Not many people claim to speak to the dead these days. Spiritualists do, though, and are alive and well in contemporary America, working and living in New York and Florida, occasionally running errands on the other side. Photographer Peter Ross's series of portraits takes each person individually, drawing out different measurements of repose or drama from the moment; were it not for the captions and context, we might not have known our neighbors possessed such powers.
Peter Ross is a New York-based photographer. All images appear courtesy the artist. All images © Peter Ross, all rights reserved.
How did the series begin?
I heard about the town of Cassadaga when the singer Conor Oberst mentioned it during an interview on NPR. He named his newest album Cassadaga, after a town in Florida of the same name. The Cassadaga Spiritualist Community was established by a group of northern Spiritualists who were looking for a winter retreat, and the town today is a vibrant and much visited community of spiritualists, mediums, healers, and psychics. I visited for three days this past July, and then in September I visited the Lily Dale Assembly in upstate New York to make more portraits. Lily Dale is considered the center of Spiritualism worldwide.
The mediums and healers you met, did you pick your settings and positioning to suit their personalities?
The most important thing for me was to follow and react to the light at the time of the sitting, and I’m happy with the consistency of the light from image to image. I tried to make the images in the most low-fi manner possible: natural light, one camera, a pocketful of film, and a tripod. I made over 25 portraits, and each was a lesson in reacting quickly and spontaneously to the location as I went from house to house. I guess the answer to your question is “no” as I tried to respect the historical nature of the community and generally looked for spots that would have worked for a portrait 20, 50, or 100 years ago. The people have changed, the personal decor has changed, but the light is the same and the beliefs the same.
It’s easy for me to write off psychics and spiritualists as crackpots and con artists. Were people wary of being photographed for a series? Were they crackpots and con artists?
The people that I photographed have clearly chosen Spiritualism as the core focus of their current lives, and I think that this distinguishes them from the storefront psychics that most of us are familiar with, and who are more likely perhaps to qualify as “crackpots and con artists.” Everyone that I met in Cassadaga and Lily Dale were extremely open and welcoming and very generous in making introductions for me. They were also very conscious of how little I knew about Spiritualism and willingly shared their personal histories with me. Only a small handful declined my request for a sitting.
Have you been to a psychic, personally? Did shooting the series bring you any insights?
I have never been to a psychic or healer, and it was important to me to not have that experience while shooting the project. I wanted to be as open and nuetral as possible and I turned down several offers for a reading or healing session. I look forward to that experience now that I am done, but at the time I wanted these images to be about their beliefs, and not my own. I can’t say if these people can speak to the dead, which is a core tenant of medium-ship, but I do believe that some people are more perceptive of the energy that surrounds us than others. I also believe strongly that mediums and healers can offer support and direction as we deal with the very real and shared experiences of our lives. People turn to mediums to deal with loss and grief, for instance, just as people turn to other established faiths for answers and support.
What are you working on now?
I have several projects in the works right now: an ongoing series of portraits of New York’s young creative generation, a still-life study of some of the personal effects left behind by William Burroughs, and two corporate annual reports—a nice mix.