Thursday, July 19, 2018

Special Morbid Anatomy Taxidermy Tour with Dr Pat Morris, Taxidermy History Expert and Author of "Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy"

We are very excited to announce a special taxidermy tour this September featuring an exclusive chance to view rarely seen Walter Potter tableaux as well as private collections, historic mansions and 19th century museums--front and back stage--led by Dr Pat Morris, taxidermy historian and foremost collector of the work of eccentric Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter.
More information is below. Space is extremely limited. Please email us at morbidanatomy [a] before July 26 if you might be interested in joining. More detailed information, booking form and request for a deposit will be mailed to you with a deadline of mid August to confirm your participation.
Taxidermy Tour: Behind the Scenes and Private Collection Taxidermy Tour with Dr Pat Morris, Taxidermy history expert and author of Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy
September 3-9, 2018
London and environs
$2000-$2200 (Exact number given when we determine the number of attendees; Includes hotels, transportation within the UK, museum admissions, and some meals. Attendees will be responsible for their own airfare to and from London.)
Trip limited to 9 plus 3 staff members.

Space is extremely limited. Please email us at morbidanatomy [a] before July 26
if you might be interested in joining. More detailed information, booking form and request for a deposit will be mailed to you with a deadline of mid August to confirm your participation.

Please join us this September for an exclusive taxidermy tour featuring rarely seen Walter Potter pieces as well as private collections, historic mansions and 19th century museums--front and back stage--led by Dr Pat Morris, taxidermy historian and foremost collector of the work of eccentric Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter. He will be accompanied and assisted by Joanna Ebenstein, creator of Morbid Anatomy and co-author and lead photographer on Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy, and Laetitia Barbier, Morbid Anatomy head librarian.

On this trip. we'll pay several visits Dr Morris' house, where we will see rarely seen Walter Potter pieces, including one of his most famous tableaux, The Death and Burial of Cock Robin (1861). We will also see the tableau A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed, Potter's stuffed pet cat and dog, and his first piece of taxidermy, a canary along with rare archival materials, books, magic lantern slides, and ephemera related to the Potter Museum.

The Morris Collection also contains pieces by around 150 taxidermists, including Hermann Ploucquet, whose anthropomorphic pieces delighted Queen Victoria and probably inspired a young Potter, as well as Rowland Ward and Peter Spicer; thousands of documents and photographs; and copies of all the books on taxidermy published in Britain (some not even in the British Library!) and a selection of works from other countries. 
We will also visit the home of professional taxidermist Barry Williams, which houses his personal extensive collection of historic specimens. We will see him at work, and join him for afternoon tea while we enjoy a tour of his collection.
The trip will also feature special guided tours by Dr Morris of the UK's most historic and fascinating natural history collections, such as Tring Natural History Museum, opened in 1892 to make available to the public the private collation of rich eccentric Lionel Walter Rothschild; The Booth Museum of Natural History, founded in 1874 and featuring  pioneering ‘habitat group’ displays from the 19th century; The Horniman Museum, founded to showcase the Frederick John Horniman personal collection 'illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world' from around 1860 (with a visit to the Museum’s store to see the beautiful Hart collection of British birds); The Grant Museum of Zoology, one of the oldest natural history collections in the UK famous for its jar of moles and rare specimens such as a qyuagga skeleton, preserved Tazmanian Tigers, and dodo bones; the London Natural History Museum a 19th century 'cathedral to nature' housing its infamous hummingbird cabinet; The Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art and Natural History, which presents the world displayed through wonder enclosed within a tiny space, inspired by the pre-enlightenment origins of the museum as Wunderkabinett; and The Saffron Walden Museum with a small natural history collection dating to 1832 and ‘Wallace’ a famous lion. There will also be a stop off to experience "human taxidermy" in the form of the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham.

There will also be special guided tours of two magnificent National Trust historic mansions: Calke Abbey; this is a huge mansion originally built in the 12th century as an Augustinian priory and housing a varied collection of stuffed birds, mammals, fossils, and other natural history oddities gathered by a succession of the eccentric owners who lived there over the centuries and Audley End House, a mansion built in the early 17th century and housing the second largest display of historic country house taxidermy open to the public in Britain including many spectacular ornamental bird cases
Some evenings may be devoted to talks by Dr Morris on topics such as ‘historical taxidermy’ and the massive Van Ingen factory in India illustrated by pieces from Dr Morris' collection.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

SAVE THE DATE: Muerte en Bolivia: Field trip to La Paz to Learn about Bolivia's Death Culture, Folklore, and Sacred Coca Leaf with a Native Guide!

