loved one exist, even as a visual trace.

The Civil War has brought death to people’s living rooms on an unprecedented scale through illustrated media pages. In the culture of mourning, the genres of black clothing, mourning jewelry, and post-mortem photography were commonplace.

In the 1860s, New York portrait photographer William Mumler and his wife, media Hannah Mumler, provided a portrait session in which the spirit of a sitter’s loved one appears to appear in the resulting photo.

Mumler’s magnificent portrait also caused a ghost of publicity. The photographer was charged with fraud by the plaintiff alleging that he had forged the photo, and none other than Showman PT Barnum provided evidence of the indictment.

In the early 20th century, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is famous for gathering to defend Ada Emmadine, a British media accused of forging psychic photographs.

Double-sided coins of belief and skepticism are infested with these historical examples. Nevertheless, the psychological impact of these images during mourning remained strong.

Resurrection of spiritualists

History seems to suggest that a catastrophic loss of life could stimulate a new interest in spiritualist beliefs.

It may not be a coincidence that the portraits of the Mamuras were all the rage in the devastation of the Civil War, but Dean’s popularity peaked in the wake of World War I and the flu epidemic.

Did the spread of uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic cause the resurrection of another spiritualist?

It seems that alternative belief structures such as astrology and tarot have revived and reached new viewers through the internet and social media.

Recently, many media have become famous, thanks to the support of celebrity customers. Some media claim that you can guide the stars from the tombs, from Louis Armstrong to Elvis Presley.

Despite critics in the modern media, the enthusiastic adoption of television and the Internet is a logical step for religions that have always adopted new technologies.

What was once considered a niche subculture or the realm of midnight 1-900 call-in shows has become mainstream. The psychic business was a US $ 2 billion industry in 2018.

Shannon Taggart’s “Séance”

This new spirituality is affecting not only pop culture but also high art. Guggenheim’s 2019 Swedish artist and mysterious Hilmaaf Clinton retrospective is the most visited exhibition in the history of the museum, attracting more than 600,000 viewers.

The New York Times art critic Roberta Smith argued that the influence of the exhibition was equivalent to the “spiritual and historical change” of the art world. Smith’s use of the word “psychic” is appropriate. This exhibition was a watershed not only to restore the role of female dominance in the development of abstract painting, but also to re-center the spiritual in art.

Taggart’s photographs, on the other hand, explore the subject of current customs, places and spiritualism.

Opportunities and automation allow the camera to experiment, she reveals the process of change and change through blurry effects, light halos, and doubling of images that refer to historical psychic photographs.

For example, in one image, a mourning mother raises her arm toward a dark sky dotted with rings of light called orbs. Orb photography is a recent innovation in spirit photography, where practitioners require the spirit to display orbs, and orbs are captured with a digital camera. Orb photography is another example of the ambiguity of psychic photography. Does it lead to something supernatural, or does it simply capture the dust reflections on the camera lens?

For Taggart, that question is largely unimportant. Her aim is to remain true to the psychological experience of spiritualism and to make the indescribable visible.

Taggart’s photographs bring back the history of spiritualism that has reached its limits the moment the religion feels again on the verge of resurrection.

As Taggart likes to say, “You don’t have to literally take spiritualism to take it seriously.”

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