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Page 6 All the photographs in this section have been taken since I posted to original piece on photographing in cemeteries to the GW’s Discussion Blog.
I get very passionate about certain genre of photography and cemetery photography is included in that. I should probably take more time to write this but the writing is not as important as any passion that might rub off on the reader. Photographing in cemeteries can be an inspiring, emotional event or it can be another ho hum photographic experience—the choice is yours. These are personal thoughts on taking photographs in cemeteries. They are not particularly erudite but they cover what I like to think of as a mindset that is appropriate for getting interesting cemetery photographs. They are not “rules,” just ideas. I am frequently accused of being preachy, I am. IMO, being passionate and attempting to share that passion is a good thing to do. I hope you agree. There are some double page spreads so set you page display to two up.
Page 34 The photographs in this section were the last photographs that I took in a cemetery prior to the discussion on the blog.
Page 78 The photographs in this section were taken from several months ago to two years ago on various forays into cemetery photography.
There is no rules about photographing in cemeteries but I am going to share a few of my thoughts on the subject.. Most cemeteries are well landscaped, well maintained so it is possible simply to do landscape photographs that include tombstones. Some of the tombstones are extremely ornate so you could simply document the work of the stone carver. It is very easy to do very ordinary photographs in a cemetery, but why? There is another mindset that I believe can raise your photographs in cemeteries above the levels mentioned above and I would like to address some of my ideas on that subject. These ideas revolve around what cemeteries are, depositories of the dead, and what is required to gain permanent access to a cemetery, dying. I believe that we all find death interesting. We have experienced it vicariously; we realize that we will eventually experience it fully. So what does death mean to us as individuals? It means a loss. Sometimes that loss is a parent, a relative, a friend, a lover, a notable figure. We are affected emotionally by such loss. So I think it is possible to say that cemeteries are places that we relate to emotionally. That is why I feel that we need to approach cemetery photography differently from how we would approach photographing a landscape, a flower, a piece of sculpture—all of these things we can find and photograph in cemeteries. If we approach this subject matter the same as we would were we outside a cemetery we miss much of the emotional content that cemeteries allow us to pursue photographically. Let’s start with the strongest emotional content first—our own mortality. Where could you be better reminded that our tenure here is at best much too short than among the graves of the dead. Look around, every stone that you see marks the end of a life. You, also, one day will likely lie beneath such a stone. How do you feel about your own mortality? Do your pretend against all logic that you will never face the inevitable, many do. Do you welcome it strengthened by your faith? Between the two there are many valid degrees of acceptance. Does the thought cause dread or even fear? Would you ever consider going into a cemetery to see what can you find to express your personal feeling about your own mortality, your own death, the feelings you have about death? That is one approach to cemetery photography. As a suggestion, approach the grave as though it were your own, what is there that you would want to see? Is the life span engraved on the stone long or short—how does that make you feel? Do you take comfort that the person buried there had a long and hopefully satisfying life? Are you saddened when the life is obviously cut off in its prime or before there was a real opportunity to experience life? Are there flowers on the grave and what do the flowers say? Are they fresh or are they faded and in disarray? You might expect flowers on the grave of someone that is recently deceased but how do you feel when you see flowers on the grave of a person that has been dead for many years? Do you ever have fears that you will not be remembered, that your life here has meant so little. All but a precious few will
vanish forever into obscurity. If not almost immediately, surely within a couple of generations. Not only will your life end, but most likely you will no longer be remembered. How does that make you feel? Is that something that you can show in your photographs in a cemetery. When I am photographing in a cemetery I almost always take photographs that say how soon we are forgotten. Is that disturbing? It isn’t for me but I do find it sad that there is such evidence everywhere we look. Sure, those that achieve public fame will live on in history—the precious few. A few will still be honored by future generations of family. The rest will have graves, that if marked at all, will tumble forgotten into the dust. What do the flowers on the graves signify to you? Are they signs of grief, longing, love? Do you see them as honoring the deceased? What about other artifacts that you find on graves, toys, sea shells, stones, vases, pieces of art—do you ever consider the significance, the symbolism of these artifacts? Do you have literary works that you draw upon when you consider your