This November, we hope you'll join Morbid Anatomy for a very special seven day trip to La Paz, Bolivia where, with a native guide, we'll explore the country's fascinating history, folklore, and death-related traditions, a unique blend of ancient native beliefs and Spanish Catholicism. We'll also learn the storied history of--and have ample opportunities to sample--the coca leaf, sacred plant of the Andes.

We'll visit La Paz's central cemetery for Festival of the Skulls (Fiesta de los Ñatitas), in which human skulls are given offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes and flower petals; the famed witches market, with shops selling dried llama fetuses to bless new constructions, magical charms, and colorful figurines of devils and skeleton saints; and the coca leaf market. Other highlights will include visits to La Paz's Museo de la Coca, the Unesco World Heritage site of the pre-Columbian ruins of Tiwanaku, a blessing of the cars at Lake Titicaca's Copacabana, a visit to the tropical Afro Bolivian town of Coroico, Cholita wrestling, gorgeous colonial churches and convents, and museums packed with astounding treasures. There will also be opportunities to eat native foods, explore markets, and learn the ancient Andean art of coca leaf consumption. Along the way, we'll learn from our knowledgeable tour guide about the folklore and beliefs of this unique culture, past and present. 

More soon; stay tuned! 

Images, top to bottom: Getty Images; Sky News; LatinoFiesta

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

New Book on the Art, History and Symbolism of The Tarot by Morbid Anatomy and Strange Attractor Press!

We at Morbid Anatomy are delighted to announce a new project with our good friend Mark Pilkington at Strange Attractor Press: a new illustrated book about the art and history of the tarot. We are just launching a campaign via Unbound in order to help us raise the funds we need to create it. Awards range from a pre-order of the book to include signed, limited edition hardback versions of the book, tarot readings and classes, custom totes, and much more! You can find out more about the book below; you can find out more about our fundraising campaign– and pre-order a copy of the book! – by clicking here. Thanks so much for your interest and support!

Stars, Fools and Lovers will explore the art, history and symbolism of the tarot through dozens of antique and forgotten cards, from the well-known Rider Waite Smith deck to Austin Osman Spare's recently discovered Major Arcana, as well as reinterpretations by contemporary artists.

The tarot's origins stretch back to ancient Egypt but the cards as we know them today have their roots in 18th century Europe as playing cards. Since then, the seventy-eight card deck has become one of the most popular visual oracles of all time, and one of the most adaptable as well. Along the way it has inspired seekers, occultists, artists, film makers, writers, pop stars and fashion designers -- its influence can be seen in the work of the Surrealists as well as the TV series Twin Peaks.

Perhaps the reason for this is because the tarot has an uncanny ability to put us in touch with truths of which we are not consciously aware. The tarot, with its intuitive symbology, provides a bridge to our own unconscious. Or, as some believe, it provides access to invisible worlds beyond our understanding. Regardless of your beliefs and approach, our new book Stars, Fools and Lovers will provide you with the tools you need – along with a wealth of visual inspiration – to begin your own exploration of its complex and rich world.

Stars, Fools and Lovers will contain an array of cards drawn from original and forgotten decks as well as creative reimaginings by contemporary artists. Alongside these images, the book will explore how, over centuries of use, the tarot’s archetypal imagery has evolved and the cards' meanings have shifted. It will investigate the hidden history and many interpretations of the Major Arcana, deciphering the archetypes behind each figure and plumbing their complex histories, and trace the ways in which artists and illustrators from around the world have reinterpreted the Arcanas according to their cultural backgrounds and the problems they faced.

This book includes a history of the tarot and its use, as well as instructions on how to read the cards intuitively, to follow its traditions without dogma and suggests ways to experiment with the cards to find inspiration and enlightenment. The book will also present the thoughts of a variety of professional tarot readers about the pleasures and pitfalls of practical cartomancy.

