BROOKLYN – What if you discovered an ancestor was a judge at the Salem witch trials, and you also found out another ancestor, from the same period of New England history, had been accused of being a witch?
No, it’s not some plot twist devised by the creators of Charmed, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina or some other witchy TV series. It’s the true story of photographer Frances F. Denny. That striking discovery sparked her latest photography project, Major Arcana: Witches in America, which is on exhibit through Nov. 24 at ClampArt in New York City. The project also is viewable on her website at francesfdenny.com.
With an MFA in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design and a bachelor’s degree in gender and sexuality studies from the Gallatin School at New York University, Denny was doing research for what would become her first photography book, Let Virtue Be Your Guide. The project explored the women in her family – early settlers of New England – “and the specific sort of femininity they embody,” Denny says. (A male ancestor was a deckhand aboard the Mayflower.)“I delved into my family’s ancestry and found out that my tenth great-grandfather, Chief Justice Samuel Sewall, was one of the central judges in the Salem witch trials, unfortunately,” Denny says. “I also discovered that my eighth great-grandmother, Mary Bliss Parsons, was an accused witch. She wasn’t in the Salem trials. She was in Northampton, Mass., and it was about 20 years prior to the Salem trials in 1692. They didn’t know each other and it wasn’t exactly the same moment.”
Denny, who confesses she had no connection to modern witchcraft, “kind of filed that coincidence away. It felt sticky. It felt like something needed to be looked at more deeply.”
Years later, in early 2016, she read the book The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff.
“I was so taken by her description of Salem in 1692,” Denny says. “I started thinking about that ancestral coincidence and also just what this word ‘witch’ meant then, and how I feel that it has subsequently become this archetypal figure. Many people have written about this – I’m far from the first person to call the witch an archetype. But to me it really does feel like this feminist archetype that has a really dark, sordid history but one that has been reclaimed by modern people — men and women, and people who identify as a non-binary gender. That was the spark for the whole project.”
Realizing she was “very much an outsider,” Denny says she “had this curiosity and this sort of vague sense that there were these people out there who identified as Witches. and I needed to figure out how I was going to meet them and get my arms around this world that I knew nothing about.”
She began researching and read “the late, great Margot Adler’s book Drawing Down the Moon, which was incredibly helpful for me in trying to get the lay of the land. It helped me understand the incredible complexity and intricacies of the Pagan community. It’s so diverse and made up of so many different religions and belief systems.”Denny began reaching out to “people who I kind of had a hunch about. When I was doing this project, people would ask me, ‘How do you find witches?’ I always would say. ‘Well, you probably know one already and don’t even realize it, or maybe have a hunch that somebody is.’ I followed my nose. I followed my instincts.”
She sent out inquires via email and letters, and soon she had a “critical mass” of eight self-identifying witches, which opened the door to “a vast network” of others.
Denny, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, New York Times, Architectural Digest, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and other media outlets, began photographing witches in early 2016. She received a New York Foundation for the Arts 2016 Fellowship in Photography, which included a grant that funded photo expeditions to southern and northern California, New Orleans, and locales up and down the East Coast. She also photographed numerous witches near her home in the New York/New Jersey area.
Denny’s photos are what photographers call “environmental portraits” – depictions of their subjects in their homes or personal space, or in places that are natural to them. Her subjects decided the location of the shoots.
“So many of my witches wanted to be photographed in nature, whether it was in a field or a forest or city park,” Denny says.
Her subjects also chose their own manner of dress, while Denny asked each to “bring along some sort of item that was related to their Witchcraft. Maybe it was something they used in ceremony or ritual or something from their altar. Just something that would make for an interesting detail in the photograph and further expand our sense of who they are as witches.”
Denny’s intent was not to photograph prominent, very public Pagans, but that ended up happening on occasion. However, the witches depicted are identified only by their place of residence and by their first names or, in a few cases, their craft names, and thus they remain semi-anonymous. Those in the Pagan community may recognize Starhawk, Judika (Illes), Luisah (Teish), Zsuzsanna (Budapest) or M. Macha NightMare.
“In addition to Margot Adler’s book, I read several others and there were names that definitely kept popping up,” Denny says. “Also, names would come up in conversations with Witches I was photographing. I asked some of the young Witches I photographed, ‘What books have been important to you in your pursuit of witchcraft?’ Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance was one that was often cited.
“Of course, I read it and her name had come up many times, so I reached out to her and lo and behold she was interested in being part of the project. Same with Zsuzsanna Budapest. Yes, I wanted to show some of the people who have been influential, but also some of the younger Witches, some of whom are quite influential in their own right.”
Yes, Denny is aware that many males identify as Witches – yet no male Witches are included in her project.
“The reason is really that my longtime preoccupation as an artist has always been about more female-defined subjects and the way that female identities are shaped and formed,” Denny says. “That’s just always been my interest. I definitely had some male Witches reach out and inquire. I don’t mean to exclude anybody. I hate the idea of doing that, but I also have to be true to my interest as an artist.
“However, it’s important to me to be generous with the way we define female, so I have made a big effort to include people who are in the trans community, who are gender fluid and who don’t even necessarily identify as female. So, I have been inclusive in that way.”
Denny says her “biggest takeaway” from her project “is that there is not one kind of Witch. The diversity is vast and I really wanted to represent accurately that diversity in terms of ethnicities, geography, body types. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t typecasting the Witch.”Denny’s website statement about her project delves deeper into that diversity: “Each woman photographed for Major Arcana, including gender fluid and trans individuals, pursues a form of witchcraft, whether aligned with a religion, like Wicca or Voudou, or a self-defined practice. No two individuals inhabit the term ‘witch’ in quite the same way, but many consider themselves pagan, and engage in a diversity of traditions, including: mysticism, the occult, politically-oriented activism, polytheism, ritualized ‘spell-craft,’ and plant-based healing.
“Among those included in the series are self-proclaimed green witches, white witches, kitchen witches, hedge witches, and sex witches. ‘Witch’ is a mutable term, belonging to a wide spectrum of people. Major Arcana reflects that spectrum, re-framing the witch as a feminist archetype and the contemporary embodiment of a defiant, unsanctioned femininity.”
And how does Denny describe her spiritual path?
“This is by far your hardest question,” she says. “You know, I feel such an affinity for Witches and Witchcraft, and look I am now the proud owner of a very beautiful tarot deck and oracle deck and all these books and candles and crystals. But I don’t have a personal spiritual practice whatsoever. I don’t have something that I return to every day or every week or even every month.
“I have too much respect for people who do this in a more organized way for themselves, that I can’t really claim it for myself. So, I don’t think that I’m a Witch, and also I want to be frank that I did come to this community as an outsider. I don’t want to pretend like I am a Pagan, or that I’m spiritual or religious on the level that some of my subjects are.
“And some of them I should say don’t identify as Pagan and don’t identify as religious, and think of ‘Witch’ more as maybe a feminist term or an activist term or a term related to self-care. So I’m interested in all the myriad ways that Witch is defined by the people who claim it for themselves. I have to say I love my Witches but I’m not sure I get to call myself a Witch at this point.
“And it’s not that I have any other kind [of spiritual path]. My family’s religious background is Episcopalian but I wasn’t even baptized and neither of my parents is religious. I really didn’t grow up within a religious framework, so I don’t have it. It’s just not a part of me.”
* Photographer Frances F. Denny will give an artist’s talk at 3 p.m. Saturday Nov. 10 at ClampArt, 247 W. 29th St. (ground floor), New York City. Information: clampart.