Our Minds Come Alive in a Visual Way — Shannon Taggart and the photography of invisible things

Detail from — Physical medium Sylvia Howarth in trance, Reeth, England, Photographer: Shannon Taggart, 2013.

It is an egregious, unavoidable fact that much of the material evidence for unexplained experience is the result of easily explained technical glitches, intentionally or unintentionally invoked. Apparitional double exposures, pollen produced orbs, apophenial faces, and other replicable effects mar the minds of seekers and skeptics confronted with photographs and other forms of ostensibly objective proof said to contain traces of some transcendent order of nature.

There is a wonderful episode of The Midnight Archive, the award winning documentary series from film maker Ronni Thomas, featuring an interview with photographer Shannon Taggart who takes this fact as given. Taggart’s work moves beyond questions of real or unreal, using these ambiguities to capture a more narrative experience of the event. In the interview she discusses her art, and the broader history of Spiritualist spirit photography, in the process providing an alternative approach to understanding these areas of experience that steps past questions of proof:

As an artist and photojournalist Taggart is able to eschew issues of authenticity, in order to embrace the psychological and storytelling aspects of the event. Through an exchange between her camera and the subject in the midst of charged expectation she is able to bring out a visual representation of the narrative in play.

Physical medium Sharon Harvey’s spirit guide shows his mask, Cheshunt, England, 2013.

Her work with traditional Haitian Vodou houses in Brooklyn shows a similar engaged detachment. In her work she allows herself to embrace what is happening — cultivating a powerful sense of presence within her photography. Using her terminology, she is able to capture a visual representation of the “psychological space” which exists along with the physical.

Sound artists like Mike Kelley, Joe Banks and Michael Esposito use this ambiguity to explore Electronic Voice Phenomena, evoking transdisciplinary experiments in the nature of mind. The key to these artistic approaches is tapping into the mystery and potency of these highly emotionally charged experiences, and utilizing this liminal depth to create an open ended expression of the implications.

In the writerly world we have examples such as William Blake or W.B. Yeats who used channeling techniques to complete their art, or in a more contemporary vein there is the poet James Merrill used a Ouija Board and mediumship messages to write a number of poems. Some of this material was even included in his Pulitzer Prize winning poetry compilation Divine Comedies. In 1982 these Ouija inspired poems where compiled in The Changing Light at Sandover which won the 1983 National Book Critics Award.

Our idea of evidence is burdened by a sense of science tied to industry that no longer embraces the very human creative and experiential elements of these cultural areas. If we look at these supposed anomalous areas in terms of efficacy we find that when properly approached they are fruitful grounds for meaningful exchange.

Physical medium Gordon Garforth in trance (l) Photo of his great-grandfather (r), Stansted, England, 2013.

By embracing the performance aspect of what is considered paranormal phenomena these artistic pieces become an act of participation. Rather than being asked to form a solid opinion, we are asked to become involved in the process, and in turn are given the opportunity to suspend judgement in order to communicate with these powerful questions about nature and reality.

The Near-Death-Experience researcher Dr. Nancy Evans Bush came up with a succinct timeline for the lifespan of an anomalous experience:

Experiencing — Reporting– Interpreting — Assigning meaning — Dogmatizing

This simple flow chart can help us to see where these artistic approaches offer something much more profound than it may first appear. Approaching these areas artisitically we are kept at the first two stages of the experience, and allowed our own agency in interpreting what this means.

There is a rhythmic quality to this, as any sufficiently powerful experience will have practical repercussions. In holding ourselves within the act of interpretation, the assigned meaning becomes more of a functional element that develops from the repercussions of our encounter than an active choice. This passivity allows us to find a more existent meaning in the anomalous experience than would come from trying to fit it into the artificial framework of a model or a theory.

(L) The medium Eva C. with materialization of a women’s face, Albert Von Schrenck-Notzing, 1911, (R) Physical medium Kai Muegge with ectoplasm (materialization of a man’s face), Cassadaga, NY, 2013.

If you think of how this plays out over time in the normal process of investigation we are most often introduced to something by a report, usually we step into things in the process of assigning meaning or as dogma. The initial experience was the important factor, and yet the longer this process runs we move farther and farther from the original phenomena in question. We also can’t mistake reality television or popular media as artistic explorations. These forms of media are firmly embedded in dogmatizing these phenomenal realms, despite providing the illusion that they are in some way a direct way of capturing the experience.

Gordon Higginson’s medium’s cabinet, Arthur Findlay College, Stansted, England 2003.

Through the artistic process we are able to create a feedback loop where the reporting itself shares something of the experience, which is then interpreted through experience, and itself becomes something that opens up a sense of immediacy with the phenomena.

In Taggart’s photography we are left with an image of the event, in the sound work the EVP is ever present and left to stand open to interpretation, and in channeled writings we have the message which can be read in a meditational mindset analogous to that which the writer cultivated while receiving the purported message.

Taggart’s expression of photography is apt for any of these artistic approaches:

“I feel all photography really deals with invisible things. It’s a way of making our minds come alive in a visual way. I feel that all photography combines time and space in such a unique way that you can see many layers of reality. When you put four edges around a frame it changes those things within it, they embalm time.”

The four edges of the photograph protect us from the immediacy of the experience, giving space for reflection. For those like Taggart who are more adventurous in their approach — these same restraints open up an experience in time, embalmed and bound within a frame- a doorway to past forms awaiting resurrection through the right atmosphere of evocation.

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For more on Shannon Taggart’s work, including her upcoming book Seance: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm visit: ShannonTaggart.com