Written and collected by Morbid Anatomy's Joanna Ebenstein and Laetitia Barbier – herself a professional tarot reader – and Strange Attractor Press's Mark Pilkington, this book is equal parts art book, how-to, history, and a meditation on tarot symbolism and its uses.

Biographies of the authors:

Joanna Ebenstein is a Brooklyn-based artist, writer and the founder of Morbid Anatomy. She is the editor of Death: A Graveside Companion (2017), author of The Anatomical Venus (2016) and co-author of Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy (2014).

After studying art history at the Sorbonne in Paris, Laetitia Barbier became the head librarian of Morbid Anatomy and is a professional tarot reader in New York.

Mark Pilkington is the founder of the London-based Strange Attractor Press and the editor of its irregular Journal. He is the author of Mirage Men (2010) and Far Out: 101 Strange Tales from Science's Outer Edge (2007). He has written on music, art, film, cultural history and esoterica for publications including The Guardian, Frieze, Fortean Times, Boing Boing, The Wire, Sight and Sound, and has contributed to numerous anthologies.

Again, you can make a pledge or pre-order a copy of the book here. Thanks so much for your interest and support!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

SAVE THE DATE Vienna Anatomy Weekend with Josephinum & Narrenturm, October 13 and 14, 2018

We are beyond excited to announce our second Vienna Anatomy Weekend in partnership with two of the world's most magnificent medical museums-- the Josephinum, housing a historical collection of 18th century anatomical wax models crafted by Italy's La Specola workshop, and the pathological-anatomical collection housed in an 18th century former madhouse, the Narrenturm.

This special weekend will include exclusive front and back stage tours of these incredible historic collections, along with the opportunity to draw pieces from the collection. It will also include illustrated lectures by Eduard Winter of the Narrenturm, Martina Peters of the Josephinum, Laurens de Rooy of Amsterdam's Vrolik Museum, wax artist Eleanor Crook, and Morbid Anatomy's Joanna Ebenstein, all touching on the intersections of art and medicine, death and culture.

All programs will be in English.

More details to come soon, but you can stay alerted to updates here.

Image: 18th century Anatomical Venus; Alexander Ablogin/Josephinum

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Vesalius Trust Art and Anatomy Tour: Budapest, Vienna and Prague, October 7-18, 2018

I am delighted to announce The Vesalius Trust Art and Anatomy Tour of Budapest, Vienna and Prague taking place October 7-18, 2018!

The trip--organized and hosted by Morbid Anatomy founder Joanna Ebenstein and medical illustrator Marie Dauenheimer--will include guided visits (and often exclusive behind the scenes tours) of some of the most outstanding European medical museums including Budapest's Semmelweis Museum (bottom image), Vienna's Josephinum (top three images) and Narrenturm (images 4-7), and The Prague Medical Museum and the National Medical Library.

It will also include a sunset cruise on the Danube, visits to Budapest's Castle Hill, a stop off in Bratislava, a guided walking tour of Vienna, a visit to the Secession building, as well aa guided tours of Vienna's Albertina Museum and Belvedere Museum, the latter of which is renowned for its collection of works by Klimt and Schiele. There will also be a stop off at the UNESCO world heritage town Český Krumlov and a visit to its Baroque theater--the most completely preserved such theatre in the world--along with a guided walking tour of Prague featuring a visit to its famous 16th-century astronomical clock with an anthropomorphized figure of death

The trip will take place October 7-18, 2018.The tour price--assuming a shared room--is $4,645. This price included all hotels and transportation by deluxe, private motor coach. It also includes breakfast, many lunches, admission to the Morbid Anatomy Vienna Anatomy Weekend, all museum entries, and more. Our founder Joanna Ebenstein and Marie Dauenheimer will also be on hand for the duration of the trip to answer questions and assist.

You can find out more by clicking here. If you have any questions, please email us at morbidanatomy [at]

All images by our founder, Joanna Ebenstein

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Farewell Mel Gordon

We are Morbid Anatomy are greatly saddened to hear that our good friend--and many times collaborator--Mel Gordon has died. Mel was a very special man, with a brilliant and idiosyncratic mind and a great generosity of spirit. We at Morbid Anatomy feel very lucky to have known him.

