The pandemic rekindles interest in communication with the afterlife


“Séance” conjures up images of dark rooms, fascinated mediums, strange events and spiritual voices. To many contemporary audiences, these visions may resemble something from the past, or perhaps a movie, rather than a living belief system.

Over the past 20 years, American photographer Shannon Taggart has explored modern spiritualism, a religion whose followers believe in communication with the dead.

His photographic series “Séance”, recently presented at the Albin O. Kuhn gallery at the University of Maryland, opens a window on this often overlooked religious practice.

As a curator who researched the apparition photographs, I was drawn to Taggart’s images.

In a time defined by a global pandemic, heightened political division and the global threat of climate change, I ask myself: Does spiritualism need to experience a major resurgence?

Spiritualism emerged near Rochester, NY, in 1848 when two sisters, Kate and Margaret Fox, claimed to hear a mysterious knock on their bedroom wall. The teenagers pretended to communicate through a knocking system with the spirit of a man who had died in the house years earlier. Word of the phenomenon spread quickly and the girls appeared in front of crowds demonstrating their purported abilities.

Soon, reports of similar phenomena occurring across the United States appeared in the press, and the opportunity to speak with the deceased fueled the popular imagination.

Over time, spiritualists began to appear publicly at outdoor summer camp conventions and meetings. In the 1870s they began to take root, founding like-minded communities and study centers, such as the Spiritualist Colony of Lily Dale, NY, established in 1879.

In addition to holding sessions, spiritualists practice healings and believe in the gift of prophecy. Psychics say they carry messages from the dead to the living, including reports about the future.

Many spiritualists hoped to make utopian visions of the future a reality in the present by supporting progressive political causes such as abolition, women’s rights, and indigenous rights.

Notably, spiritualism has given women an unprecedented role in religion, providing an audience and a platform for delivering both personal and political messages. Suffragists Marion H. Skidmore, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony all spoke to Lily Dale.

The Fox sisters’ purported ability to communicate with the dead has come to be known as “The Spiritual Telegraph”.

Whether by astronomical, microscopic or X-ray photography, cameras could make the invisible visible. Despite the proliferation of modified photographs in the 19th century, photography’s status as a true representation of reality has remained – and, one might say, continues to remain – largely intact.

The Civil War brought death on a scale unprecedented in the pages of the illustrated press. Black clothing, mourning jewelry, and the genre of post-mortem photography were commonplace in a mourning culture.

In the 1860s, New York portrait photographer William Mumler and his wife, Hannah Mumler, a medium, offered portrait sessions in which the spirits of the models’ relatives seemed to manifest in the resulting photographs.

Mumler’s spectacular portraits also raised the specter of bargaining. The photographer has been charged with fraud by plaintiffs who claimed he had tampered with the photographs, and none other than showman PT Barnum testified for the prosecution.

At the turn of the 20th century, Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle joined in the defense of British medium Ada Emma Deane, also accused of falsifying spirit photographs.

The double-sided coin of belief and skepticism haunts these historical examples; nevertheless, the psychological impact of these images on the bereaved remained strong.

Spiritualist awakenings

History seems to suggest that catastrophic loss of life can spur renewed interest in spiritualistic beliefs.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that the Mumlers’ portraits became fashionable amid the ravages of the Civil War, while Deane’s popularity peaked in the aftermath of World War I and the pandemic of flu.

Has the feeling of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic triggered another spiritualist revival?

Recently, a number of media have become famous thanks to their endorsements by celebrity clientele. Some psychics claim to be able to channel the stars of the grave, from Louis Armstrong to Elvis Presley.

While modern media have their detractors, their enthusiastic adoption of television and the Internet is a logical step for a religion that has always embraced new technologies.

What was once considered a niche subculture or the realm of late-night phone shows has become mainstream: Psychic businesses were a $ 2 billion industry in 2018.

This new spirituality has influenced pop culture as well as high art; the 2019 Guggenheim retrospective on Swedish artist and mystic Hilma af Klint was the most-visited exhibition in museum history, drawing over 600,000 spectators.

New York Times art critic Roberta Smith argued that the exhibition’s impact amounted to “psychic and historical change” in the art world. Smith’s use of the word “psychic” is appropriate; the exhibition was a turning point not only to restore the primordial role of women in the development of abstract painting, but also to refocus the spiritual in art.

Taggart’s photographs, on the other hand, explore the practices, sites and objects of contemporary spiritualism.

In one picture, for example, a grieving mother raises her arms in a dark sky dotted with circles of light called orbs. Orb photography is a recent innovation within spiritual photography in which practitioners call upon spirits to manifest orbs, which are then captured by digital cameras. Orb photography is another example of the ambiguity of spirit photographs: does it channel the supernatural or simply capture the reflections of dust on the camera lens?

The article by University of Maryland curator and special collections director Beth Saunders first appeared in The Conversation. It arrives at The Times Union through The Associated Press’s partnership with The Conversation.

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