Going to Cassadaga, self-proclaimed “Psychic Capital of the World,” is really like entering another time period. A newspaper article about Cassadaga I had read described the scene when they had last visited, saying a woman riding a horse along the side of the road and smoking a cigarette really set the mysterious tone for them as they entered the town. Sadly, we did not see anything like that, but there’s definitely a strange vibe in the air as you enter the town limits – a hey-we’re-not-in-Kansas anymore type of feeling fills the humid air as you drive past the 1800’s-era homes.
Cassadaga is home to The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association, which was founded by noted medium George Colby in 1894 and controls about 57 acres of the land around here. Today, it is home to many psychics, mediums, and healers. Two camps seem to have emerged here, one sanctioned by The Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association, which certifies their mediums after a certification process that can take several years to complete - their web site lists 42 certified mediums. The other camp seems based around the Cassadaga Hotel – these are not licensed or affiliated with the camp but they do readings up on the top floor of the hotel.
I had come here to photograph some psychics and mediums for a personal project I’d been working on and had a few appointments set up. However, it quickly became clear that the portrait sessions were not going to happen as one backed out at the last moment. Another, who at first claimed he needed 30 days to decide but then said OK, turned me down on his doorstep saying, almost accusatory, that he had lost his phone and was unable to contact me (never mind that fact that we had emailed the previous afternoon). I went over to the Cassadaga Hotel to inquire about the possibility of a portrait shoot with one of their mediums but was quickly shot down with “I don’t think anyone here would be interested in that.”
Back across the street at the camp’s book shop, the two friendly women behind the counter said there might be – I should look on the white board to see who was available that day and just give someone a call. The first person I called was Rev. Ed Conklin, who said he had seen me earlier that day walking around shooting images of the town. He readily agreed and told me to come down to his place, three doors down from the book shop on the left, where he was waiting for me with a smile.
Ed grew up in New York State and has an academic BA in psychology, MA in Humanities, and a Ph.D. in Religion. He taught at the college and university level at Webster University, University of Central Florida, and Daytona State College, among others. While living in Orlando, a friend introduced him to the religion of Spiritualism at Cassadaga. He moved to Cassadaga in 1992 and his certification process took about five years to complete, a process the camp is hoping to obtain state licensing for in the next few years.
Ed tells me that from about 35 years of age on, he began to have visionary experiences of deceased spirits. He began to take mediumship development classes and his ability increased. He has had a number of spirit guides -an Indian, a Persian, and Zen monk to name a few- and occasionally deceased relatives sometimes act as guides. He believes that many folks have the ability but those who are better at seeing spirits have inherited it genetically or may be the result of karma from past lives. Ed’s ability, he continues, comes from his past karma of at least 17 remembered lives.
I suspect the most popular questions that get asked around here are about Christianity and what exactly their religion is. From what I can gather, and from what Mr. Conklin told me, the religion of Spiritualism at Cassadaga is a distinct religion but some members of the camp tend to also have Christian and New Age views. Spiritualism here is not a theistic religion with a personal god but is more pantheistic. Buddha and Jesus (and other religions’ top figures) are respected as teachers.
It was quiet as we headed out of town, a group of folks walking over to the Cassadaga Hotel with what seemed to me to be the oddest thing I saw there all day: a woman pushing a stroller with her dog relaxing inside, a net protecting her from the elements. It wasn’t a ghost or a woman smoking on horseback, but it would do for now.
A failed newspaper editor named James M. Harney issued a now-famous curse on the city of Savannah on his way out of town: “I leave you, Savannah, a curse that is far worst of all curses—to remain as you are!” Well, apparently that curse has been lifted. When I attended SCAD in the late 80s/early 90s, Savannah was a small Southern town whose streets emptied at night, no one really played or hung out in the many squares dotted around town, the tourists were on River Street and a smattering of them at City Market but not really anywhere else, Broughton Street was a sad collection of boarded up storefronts and wig shops, and the intense odor of the nearby paper mill could be smelled in the plane as you were landing at the airport and everywhere else once you were on land.
Now, the cheapest hotel room we could find was over $200 a night, there was a J.Crew, Gap, Urban Outfitters, and L’Occitane on a bustling Broughton Street, the old Savannah Morning News building has been transformed into a sleek and modern hotel, and there were local coffee shops, locally sourced and organic restaurants, SCAD has exploded all over town and I can’t imagine their Historical Preservation Dept. appreciated them painting the old wooden stairway in Preston Hall a bright neon green or inserting a gleaming modern art museum into the 1853 brick building that was once the railway depot for the Central of Georgia Railway.
I couldn’t wrap my brain around how much Savannah has changed in the 20 years since I’d been there. I honestly don’t think I would have necessarily fit into this environment back in the day – SCAD was still fairly new when I started and they themselves were not sure of their identity yet. My class was the largest they had ever had up until that point and they had purchased an old roadside-type motel (now Oglethorpe House) to house us – and they didn’t even change the furniture in the rooms! They clearly did not know how to manage us as a group and, looking back, I kind of liked that very unstructured way of learning. Looking around last week, I don’t believe the school is like that anymore – it seemed very structured, clean, corporate – and very wealthy. I doubt I would get accepted there today and I definitely wouldn’t have been able to afford it – and if I managed to do both, I don’t think I would have ever fit in there today. It seemed so sanitary and all the rough edges that I liked about it were smoothed off and painted neon green.
Thank God Pinkie Masters hasn’t changed and that there’s still a souvenir of old Savannah – Pinkie Masters is a slice of what I remembered best about Savannah – local, friendly, quirky, and most definitely not corporate. We walked in, the guy at the jukebox immediately became our friend - that is, until the next round of bachelorette partiers came in – and, what was up with all the ladies in tiaras celebrating their final days of freedom? – we saw bachelorette party after bachelorette party everywhere we went. Cigarettes in vending machines, PBR and Bud Lights in a bucket of ice behind the bar, and people saying things like “If you’re gonna drink from 8 am til 2 am, you gotta stay hydrated …. That’s why I’m drinkin’ PBR.”
This was the vibe we came to Savannah to find.
I'm thinking this might be an appropriate image to highlight this holiday season. It's one of my favorite images from the Creatives series and I love it because El Vez saved the Christmas tree for several months specifically so we could set it on fire. We were definitely worried about burning down the neighborhood and I knew we'd only have one shot really at a great image. As we're about to set the tree alight, El Vez says to me, very seriously, "If my hair catches on fire, KEEP SHOOTING!"
El Vez will do anything for his art!
In honor of the Supreme Court’s decision not to take on the gay marriage issue this year (and, in effect, making same-sex marriage legal in 30 states now), I want to show some of the first images from a new project I’ve been working on about gay and lesbian elders. Their stories are all fascinating and important to remember and document. These are incredibly brave people who made the decision to live their life on their terms and many never thought they'd see the acceptance and tolerance that is everywhere these days – and the beginning of celebrating their love in marriage.
Here are the very first couple to get a marriage license in Washington State when gay marriage became legal just after midnight on December 6, 2012 – Jane Abbott Lighty and Pete-e Petersen. They have been together for over 37 years now, raised a daughter together, migrated from California to the great state of Washington and have many tales to tell. I am inspired by their adventurous life and sense of humor, their bravery, and their warm friendly vibe. I had such a great afternoon hanging out with them and learning of their stories - I will definitely be sharing more on this project as I move along on it.