RIP Mel. You will be very much missed.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Morbid Anatomy Easter Open House at Green-Wood Cemetery

This Easter week-end (March 31 and April 1), a propitious date for resurrection, please join Morbid Anatomy's Joanna Ebenstein and Laetitia Barbier for an informal gathering, with snacks and refreshments, to celebrate the unveiling of the Morbid Anatomy Library in it's new home, the gorgeous 1877 Fort Hamilton Gate House in Green-Wood Cemetery.

This will also be your first chance to see our new exhibition The Power of Images: Life, Death and Rebirth, a carefully curated selection of art, books, artifacts and ephemera drawn from the Green-Wood archives and the hands and collections of the Morbid Anatomy Community.

Find out more here. Hope very much to see you there!

The Fort Hamilton Gate House is located at Fort Hamilton Parkway and Micieli Place, easily accessible on the F and G trains at Fort Hamilton Station. If arriving at the main entrance (25th Street and 5th Avenue) the Gate House is approximately a 25 minute walk through the Cemetery. The exhibition is not handicap accessible.

Image: From the Green-Wood Cemetery website

Thursday, March 15, 2018

ANNOUNCEMENT: Morbid Anatomy Residency at Brooklyn's Historic Green-Wood Cemetery!

We are beyond delighted to announce that Morbid Anatomy has a found a temporary new home at Brooklyn's fabulous Green-Wood Cemetery!

The residency will be housed in The Cemetery's city landmark 1877 Fort Hamilton Gatehouse (see below). In the attic (below left) will find a new iteration of the Morbid Anatomy Library. Downstairs will feature The Power of Images: Life, Death, and Rebirth, a new exhibition curated by Morbid Anatomy's Laetitia Barbier and Joanna Ebenstein and featuring artworks, artifacts and ephemera from the hand (or private collections) of Kahn and Selesnick, Dana Sherwood, Rebecca Purcell, Ryan Matthew Cohn, Shannon Taggart, Lourdes Sanchez, The Stephen Romano Gallery, Invisible Gallery, Evan Michelson, The Reanimation Library, Friese Undine, J D Powe, Ronni Thomas, Daisy Tainton, Lado Pochkhua, Brian Cotnoir, Joel Schlemowitz, Eva Aridjis, the Green-Wood Cemetery Archives and more.

The Fort Hamilton Gatehouse is right inside the Fort Hamilton gate, located at Fort Hamilton Parkway and Micieli Place, easily accessible on the F and G trains at Fort Hamilton Station or Church Street Station. If arriving at the main entrance (25th Street and 5th Avenue) the Gate House is approximately a 25 minute walk through the Cemetery. The exhibition is not handicap accessible.

The residency will be free and open to the public on weekends, March 31 - June 24, 2018, from 12 - 5. We will also be producing a series of lectures, events, tours and parties as part of the residency; stay tuned for more on that.

We are currently seeking volunteer docents for both the library and exhibition. The shifts will be from 12-5 Saturdays and Sundays, and there is parking on the premises. Sadly, there is no wifi. Docents will receive free admission to one of our Green-wood events in exchange for a shift. If you are interested, please email morbidanatomy [at]

Hope very much to see you there!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Winners of Death: A Graveside Companion Art and Death Book Giveaway!

Thanks to all who entered our recent giveaway of three signed copies of our new book Death: A Graveside Companion, our new, heavily illustrated magnum opus documenting the variety of ways humankind has come to terms with, imagined, visualized and pictured death.

In the spirit of the book, we asked Morbid Anatomy readers to share an image of their favorite artwork or artifact illustrating the intersections of death and beauty, and to tell us about the piece and why they chose it. 

It was very difficult to choose between all the wonderful and imaginative entries, but above are the three images we chose, submitted by--from top to bottom--Instagram user @dagger_of_the_mind, J. Moriarty and Lynn Duenow.

The first image is "Revelation: The Vision of Death," one of 241 illustrations created by Gustave Doré for a deluxe illustrated bible known as La Grande Bible de Tours in 1866. This image was chosen by @dagger_of_the_mind, who said of it "The Artist's command of contrast, the human form, and the inhuman realize the myths that comprise the human condition. And it's badass"

The second image--"Humana Fragilitas (Human Frailty)", painted by by Salvator Rosa in 1656, was sent in by J. Moriarty. Of the piece, the entrant commented "with its many symbols of human mortality scattered throughout, this painting deeply illuminates the fact that the strands of death are as naturally woven into the fabric of our days as are the threads of life. Death here is at once terrifying and beautiful, perfectly capturing the ambivalent relationship we humans with it have. A enchantingly poignant work by such a profoundly bereaved artist, it demonstrates that Death can be a catalyst for the beauteous as much as for the destructive."

