Monday, November 3, 2008

Thoughts on Photographing in Cemeteries

I have made three recent photo trips to country cemeteries. The first two were to scout cemeteries to take a small group of photographers back to on Halloween. I chose the area because it was close to Houston and had a concentration of cemeteries close together. As it turned out these particular cemeteries are not extremely attractive, some have been badly vandalized, some have had no maintenance.

I can understand that it is much more comfortable to photograph in cemeteries that are lush with well maintained grounds, that are serene and peaceful, places that are inviting as our personal final resting place. Maybe there it is possible to concentrate on the beauty of the setting rather than on the individuals buried in the graves.

Not everyone is so fortunate as to be interred in such pristine surroundings. The end result of the Halloween photoshoot seemed a general disappointment and I can understand that. These were not comfortable cemeteries to confront. Someone interested in taking beautiful photographs would be disappointed here. However, these three trips have caused me to attempt to understand what it was that I found of interest in these less than perfect cemeteries.

I believe first of all that all photographs have two messages, one about the photographer and one about the subject. So to a great degree, the photographs that I took in these cemeteries were as much photographs about me as anything else. I am reflected, I believe, in the photographs that I produced on the Halloween photoshoot. I like to think that what I show of myself in these photographs comes across as admirable, at least humanely compassionate. I surely hope that it does not come across as uncaring, unconcerned or making mockery of others that may be less fortunate than I.

I also feel that in these photographs are statements about the person interred as well as about what they left behind. That how they affected people when they were living, their general financial state, how they were perceived by family and friends, all is a part of the photographs. Maybe I am reading more into the photographs than is actually there. I don't know, but I like to think of these photographs as photographs of the person as well as of their final resting place. I do not know how to confront these cemeteries, these graves without thinking of the person lying there and of the people they left behind. They are all there as much as I was.

Here are a few of my favorites with some personal notes.

This is my favorite photograph of the Halloween photoshoot. There is nothing deep or compelling about the photograph. It is simply beauty found in a cemetery. I love the light, the way the warmth fades to coolness. It simply says to me that someone wished to honor this person by placing these artificial tulips on the grave. There is no indication of the name of the person buried there, the name is not important, it is what that person left of their self and how they are preceived by the living that is in the photograph.

There is something inherently sad about a grave marked only by a funeral home marker. Born 1873, no death date, surely her death must have been several years ago. The large well weathered seashell, the smooth stones, what do they tell us about this person? Seashells seem to be a popular grave decoration. Does it say a seafaring person or is it simply the roar of the ever living sea that we seem to hear in the cavity of a sea shell that makes their connection to the grave?There is nothing here that specifically says cemetery but there is a sense of loneliness. Long shadows, fallen leaves on the bench, does it portray someone waiting or the long emptiness of missing someone loved?
Pilgrim's Rest is a small unmaintained heart wrenching cemetery. From the large number of homemade headstones it is evident that the people buried here are less fortunate financially. If you possess a soul, this stone has to tear at your heart. The single word Mother scratched in wet concrete. When the child is no longer living who will remember which mother it is that lies here. White roses of peace and serenity and a single red rose of passion.

No carved angel, no engraved cross or dove, just a glass marble, two small seashells and two oddly shaped rocks pressed into wet concrete by a loved one left behind. The stone and its decorations taking on the tones of the dust. A child? A son, a daughter?

"…earth that nourished thee shall claim thy growth to be resolved to earth again, lost each human trace thou shall go to mix forever with the elements, to become a brother to the insensible rock and to the sluggish clod that the rude swain turns with his plow and treads upon, The oak will send his roots abroad and pierce thy mold…"

To photograph in less than perfect cemeteries it seems that it must be necessary to be accompanied by Bryan's, Thanatopsis.

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