own mortality, the Bible, prose, poetry? If so take those works with you if only in mind when you are photographing. I personally draw a lot of my inspiration in cemeteries from the poets. Bryant’s Thanatopsis and Poe’s Ulaulme are almost always running through my head when I am photographing. The Ruyiabat of Omar Khayiam is always good fare to take to the cemetery—maybe a little cynical but were else to be cynical, “…dust into dust and under dust to lie.” “Drink! for you know not whence you came, nor why: Drink! for you know not why you go, nor where..” I also hold another life theory that most times the question is important than the answer. I like to look for questions whether or not I am really interested in the answer. Questions about the death, questions about the life of the person in the grave. Look for questions I can assure you they are more poignant than answers—much more compelling in photographs. But to boil it down to an essence—you have to look for ways to capture the mystery of death, the departure, the uncertainty of the unknown, the spirits, the apparitions—not just tombstones—but the sadness of those left behind, the emptiness, the longing. It requires approaching a stone angel to give it life as though it were a person you were photographing or approaching a bench as emptiness. Shoot out of focus and shoot at early morning or late evening when the shadows are long.. You are not photographing concrete or granite or marble you are photographing heavenly beings, angels, the souls departed. It’s all a mindset. I love to photograph things that are amiss in a cemetery— turned over vase of flowers, faded plastic flowers, broken stones, grass or weeds creeping over the stones—homemade stones are so ugly and so powerful at the same time. Funeral home markers are sad enough but to be faded beyond reading or empty is wrenching. Think about the poignancy of the object not about what the object is. Accept it as other worldly and do whatever is necessary to say that in your photograph. You are photographing death, the reminders of death, the cessation of life—that holds mystery, fear, doubts, promises, hurt, yearning.
Don’t go to a cemetery to just simply photograph tombstones. The cemetery you go to will greatly influence the types of photographs that you will take. Newer cemeteries are staid and stale compared to older cemeteries. Perpetual care had done much to homogenize the appearance of a cemetery.. Flat stones that make the area easy to maintain give the photographer very little of pictorial interest. But even there you will find large pieces of sculpture, gazebos, colonnades or other decorative elements added by the cemetery to lend an air of beauty and serenity. You will also have flowers and can make connections between the flowers and the gravestones. However, older cemeteries are much richer pictorially. The older the better because the stones are likely to be much more ornate, the stones will be more weathered indicating the passage of time. Generally the more affluent the cemetery the better the quality of the stonework but do not discount cemeteries in lower income areas for poignancy. Homemade stones, funeral home markers, vandalized cemeteries all can provide strong statements about mortality, about death.
I met a traveler form an antique land Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear-'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!' Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away. Ozymandias of Shelly’s poem was apparently at one time a person of significant importance. Yet as Shelly points out even the significantly importance suffer the fate of being forgotten. The person buried in this grave may be mentioned in someone’s family history but for all practical purposes as flesh and blood this person has passed into oblivion. There is not enough information available on the stone to even guess how long ago that might have taken. This is a theme that I like to pursue when photographing in cemeteries because in many ways it is what I have to look forward to in the not too distant future. Having no children, no heirs, no progeny, Janet and I have decided against a burial plot. Our intent is to have our ashes scattered together and we will very quickly pass from this earth in entirety. We passed this way once. We have depleted the vessel and now, together, what is left of the vessel will blow in the wind to who knows what adventures. We may even end up on one of the distant shores we dreamed of early in our marriage. And if we don’t is that any great loss? I see this photograph as a way of coming to terms with the fleeting nature of life or at least of the discarded life vessel. There is a line from Thanatopis that I have used as inspiration for photographs for over half a century, “Earth that nourished thee shall claim thy grown to be resolved to earth again.” The first photograph that I recall taking with that line as inspiration had nothing to do with cemeteries. I love photographing trees and I include trees in a lot of my cemetery photographs. The tree in this photograph was standing all alone on what was mostly a treeless plain in the Wichita Wildlife Refuge near Lawton, Oklahoma. It had to have been tenacious to have chosen that particular spot to spring to life but at the time I took the photograph it was only a windblown skeleton of what it had once been. You will often find trees in the older cemeteries that can serve as a metaphor of life and death. All living things eventually follow the same pattern—eventually dying.