The final image was sent in by Lynn Dueno. Lynn did not share any information about the provenance or creator of the piece but we were very much drawn by its folk/tribal aspect which evokes a Kachina Doll. Upon closer inspection, you can see that the crown is composed of illustrations of moulages, while other seemingly abstract patterns are comprised of golden insects and other macabre symbols. Click the image above to see for yourself!

Thanks so much to all who entered! And congratulations to the winners!

You can find out more about the book--and get a copy of your own--here.

Monday, November 27, 2017

RIP Mervyn Heard: Friend, Scholar, Showman

We are very sad to report the death of the wonderful Mervyn Heard. A rare pairing of scholar and showman, he was a genius of the magic lantern, ghost shows and phantasmagoria, and was a contributor to our recent book Death: A Graveside Companion.

He was also a friend and will be sorely missed.

This video by the über-talented Ronni Thomas captures he and his passion exceptionally well. RIP, Mervyn. You shall be missed and remembered.

Monday, November 13, 2017

GIVEAWAY: Win a Signed Copy of our New Book Death: A Graveside Companion

We are delighted to announce a give away of three signed copies of our new book Death: A Graveside Companion, a nearly 400 page compendium of 1,000 images and 19 essays exploring a variety of ways in which humankind has come to terms with, imagined, visualized and pictured death.

In the spirit of the book, we are asking Morbid Anatomy readers to share an image of their favorite artwork or artifact that illustrates the intersections of death and beauty, and to tell us--in no more than 3 sentences--about the piece and why they chose it. 

Entries must be received by midnight on Sunday, November 19th; the three winners will be picked and announced here soon after. PLEASE NOTE: Due to shipping costs, contest only eligible to those in the USA.

There are three ways to enter this contest.
  1. Share in the comment section of this Facebook post
  2. Post on Instagram with the hashtag #deathbookgiveaway
  3. Send it via email to morbidanatomylibrary [at] gmail [dot] com.
Can't wait to see what you come up with!

Images: From FrizziFrizzi review of the book to be found here.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Happy Birthday to "Death: A Graveside Companion:" New Book on Art and Death by our Founder Joanna Ebenstein
We would like to wish a festive happy birthday to Death: A Graveside Companion--the new book by our founder Joanna Ebenstein--whose official US release date is today!

You can order a copy of this epic book which explores, via over 1,000 images and 19 essays, humankind's attempts attempts – mythological, scientific and popular – to imagine, respond to, or find meaning in the mystery of death here.

Image from the book: Ivory Memento Mori by an unknown maker from c. 1640. In the 16th century, the memento mori--or objects created to urge the viewer to contemplate their mortality--moved from the church or the cemetery to the home, with the creation of artworks and objets d’art such as this one. It shows a skeleton standing among symbols of earthly glory, highlighting the futility of vanity and worldly pleasures.

More on the book follows. Hope you enjoy!

Death: A Graveside Companion
Edited by Joanna Ebenstein, Foreword by Will Self
Featuring the Richard Harris Art Collection
Thames and Hudson, October 24, 2017
368 pages, 1,000 illustrations in color and black and white
Available here

A one-of-a-kind art history, Death: A Graveside Companion is a captivating treasury of images that serves as a testament to humanity’s quests—metaphysical, mythological, scientific, and popular—to imagine, respond to, and come to terms with our own inescapable end.

From the hour of death to the afterlife, seven themed chapters exhibit a staggering range of artworks, artifacts, trophies, and keepsakes from around the world and throughout the ages, counterbalanced by nineteen insightful essays, accessible yet scholarly, from contributors across a broad arc of disciplines and perspectives.

