The cover of Shannon Taggart: Séance

Lily Dale, a small town in upstate New York—ostensibly frozen in time, with its pretty Victorian buildings, bucolic surroundings, and air of sleepy gentility—was established in 1879 as a sanctuary for practitioners of Spiritualism. This religious movement (which had connections to several reformist and progressive causes of the nineteenth century, including women’s suffrage and abolitionism) posits that the veil separating the living from the deceased is porous, and can be breached by those blessed with special gifts. The burg, which is also home to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches, thrives: As of 2018, there are fifty-two registered mediums who live there (in a population of roughly two hundred and seventy-five), and thousands of visitors flock to Lily Dale every summer, its open season, to participate in an assortment of Spiritualist talks, programs, and workshops.

Shannon Taggart, Gretchen Clark laughs as her deceased brother Chapman interrupts a reading to tell her a joke, Lily Dale, New York, 2001.
Shannon Taggart, Gretchen Clark laughs as her deceased brother Chapman interrupts a reading to tell her a joke, Lily Dale, New York, 2001.

In 1989, one of Shannon Taggart’s family members experienced what would end up being a life-altering event at this renowned hub of paranormal study and practice. Starting in 2001, Taggart would journey to Lily Dale—in addition to visiting other sites of occult phenomena throughout the United States and Europe—to photograph all manner of Spiritualist gatherings and rituals. The artist’s work, taken over the course of nearly two decades and assembled in this exquisitely designed volume, was not produced out of skepticism. She has no desire to “debunk” the beliefs of people who have an abiding respect for mystery. Nor does she claim that her pictures offer definitive proof of the supernatural—although some of the photos seem to show manifestations of ectoplasm, that phantom-substance many of us first encountered in Ivan Reitman’s 1984 film Ghostbusters. (Dan Aykroyd, one of the movie’s stars and a contributor to Séance, is more than just a pop-cultural necromancer: His great-grandfather Dr. Samuel Augustus Aykroyd was a dyed-in-the-wool Spiritualist.)

Taggart’s photos—of an unusually radiant (i.e., glowing) swan treading the waters of Lake Cassadaga, which is located just outside of Lily Dale; of men and women trying to communicate with dead children using toys in a séance class; of medium Sharon Harvey, bathed in a red light, reentering her body post-trance; and of empty rooms suffused by curious mists—are beautiful, tender, and frequently eerie, as images of wonder and faith, hovering at the threshold of invisible worlds, should be.