• The woman who shoots ghosts

    Picture a photograph of a man with two faces — one grimacing in pain, one open-mouthed in ecstasy. They float in a field of darkness, lit red, connected only by a pale-pink thread of motion-blur. Is this an image of a man jerking his neck wildly, taken with a long exposure? Or is it the image of a physical medium, a person sensitive the invisible world of spirits, channeling an intelligence from beyond the grave?

    The answer is yes — to both interpretations. And the photographer behind the enigma is an attractive, auburn haired New Yorker named Shannon Taggart. She's worked for glossy publications like Time, Discover and Newsweek — but for the last ten years, her passion has been photographing American and European Spiritualists, the strange remnants of the 19th century religious movement which brought the world dim-lit seance rooms, ghostly rappings and — most relevant to the present project — spirit photography.

    Taggart's particular approach to spirit photography uses what are usually deemed photographic "accidents" to produce striking, supernatural images. Taggart is not a "believer," in the traditional sense, nor does she seem to debunk her subject. Rather, she presents a world where belief and unbelief are radically mediated by technology — and raises the possibility that in the age of omnipresent electronic image what is "true" may be a much harder debate than the skeptics suppose.

    One of her recent subjects is an ectoplasmic medium named Gordon Garforth.

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    Physical medium Gordon Garforth in trance.

    Garforth is a spiritualist. His religion, a product of the American nineteenth-century, holds that death is not the end of consciousness. For him, there is an eternal world of "spirit," and certain gifted individuals, mediums, are capable of conveying messages and energy from the other side. For some can even manifest various physical substances and effects, broadly identified as "ectoplasm." When he enters a trance, Garforth told Taggart, "You'll see masks spilled over my face. You'll see my hands change." It was just how the spirits worked for him.

    Taggart was skeptical. "I'm thinking, 'Okay. Well that could mean many things," she said. "I didn't go into his séance expecting anything. I got to sit in the front row, about six feet away from him."

    She kept a camera on her lap.

    "He was seated in front of a low red light," she said. The room was dark, otherwise. After twenty minutes, the medium's wife announced that spirits were going to begin working with his hands. Taggart remembered the next moment very clearly: "He just brought out his hand. What I saw, with my eyes, was this regular hand just very gently and instantly — skip gigantic."

    "I screamed out loud," she continued. "Which is very impolite in a séance situation."

    Taggart's photographs have appeared in outlets such as Readers Digest, Discover Magazine and the New York Times. She's captured dance auditions and artists' portraits. Her approach is often unusual, and frequently relies on long exposure times, producing hallucinatory doublings, strange auras and smears of motion as her subjects move. When she photographed Garforth, the long exposure was mostly done to compensate for a lack of light. The resulting images are jittery and blurred — Garforth moved around. They also show the medium holding up a single, grotesquely inflated hand.

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    Physical medium Gordon Garforth with enlarged hand.

    "I had that experience of seeing that hand get large," she explained. "I don't know how it happened. Whether it's a hand actually getting large in front of my face and I was creating a photograph that documented it, or whether it's that I was tricked somehow or I had a hypnotic experience and then my camera, through its dysfunction, mimicked that experience… I mean, all of those are interesting perspectives. I love that they're all there." She's been catching similarly ambiguous situations for over a decade.

    Taggart grew up in Buffalo, New York. From an early age she was attracted to the nearby town of Lily Dale — a spiritualist community which has, since 1879, played host to many of the movement's most prominent thinkers and mediums. "I was raised Catholic," she continued. "A lot of Catholics actually go to Lily Dale for readings, because Catholic belief doesn't dismiss what is happening in spiritualism, necessarily."

    Taggart's cousin once attended a "message service" in Lily Dale, a public assembly where mediums provide scattered communications to a curious crowd. "You don't know even which medium is going to be there that day," Taggart said. "Whoever it is stands in front and they pick people out with their finger. Then they give a short message from someone who's died." Taggart's cousin was picked out. The medium told her a secret, something nobody outside the family could have possibly known. At this point in the story she wrinkled her nose. "I don't know if I want to put all the details about this in the article – if you don't mind," she said. "You could say it's a secret."

    "Of course," I agreed.

