I asked these spirit figures if I was seeing them or if I was seeing what was in my own brain. They answered “both.”
- Eileen Garrett, twentieth-century medium (via Barbara Weisberg)
Spiritualism is a religion based on communicating with spirits of the dead. Hugely popular in the nineteenth-century, it radically impacted scientific inquiry and popular culture before fading into obscurity. I became aware of Spiritualism as a teenager when my cousin received a reading from a medium. The woman revealed a secret about my grandfather’s death that proved to be true. Since then I have been deeply curious about how someone could know such a thing. In 2001 I began photographing where that message was received, Lily Dale, New York, the world’s largest Spiritualist community. I quickly immersed myself in the philosophy of Spiritualism, I had readings, experienced healings, joined in séances, attended a psychic college and sat in a medium’s cabinet, all with my camera. I expected to spend one summer figuring out the tricks of the Spiritualist trade. Instead I peered into something truly mysterious. I stumbled upon a hidden world, an abandoned system with a storied history that became a resource and an inspiration for my own photographic theory and practice.