In catacombs, crypts, and bone-pits, readers will find reliquaries, embalmings, and mummies; see somber rites and customs morph into the celebrations of Halloween and Day of the Dead; and behold the great artistic traditions—Memento Mori, Vanitas, Danse Macabre—juxtaposed with vernacular tokens, found photography, and curios from bygone rituals in exotic lands. The majority of the images—which range from fine art to scientific illustration to pop culture ephemera—are drawn from the largely unseen collection of Richard Harris, who has amassed over 3,000 objects related to death.

“Today, it is deemed morbid to view images related to death or contemplate death,” says Joanna Ebenstein, founder of Morbid Anatomy, who edited DEATH: A Graveside Companion. “The abundance of images in this book proves that this attitude is by far the exception rather than the rule. This book, I hope, will help provide a balance in our one-sided view of death, in which we tend to avoid it or consider it impolite to speak about despite the fact that it will inevitably happen to each of us, and will restore these forgotten and reviled images to a place of dignity and appreciation as important artifacts of humankind’s attempts to make sense of its most profound mystery.”

Rich in never-before-published material, Death: A Graveside Companionis a book like no other, brimming with morbid inspiration and macabre insights to take to the grave.

Essays (In order of appearance):
  • Medusa and the Power of the Severed Head - Laetitia Barbier, Morbid Anatomy Library
  • Poe and the Pathological Sublime - Mark Dery, Cultural Critic
  • The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death - Bruce Goldfarb, Medical Examiner's Office, Baltimore
  • Art, Science and the Changing Conventions of Anatomical Representation - Michael Sappol, former historian at National Library of Medicine
  • Anatomy Embellished in the cabinet of Frederik Ruysch - Bert van de Roemer, Historian
  • Anatomical Expressionism - Eleanor Crook, Anatomical Artist
  • Playing with Dead Faces - John Troyer, Centre for Death and Society, University of Bath
  • The Power of Hair as Human Relic in Mourning Jewelry - Karen Bachmann, Master Jeweler and Art Historian
  • The Anatomy of Holy Transformation -  Liselotte Hermes da Fonseca, Art Historian
  • The Dance of Death - Kevin Pyle, Artist
  • Eros and Thanatos - Lisa Downing, University of Birmingham
  • Collecting Death - Evan Michelson, Morbid Anatomy Library Scholar in Residence
  • Death in Ancient and Present-Day Mexico - Eva Aridjis, Filmmaker
  • Playing dead – A Gruesome  Form of Amusement - Mervyn Heard, Magic Lantern Scholar and Performer
  • Theatre, Death and the Grand Guignol - Mel Gordon, author of Grand Guiginol and Voluptuous Panic
  • Death-Themed Amusements - Joanna Ebenstein, founder of Morbid Anatomy
  • Art and Afterlife: Ethel le Rossignol and Georgiana Houghton - Mark Pilkington of Strange Attractor Press
  • Holy Spiritualism - Elizabeth Harper, Independent scholar
  • Spiritualism and Photography - Shannon Taggart, photographer and independent scholar

Thursday, November 2, 2017

NEW BOOK: SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm: All Souls Day Guest Post by Shannon Taggart

To celebrate All Souls Day today, I asked former Morbid Anatomy Museum artist and scholar in residence Shannon Taggart to write a guest post about her long term project documenting spiritualism, a religion in which devotees attempt to communicate with the souls of the dead.

Shannon is working on a book showcasing this body of work now; titled SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm, it will feature her own photographs along with many incredible antique spiritualist photographs. The foreword will be written by actor Dan Aykroyd (creator of the movie Ghostbusters and fourth-generation Spiritualist) and it will contain essays by artist Tony Oursler (author of the incredible Imponderable), writer Constance DeJong and cultural critic Erik Davis.

To find out more (and pre-order a copy of your own), click here. Shannon also wrote a chapter about spiritualism and photography for our new book Death: A Graveside Companion. More on that can be found here.
Spiritualism is an American-born religion that believes we can communicate with spirits of the dead. In 2001, I began photographing Lily Dale, New York, the town which is home to the world's largest Spiritualist community. The residents of Lily Dale soon introduced me to ‘spirit photography’, a practice excluded from the photography text books I studied from. I was shocked to learn of this hidden history. These absurd, outrageous and oddly tender photographs blew me away. I became particularly fascinated with the images of female mediums excreting phantom forms—phenomena known as ‘ectoplasm.’ These were the most uniquely unsettling images I had ever encountered, and I desperately wanted to de-code their meaning. I wanted to understand what ectoplasm was.