Above is a photograph that I did recently in one of Houston’s older cemeteries. I posted it to the Discussion Blog without comment and I feel certain that no on knew what to make of it. That is not surprising because the weathering makes it difficult to even tell what the object is. This is a very extreme example. Out of curiosity, what do you see in this photograph? I will admit it is not a photograph that you can take in quickly. It probably requires the mindset that I mentioned previously to even get anything out of the photograph. Can you make out the very faint letters and numbers? They are not so clear that you can actually make out much more than what might be a “C” in what appears to be the second row and in the bottom maybe the top of a “2.” There is just enough of the letters to identify this as a gravestone but not enough to ever tell who might be buried here. I gave this photograph the title Temporal Destiny and it goes back to what I said previously that we not only exit this life, we eventually will exit the memory of those that follow. This is a theme that has been derived from my interest in poetry.
Olivewood Cemetery These three markers, each in varying degrees of legibility, still addresses the photographic concept of being abandoned, unattended—all akin to being forgotten. This is one of my favorite cemetery themes. True is it not a pictorially beautiful as photographing well sculpted angels, it is possibly more deeply poignant.
Olivewood Cemetery 7
Olivewood Cemetery I cannot imagine what created the square hole in the concrete covering of this grave. Even though there appears to have been a marker at the head of the grave, possibly at one time there was a family marker that fit into the open area. Now you can see that the grave has collapsed as many of the graves in Olivewood have.
Olivewood Cemetery 12
Most of the time when I convert to black and white I will use a cool tint because I feel that it is more appropriate to the subject matter. Even though this is a photograph taken in a cemetery it really is only incidental to the theme. Because it strikes me more as an object from antiquity I decided that I would prefer a warm tone tint. This was photographed in Olivewood Cemetery, which served the black community of Houston since 1875. The cemetery has been heavily vandalized and over grown. A few years ago an association was formed to restore Olivewood. It is still in very rough condition but every time that I go back it is in slightly better condition. The work consists mainly of clearing away an abundance of crape myrtles and clearing the undergrowth. Little has been done to the stones. That makes it an ideal location for photographs that address being forgotten. These were also shot with the Lensbaby to give an ethereal feeling to the images.
Another interesting object to photograph in cemeteries is the flowers. You can approach it as flower photography or, as I prefer, you can use the flowers as a statement of grief. Weathered and faded flowers address time in a way similar to worn or broken grave markers. I do occasionally try to do colorful photographs of the more recently placed flowers. When I do, I try, if possible, to include a portion of the writing on the marker but be sure that I have tied the flowers to the cemetery setting.. Most often I prefer to photograph the weathered and faded flowers in a way that addresses sadness, grief, the passage of time. That, to me, is the most emotional approach. Hollywood cemetery is one of the better cemeteries for photographing flowers on the graves. For one thing there are more Hispanic burials at Hollywood and Hispanics are more prone to decorate the graves and to decorate them more frequently. I wish I could get down on their level easier. On my recent trips I have not photographed all that many flowers but I do have a few exceptional photographs of flowers taken at past shoots at Hollywood. I usually set my white balance to agree with the type of lighting. However, true color is not important to me since I consider color to be simply an emotional element of the photograph. Sometimes true color is more emotionally satisfying, sometimes it isn’t. In these recent photographs from Hollywood, most are set to fluorescent white balance. Cemetery photograph, for me, is a very emotion centered process and I want to do whatever I feel gives the image the strongest intended emotional impact. In this case the fluorescent combined with slight desaturation imparts a very subtle unreality, somewhat deathly coloration to the images.
Hollywood Cemetery 15
Hollywood Cemetery 17
Sometimes you will come across a special circumstance such as happened on my last trip to Hollywood Cemetery. I generally stayed in the older section of the cemetery but I wandered over the top of a knoll and came across a steep slope that was limited to gravesites for children. It presented some unique opportunities. The flowers on these graves were relatively fresh so the photographs were too cheerful in color. I have a preference for dark photos and cemetery photos, IMO, needs to be dark.
