By Alyssa Coppelman
As a teenager, photographer Shannon Taggart was introduced to the world of spiritualism after a medium told her cousin details about her grandfather's death that proved to be true.
The reading had taken place at the Lily Dale Assembly in New York, the world's largest spiritualist community. Curious but with reservations, Taggart headed to Lily Dale to delve into the history of spiritualism thinking she would learn what all the tricks of the trade were, but she didn't end up getting the explanations she thought she would. Instead, she discovered a mysterious world she began to document with her camera.
Anne Gehman's spoon-bending lesson in Lily Dale. Spoon bending is a spiritualist technique used to demonstrate the power of mind over matter.
She certainly wasn’t the first photographer to do this, as spiritualism and spiritualist photography have long been connected. Both surfaced in the mid-1800s in Rochester, N.Y.,—home of Kodak. At the time, spiritualists naturally gravitated toward this new technology in hopes of recording what they had been experiencing. One of the most well-known spiritualist portraits of this era purports to show the ghost of President Abraham Lincoln with his hand placed nonchalantly on the shoulder of his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln.
When Taggart first began taking photos at Lily Dale, she remained an observer. After the first year, she became involved as a student and a participant while continuing her photography. Although at first she had a hard time understanding spiritualism, Taggart was curious and said she has since experienced numerous mysterious experiences that have helped her tap into her own creative process.
One of these inexplicable events occurred during one of her first visits to the Lily Dale Museum. Taggart said that a large purple orb appeared on the shoulder of a woman she was photographing, but she wasn’t shooting into the sun. “When I brought a copy back for her, she calmly said, 'Oh, that's Bob,' her deceased husband. She was thrilled with the picture," Taggart said.
Taggart was also interested in physical mediumship, which claims to involve perceptible manifestations—such as loud raps or voices—and is practiced outside the New York community. While at Lily Dale, she met a medium who suggested she visit England, where, along with other parts of the United Kingdom and Europe, a "new age of physical mediumship" was happening.
Taggart said one of the strangest things she witnessed happened during the mediumship of Gordon Garforth, a deep trance and physical medium in Stansted, England. Garforth told Taggart that his hands enlarge during his séances. About 20 minutes into one, Garforth’s wife, who operates as his “spirit control,” said that the spirits were going to work with his hands. While seated under a dim red light, Garforth held out his hand to Taggart. “Unbelievably to me, it seemed to effortlessly stretch, and the entire hand became large, instantly. I gasped and yelled ‘Oh my God!’ ” Taggart remembered. She said that the 30 other people in the room also reacted with amazement; she worried the experience was merely “hypnotic” and that her camera, set to one-second exposures, wouldn’t capture the growth. “The photographs made seem to confirm a distorted large hand … I was able to sit with Gordon on two additional occasions and I saw the same thing,” Taggart said.
While some of her experiences struck Taggart as downright supernatural, some of her images were more straightforward, including her photo of bent spoons. It may not come as a surprise to learn the spiritualists bend them with their hands as a sort of symbolic connection to what they believe to be possible. "It is taught as an exercise of the power of the mind, a physical example of our ability to do things that seem impossible," said Taggart of her most asked-about image.
Taggart has work in a group show opening on Halloween at MCLA Gallery in North Adams, Mass., and work being published in the Morbid Anatomy Anthology in December.
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