Ectoplasm–Spiritualism’s iconic symbol–visually signifies the belief that life and death remain connected. For Spiritualists, ectoplasm is a paradoxical substance that is both spiritual and material. It is described as a fluid that emanates from the medium’s body, comes to life, and then morphs into shape. The word is taken from the Greek words ektos and plasma, meaning ‘outside formed’. The French physiologist and Nobel Laureate Charles Richet, who coined the term in 1894, observed it as ‘a whitish steam, perhaps luminous, taking the shape of gauze or muslin, in which there develops a hand or an arm that gradually gains consistency. This ectoplasm makes personal movements. It creeps, rises from the ground and puts forth tentacles like an amoeba.’ Spiritualists say ectoplasm is soft, soggy, and light sensitive, much like the activated surfaces of photographic materials.

Spiritualism and photography developed at a time In the 19th century when scientific advancements were exposing a variety of forces operating beyond human perception. Disease causing bacteria could be photographed through microscopes; the vastness of the universe was glimpsed through astrophotography; electricity was made visible when placed in contact with photographic materials; X-rays revealed the body’s interior. What else, people wondered, could photography uncover? Spiritualism and photography were brought together in an attempt to create scientific proof of the spiritual dimension, an endeavour that ultimately revealed the complicated relationship that both Spiritualism and photography had with truth.

Spiritualism became the first religion to create an original iconography through the medium of photography. Since the dissemination of early spirit photographs, ectoplasm has taken a place in culture’s visual vocabulary. Like many, I first heard the term ectoplasm via the movie Ghostbusters, co-written by Dan Aykroyd—a fourth-generation Spiritualist. In the fine art world, ectoplasm appears within the work of artists Mike Kelley, Tony Oursler and Zoe Beloff. A painting by the visionary artist Paul Lafolley refers to ectoplasm’s metaphysical meaning, stating— ‘ectoplasm unites life with death.’

Today, a small number of Spiritualist mediums (mostly male, from Europe and the United Kingdom) continue to present ectoplasm. The experience of witnessing these séances is like watching the Victorian spirit photographs jump to life before your eyes. The German medium Kai Muegge even blogs the photographic documentation of his ectoplasmic manifestations alongside the vintage images that resemble his acts.
The forthcoming book, SÉANCE: Spiritualist Ritual and the Search for Ectoplasm, will present my 16 year-long project on contemporary Spiritualism. Part documentary, part ghost story, SÉANCE will present hundreds of original photographs taken in séance rooms around the world, as well as historical imagery related to attempts to capture spirits on film. Spiritualism's photographic past contains some of the most bizarre, absurd and uniquely unsettling images in the history of photography. SÉANCE is a next chapter.
Images, top to bottom:
  1. Barbara McKenzie, Stanley de Brath, Miss Scatcherd and the spirit extra of Gustave Geley, William Hope, 1924. Barlow collection, British Library, London.
  2. Unidentified sitter, Ada Deane, c. 1922. Barlow collection, British Library, London.
  3. Unidentified sitters (2 women), Ada Deane, c. 1922. Barlow collection, British Library, London.
  4. The spirit guides ‘Stella’ and ‘Bessie’with Mrs. Barlow, Fred Barlow, Violet and Ada Deane, (by) Ada Deane, 1920. Barlow collection, British Library, London.
  5. Kate Goligher with ectoplasm and speaking trumpet, W.J. Crawford, 1920.  Cambridge University Library, Society for Psychical Research.
  6. The medium Eva C. with materialization of a women’s face, Albert Von Schrenck-Notzing, 1911, Institute für Grenzgebiete der Psychologie und Psychohygiene, Freiburg im Breisgau. (left) Medium Kai Muegge with ectoplasm (materialization of a man’s face), Cassadaga, NY, Shannon Taggart, 2013. (right)
  7. A student medium enters a trance, Montcabirol Center for Physical Mediumship, Mirepoix, France, Shannon Taggart, 2014.
  8. Medium Kevin Lawrenson in trance, Montcabirol Center for Physical Mediumship, Mirepoix, France, Shannon Taggart, 2014.