Hollywood Cemetery 18
Hollywood Cemetery 19
Hollywood Cemetery 20
Hollywood Cemetery In Emerson's poem, Thanotopsis, there is a line that I almost always look to illustrate, “...the oak shall send his roots abroad and pierce thy mold.” This requires photographing in one of the older cemeteries where the trees have grown so large that they intrude into the gravesites. I have found these shots at both Hollywood and Olivewood Cemeteries. Glenwood is too well maintained to have disturbed stones.
Hollywood Cemetery 24
Hollywood Cemetery 26
Hollywood Cemetery 27
Every photographer goes to the cemetery to photograph angels and cherubs. Here again the thought process needs to be more along the lines of what are angels, cherubs? What is their function or relationship to death? It is simple enough to photograph a well sculpted figure simply for its beauty and it is okay to do that. But don’t fail to see the angel as more than a block of stone. Well done cemetery statuary emotes. The sculptor does much of your work for you. The Fenn angel at Hollywood Cemetery on this and the preceding two pages is very sad. The sculptor tilted the face downward keeping the face always in shadow. It is a very old work and has weathered heavily, lichen obscures its features. Although it is not as well done as some at Glenwood Cemetery it is probably the saddest of all the angels. I never fail to photograph it when I go to Hollywood. It almost always is holding fresh plastic flowers. This is the first time I have photographed it when there were no flowers. The last time in addition to the flowers a chain with a key was draped around the hand. It is evident that those buried here are not yet forgotten by the current generations. The Hill angel at Glenwood is the most agonizing and probably the most beautiful of all the angels. Others at Glenwood are guardians, some are messengers, some are guides, some beckon silence, some are uplifting, some are welcoming, some are forlorn—all well done angels and cherubs convey emotion, the emotion you want to capture that emotion in your photograph. Some of the techniques I use on angels include close ups, detail shots, color manipulation, either cooling or warming the photograph depending upon what I would like for the photograph to convey. I do close ups of the faces to capture the emotion of the expression, close ups of the hands because next to the face the hands are the strongest conveyor of emotion. I also try to photograph the angels from more than one viewpoint. I try to watch the background carefully to be sure that the angel separated well from the background and that there is noting detracting. I frequently shoot the angels at very wide apertures to heavily soften the background. I also will use ultra wide angle lenses to distort the angel for a more other worldly appearance. Lately I have been using the Lensbaby a good deal in cemeteries for that same reason. I want to do what ever I can to give as much emotion to the angel as is possible. Hollywood Cemetery
Olivewood Cemetery 29
Up to this point everything has been photographed in either Hollywood or Olivewood Cemeteries within the last two days. The following are from Glenwood Cemetery done on two different days last month. Glenwood is the most spectacular cemetery in the Houston area.
Glenwood Cemetery 34
Glenwood Cemetery 38
Glenwood Cemetery 39
Glenwood Cemetery 42
Glenwood Cemetery 43
Glenwood Cemetery 44
Glenwood Cemetery 48
Glenwood Cemetery 49
Glenwood Cemetery 51
Glenwood Cemetery 54
Glenwood Cemetery 55
Glenwood Cemetery 57
Glenwood Cemetery 58
Glenwood Cemetery 59
Glenwood Cemetery 60
Glenwood Cemetery 66
Glenwood Cemetery 70
Glenwood Cemetery 76
The preceding photograph were all taken within the past two months. The photographs in this section were taken some time ago.
At the time I first discovered Olivewood Cemetery it was still very much overgrown. Only the area near the entrance had been cleared enough that you could find most of the stones. Most of the photographs that I took were of the lilies. Although I did use the angel to illustrate the difference in spatial distances cratered by switching focal length lenses while keeping the main subject mater roughly the same size. This was a subject that was being discussed on the GW’s Photography Discussion Blog at the time. Olivewood Cemetery, March 2009 78
Olivewood Cemetery, March 2009 79
My first time to go to the Houston National Cemetery to photograph was with very specific intent. A blog assignment was to do a photograph of a “patriotic blur.” I thought at the cemetery I would be able to use camera movement to create a ghost like effect with the upright stones. I arrived at a time when the area I wanted to photograph was having the grass watered which turned out to be an unexpected asset when I used the spray backlit.
