Embalming Time – The Photography of Invisible Things

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.

The latest episode of The Midnight Archive, an award winning documentary series from film maker Ronni Thomas, features an interview with photographer Shannon Taggart  who takes this fact as given, and, moving beyond questions of real or unreal, uses it 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.  Her work with traditional Haitian Vodou houses in Brooklyn shows a similar engaged detachment, which allows her to embrace what is happening, and cultivate a 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 KelleyJoe 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. 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 included a succinct timeline for the lifespan of an anomalous experience in a recent post:

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.

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.

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 protect us from the immediacy of the experience, giving space for reflection, and for those more adventurous, an experience in time, embalmed and bound within a frame, can be resurrected with the right evocation.

If you want the rare opportunity to experience some of this meaningful ambiguity in person, Taggart is hosting a series of talks at the Observatory Room in Brooklyn, NYC during the first week of April:

Thursday, April 4th – Traditional Spiritualist Message Service with UK Medium Myra Basey
Friday, April 5th – Do Tables Tilt, Turn And Float? Table Levitation Phenomena, 1850-2006: An Illustrated Presentation with Walter Meyer zu Erpen
Saturday, April 6th – Channeling Elvis? An Automatic Writing Demonstration with UK Medium Myra Basey


4 Comments on "Embalming Time – The Photography of Invisible Things"

  1. I’d love to have every one of those photos.

  2. I’m delighted that you found the proposed timeline helpful. So many of us, confronted by an anomalous experience, begin by trying to force the event into a conventional, doctrinal box. Nope, never works well!
    Wish I could get to Brooklyn this week for the Taggart series, but it’s unfortunately far from NC.
    Thanks for quoting the dancingpastthedark.com blog.

    • Thanks Dr. Bush!

      You posted it just as I was considering Shannon’s work, and some of the EVP sound collage that I’ve been looking into, and it was a perfect key (at least in my opinion) for seeing what was different about these approaches.

      I was also thinking about Julie Beischel’s mediumship research, and some of the Psychomanteum studies that are measuring the therapeutic value of these areas if they’re handled properly. There is a performance group in London, Foolish People, that builds this idea into their immersive theater, and they’ve achieved some very powerful cathartic results with the people who attend.

      What I think your timeline shows is why this is, since all of these approaches keep the focus on the primary stages, and often, such as in the case with Foolish People, are designed to confuse any attempts to get past the interpretation/meaning stage until it’s fully resolved. FP does this through heavily embedded symbolism that goes down to personal artifacts worked into the staging, so there are always lingering puzzles that I think allow the mind to continue working through the mystery, rather than drifting towards dogmatizing it.

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