Photographer Frances F. Denny’s intimate portraits show the diverse faces of modern witchcraft in the United States.
Frances F. Denny’s new photography book, Major Arcana: Portraits of Witches in America is a culmination of her travels across the United States photographing and interviewing modern-day witches. This largely misunderstood and historically castigated group includes herbalists, occultists, and Wiccan high priestesses, among others, and challenges commonly held, sexist stereotypes of the evil, broom-riding “hag.”
Denny’s portraits are as diverse as the witches she photographs. They push viewers to reconsider our preconceptions of what it means to be a witch and to acknowledge their humanity. For Denny, Major Arcana also parallels an ongoing climate of silencing women in the wake of MeToo and 2018’s Kavanaugh hearings. They are a form of resistance and empowerment.
The Luupe spoke with Denny to learn more
The Luupe: How did this series start?
Frances F. Denny: The spark for this series came in 2013 during research for my first book (Let Virtue Be Your Guide) when I discovered that my 10th great-grandfather was one of the judges in the Salem witch trials––and that my 8th great-grandmother was tried as a witch (about 20 years prior to the trials, in Northampton, MA). That coincidence struck me as a strange one, and I mentally tucked it away. In 2015, Stacy Schiff’s terrific account of the trials came out and I was reminded of my ancestor, Samuel Sewell. I began thinking about witches in a more archetypal sense–the witch as a proto-feminist anti-hero–and then wondered about how that word is embodied by people nowadays. I was a complete outsider to the world of witchcraft at the time, so had to begin at square one with my research (I started with Margot Adler’s Drawing Down the Moon).
The Luupe: Did you originally envision it as a book?
Denny: At the beginning, I didn’t necessarily envision the project becoming a book. But as I began shooting Major Arcana, I realized the potential of the series as a book–for me, that means the integration of text, and the importance of sequencing as a means to build meaning in a paced, intentional way.
I received the advance copy of Major Arcana a few weeks ago, and I will also say there is something extremely satisfying holding an entire 4-year endeavor in your hands!
The Luupe: Congrats! What draws you to photograph witches?
Denny: Witches and witchcraft are largely misunderstood. Seen as the stereotypical baby-eating hag or evil seductress (think Disney and Brothers Grimm), I was interested in the real people who actually identify as witches in various ways. I wanted to go beyond the tired old witchy tropes we are all too familiar with. Plus, there was something deliciously mysterious about witchcraft that I wanted to explore–especially once I realized that yes, it’s “real.”
The Luupe: Why the decision to focus on witches in The United States vs internationally?
While the NYFA Fellowship I won in 2016 funded much of the travel I required to see this project through domestically, opening it up internationally was going to be prohibitive financially. It also seemed problematic to choose which countries to visit beyond the US and which to leave out.
The Luupe: We’re really excited to see Pam Grossman write the intro. What was it like working with her/ how did you come to ask her to write for it?
Denny: Pam was on my shortlist of people to meet and photograph for Major Arcana. When we met for her portrait, we hit it off. Before launching her podcast and writing her book Waking the Witch, Pam used to work as a Director at Getty Images–so photography is a language she knows a lot about!
Pam and I share a sensitivity to the ways women are depicted in photographs. We’ve stayed in touch–she invited me as a guest on her podcast, “The Witch Wave” and I’m so pleased with the Foreword she wrote for the book.
The Luupe: The Daily Mail parallels your work to #MeToo, the Kavanaugh hearings, and frequent denial of women’s voices. Can you speak to this in the context of Major Arcana?
Denny: The witch is “the nasty woman,” the dissenter, the activist, the healer. She is an incredibly relevant figure for our time, which is why I think so many young people are becoming newly drawn to witchcraft. But it’s important to remember that the modern witchcraft movement was founded in the mid 20th century and has mirrored the twists and turns of the feminist movement over the past several decades.
Many of the old-guard Wiccans I met were also the second-wave feminists out there protesting (ugh, for many of the same things!!) in the 60s and 70s. Witchcraft is not just a trend–it isn’t new. And it’s becoming harder to dismiss it as something totally fringe or “out-there” or unserious.
The Luupe: What do you hope readers come away with?
Denny: I hope readers come away with a greater understanding and appreciation for individuals who identify as witches. But I also hope that my book leaves some mystery around its subjects. I think there’s power in that mystery. I definitely don’t see the book as some sort of “definition” of modern witchcraft. Hopefully, it’s more of a gateway–or to go back to Margot Adler (whom I quote in my epigraph)– “a cluster of powerful images” that together give color to a dusty old archetype.