Houston National Cemetery, July 2009 80
The Fenn angel at Hollywood Cemetery almost always is holding fairly fresh plastic flowers.
Hollywood Cemetery, November 2008
Hollywood Cemetery, November 2008 83
Map of a significant turning point in my thoughts on photographing in cemeteries, October 2008 84
Texas county maps at one time could be purchased in 12” x 17” sheets for less than a dollar apiece. When Janet and I were into bicycle touring we had quite a collection. They also came in handy when we were into genealogy since they show the locations of all the cemeteries in the county. Now they are available for free on the Internet but you are limited to the size of your printer. For the GW’s Photography Discussion blog I put together a day long photoshoot of country cemeteries south of Hemstead, Texas. It is an area not far from Houston where we could get to easily. Janet and I made a couple of trips prior to the official date to locate and check out the cemeteries. With that information I set up two loops with a lunch break in Hempstead between the two. I of course enjoyed all three trips. However I believe that most of the blog team was a little disappointed. They had previsioned bucolic country cemeteries with old ornate stones. That is not what we found. True there were many old ornate stones, many of which were no longer standing upright and at one cemetery we were in competition with a herd of cows. Most of the cemeteries were unfenced, away from most houses and therefore were heavily vandalized. What greeted us in most of the cemeteries was far from pictorial. I mention this because in photography it is good to know what you are going for but it is not necessarily good to rely to heavily on preconceptions. Sure I would loved to have found twenty miniature Glenwoods but when I didn’t I shifted gears to see what the cemeteries were offering me and actually started to develop many of my concepts on photographing in cemeteries on this trip. I found the vandalized cemeteries very disturbing but still they had the feeling of the ruins of antiquity so I tried to put that into my photographs. I found the homemade headstones, the plethora of funeral home markers, especially those that were no longer legible to be very poignant, almost heart rending. The trip made me think of cemeteries not only as depositories of the dead but as clues to the lives of those that lay beneath the dust; as stories about those that follow them. This was nothing I had not seen or experienced before but I was seeing and experiencing cemeteries differently. Rather than seeing photo ops, I was seeing the significance of the cemeteries, the headstones, the flowers as stories. I began photographing them differently or at least wanting to photograph them differently. In the intervening two years my thoughts are still developing but I believe my cemetery photographs are now much more interesting than they were before this trip.
Richard Grove Cemetery, October 2008
Smith Cemetery, October 2008
Samuel’s Chapel Cemetery, October 2008 In October 2008 the GW’s Discussion Blog made a cemetery photoshoot in the small country cemeteries south and southwest of Hempstead, Texas. Some of these shots are from the scouting trip that Janet and I made a couple of weeks before the scheduled trip. This is actually where I developed my thinking about being forgotten within a fairly short time frame after death. Many of the cemeteries were heavily vandalized and many were about to succumb to the weeds and vines. It was a very interesting trip although I feel that most of the people that went were disappointed because they had preconceived notions of bucolic country cemeteries which is not what we found.
Buckhorn Cemetery, October 2008
About the only relatively attractive cemetery was the one at Moneville..
Moneville Cemetery, October 2008 88
Pilgrim’s Rest Cemetery, October 2008
Unnamed Cemetery on Smith Road, October 2008 89
St Martin de Porres Cemetery was not marked on the county maps that I was using to set up the itinerary for the photoshoot. Janet and I had stopped at Warwarofsky Cemetery which turned out to be another of several disappointments in a row. I was getting tired and decided to head back to Houston. I just happen to glance over toward the setting sun and noticed St Martin on the top of a knoll several hundred yard off of the road.
St Martin de Porres Cemetery, October 2008 90
Moneville Cemetery, Second Trip October 2008 92
Moneville Cemetery, Second Trip October 2008 Since Moneville Cemetery was the most attractive of the cemeteries that we were going to visit we made it our first stop to get the morning light.