    Driven by this strange incident, Taggart had a formal meeting with Lily Dale's Board of Directors in 2001, asking to make the town the subject of a long photographic project. "I don't know why, but they just welcomed me with open arms," she said. Her work in Lily Dale is still ongoing, and many of her images of the place are available on her website shannontaggart.com. From there she branched out into similar projects covering Vodou rituals in Brooklyn and working with mediums like Garforth. She's even taken a paranormal investigation course at Arthur Findlay College in England, "the world's foremost college for the advancement of spiritualism and psychic services" — at least according to its website. Still, Taggart doesn't consider herself a "believer" — or an "unbeliever," for that matter. When it comes to spirits and blurry photographs, the discourse often revolved around proof. Both spiritualists and skeptics want for documentary photographers.

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    Physical medium Gordon Garforth attempts to enlarge his hand.

    Taggart, however, refuses such classification. "Purely as an artist, going through all the development courses with the spiritualists opened me up immensely," she said. "I could not wrap my brain around how you could be a sane person and talk to dead people." At the same time, however, she didn't enter this new world with an intent to debunk. "I didn't not believe," she said. Whether her images are of ghosts or frauds or camera errors doesn't matter much to Taggart — what counts isn't the exterior world they capture, but the interior world they provoke.

    "When I first got interested in photography, it was through the work of Diane Arbus," Taggart said, referencing the famous photographer of twins, giants and dwarfs. "The first time I saw a Diane Arbus image, I was 16 years old and seeing her work, I was like, 'Oh, I get – you can put your thoughts into a picture.' I felt like I was seeing into her mind in some way, through her images."

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    Physical medium Kai Muegge with ectoplasm.

    It's this occult perspective she tries to capture in her images of spirit visitation. "It's impossible to photograph this stuff conventionally because the interior element is so huge," she said. "It's unphotographable." Nonetheless, lengthening exposures and allowing other products of "accident and error," into the work allowed Taggart to photograph it. "I'm not really looking for proof," she said. "I'm looking to go deep into the experience." Think of Garforth and the big hand — whatever explanation you prefer, Taggart's images capture her experience precisely. I found them deeply unnerving.

    This artistic approach makes Taggart an enigma to skeptics and spiritualists alike. According to her, trusting photography to either prove or disprove the existence of spirits — or anything else, for that matter —is wrongheaded. "Photography is much too complicated of a medium," she said. "It's a trickster medium. It can be two things at once. That's what I love about it." For her, deliberate distortions "give your mind, or the photographic mechanism, something to play with." They invite interpretation.

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  • My 20-year-obsession with DragonStrike's instructional videotape

    When my father was ten years old, he wandered the backroads of Washington with a .22 rifle. From sunup to sundown, in the ungroomed spaces, he ran accompanied by ramshackle Boy Scouts without uniforms or knives. They climbed trees. They shot game. One summer evening, having discovered an old barn being used by a rival troop, they set fire to the building and whooped at their enemies as they fled.

    It must've been a sight to see: the barn, vast beyond vast to those country kids, aflame and crumbling, its fulvous light convulsing on their unformed faces, the teeth in their unpopulated mouths. The sense of victory, as their enemy fled. It was night, and Washington, and miles from any conceivable help. The boys stayed, watching, until the fire died.

    When I was ten, I wasn't allowed to leave the house on my own. All of my attempted murders took place in video games and all of my nocturnal lights came humming from a VCR. I got along with basically everyone. Enter DragonStrike, a VHS tape in a blood red sleeve, containing a thirty-minute fantasy film shot in "hyperReality." It arrived, in 1993, to great critical acclaim — or, at least, as the packaging boasts, "two claws up" from "Darkfyre the Dragon." Since then, as far as I can tell, it was preserved nowhere and remembered by no one, save myself. I have been obsessed with DragonStrike for almost twenty years.

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    Dan Zigal I've known for fifteen. I asked him to describe my relationship with the tape: "I think we can get this done in one word," he said, "which is: awful." He paused, then, the phone line crackling. "If you want some word choice: incomprehensible, comma, utterly. That works too."

    Understand, Dan's words are the product of a long and bitter history between myself and the tape. Like any addict, my problem has metastasized over the years, effecting those closest to me. Not only do I watch DragonStrike at least once a month, and not only have I done so consistently since the age of ten, I pull this tape out at parties. I inflict this tape on friends. God help me, I've shown this thing to girls. Now I am linking it to you, in hopes that you will not hold it against me.

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