Pilgrim’s Rest, Second Trip October 2008 Pilgrim's Rest was one of the smaller cemeteries and it had been heavily vandalized. I suspect it was a colored cemetery although I do not know that for sure. Probably more than half the stones were homemade like the small stone on the right that says simply, Mother. Probably the saddest object to find in a cemetery is a funeral home marker. It is even sadder when the name is totally faded or missing as in the one above. You have to question whether the family just did not have the recourses to purchase a headstone or if it was just not important to mark the grave. Possibly there was no family left to tend to such matters. Although we will all eventually reach a point where we will no longer be remembered, no longer known among the living, it is still extremely sad to realize that this person’s life has ended so unmarked, unhonored. There were numerous funeral home markers at Pilgrim’s Rest.
St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Second Trip October 2008 96
St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Second Trip October 2008
Hollywood Cemetery, November r 2008
Hollywood Cemetery, November 2008 99
I frequently mention that I draw a lot of my inspiration for photography in general and cemetery photograph specifically from poetry. What should we be without the sexual myth, The human reverie or poem of death? Castratos of moon-mash—Life consist Of propositions about life. The human Reverie is a solitude in which We compose these propositions, torn by dreams, Bye the terrible incantations of defeats And by the fear that defeats and dreams are one. The whole race is a poet that writes The eccentric propositions of its fate. —Wallace Stevens, Men Made out of Words 100
Hollywood Cemetery, April 2008
There is a passage in Emerson’s Thanatopsis that I have used since the 1960’s as photographic inspiration when photographing any dead or dying object. There is, or was, a dead tree in the Wichita Wildlife Reserve near Lawton Oklahoma that first brought this passage to my mind. Now when I go to cemeteries finding a photograph that will illustrate the last line of the passage is almost always a consideration. “Earth that nourished thee will claim thy growth to be resolved to earth again...The oak will send his root abroad and pierce thy mold.” This photograph taken in Hollywood Cemetery is currently my favorite illustration of that last line
Hollywood Cemetery, April 2008
Although I do not always follow my own advice I frequently mention going to cemeteries either early in the morning or late in the evening. when the sun is low and the shadows are long. There is no better example of the sagacity of that advice then the photograph on the right of the Fenn angel at Holloywood cemetery. that is pure serendipity of being in the right spot at the right time—just as a shaft of light from the late evening sun broke through the trees to shine only on the flowers that has been placed in the angels hands. I could probably visit Hollywood every day for a year and never be there at this exact same time again. Okay, maybe I am just a lucky SOB and not at all that sagacious but far be it from me to knock serendipity. Being there early or late will greatly increase the possibility of coming away looking greatly more talented than you really are.
Hollywood Cemetery, April 2008 102
Cong. Adath Israel Jewish Cemetery, April 2008 This is a special circumstance cemetery photography. It was actually done for a camera club competition for the assigned category Rocks. There is a Jewish tradition of placing a small stone on the headstone of a visited grave. According to Paul Saltzman, the only person of Jewish extraction that I knew at the time, by placing the rock on the headstone the visitor is assisting the deceased in reaching Nineveh. I visited three Jewish cemeteries before I found a placement that I liked. I finally settled on the one that is closest to my house—isn’t that always the case? The photograph did not receive a ribbon but I still enjoyed researching the burial traditions of the Jewish faith.
Glenwood Cemetery, November 2007 104
Glenwood Cemetery, November 2007 This is the only trip I have made to Glenwood where I used off camera flash. I’m not sure, outside of laziness, that I haven’t tried this again. If I were to reprocess these images I most likely would change the processing. Mainly I would darken the sky more than I did originally. The angel on the previous page was shot with the 11-16mm Tokina lens.
Glenwood Cemetery, November 2007 106
Glenwood Cemetery, November 2007 107
Glenwood Cemetery, November 2007 108
In Camera techniques:
Ultrawide aperture Lensbaby Incorrect White Balance
Post Processing Techniques
Darkening Cropping Desaturation (especially greens)