Monday, August 23, 2010

Ceramic Death Portraits

Photograph by Tim Snyder
I've always had a mental block about when exactly my mother's birthday is. August....something. Six years ago today, I got a helpful hint--my dad died around her birthday--August 16th, to be exact. A week before her birthday. I always thought that was unfair of him. But he had ways of making his presence felt, even after death!

He was always critical of the apparent negligence my brother Tim showed toward his cars. Filling them with junk, never washing them, etc. If Tim's cars were children, they would have been removed from his custody by some state agency. On our way out of the funeral home after picking up my dad's "cremains," my mom, my brother, and I found a huge pool of oil under Tim's car. The engine block had cracked. Car was totalled. I think that was dad's last hurrah. As if he were saying, "See?! I told you this would happen if you didn't take better care of that car!"

Anyway, I told you that story to tell you this one. In my Cemetery Travels, I've come across many photo-sensitized tiles--porcelain death portraits--on headstones. You see these mostly in Italian cemeteries, on headstones dated between 1880 and 1930. I convinced my brother and sister to split the cost of one of these so we could put it on Dad's headstone. Well, not exactly his headstone....

His mother's ashes are buried at the stolen tombstone of her parents in a small rural cemetery around Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania (names witheld to protect me). As the story goes, when my great-grandparents died, one of their grandchildren (my father's uncle) stole a brand new fancy large granite tombstone from down south somewhere. He brought it north and had a stonecarver engrave it. That's just how we roll.

Cremation was my father's request. He would snarl, "I don't want worms eating me!" So we honored his wishes and had his body cremated. We decided to illegally bury the ashes at the site where his grandparents were buried. I say illegally, because you're not supposed to just go bury human remains any old where. Plus, the cemetery would much rather sell you a plot of ground in which to do this. Since we were sort of secretly burying his ashes, I thought there should be some marker for future generations. I thought it would be fitting to at least mark the place with one of these ceramic memorial photographs.

Turns out you can still have these things made (color or black and white photo). A hundred years ago photographs were actually etched into ceramic, or porcelain, and kiln-fired. Today, they can be made the same way, or they can be laser-etched, or simply have a slot into which you slip the photo. We opted for the more permanent design (kiln-fired), which cost about $300. The piece (color image, above), is usually a 5-inch oval, and comes with double-backed sticky tape so you can just stick it to the headstone. We also opted to use a photo of my dad which my daughter took near the end of his life. I thought it made sense to remember him as he was when he "left," as my Mom puts it. That happened to be August 16, the day I'm writing this. Contemporary American photographer George Krause, in his book, "A Retrospective," (Rice University Press, 1991) says that he believes such photographs are "selected by relatives of the deceased for definite reasons, each one mirroring an attitude..." Without a doubt, the photograph we chose for my father mirrors an attitude!

Ceramic Photo Printing
(from "Photographic Facts and Formulas" by Wall and Jourdan,  Prentice-Hall 1976)

There are 4 basic methods of making ceramic or porcelain death portraits, and all of them start with a specially manufactured enamel plaque. The enamel is a soft vitreous ceramic on a copper base. The four methods given are:

1 ) Substitution process -- where a platinum, palladium, gold or other metallic print is made on the enamel.
2 ) Powder process -- based on the facts that colloids lose their tackiness on exposure to light in contact with a bicromate. It is rarely used for paper prints, and its chief application has been for the preparation of reversed and duplicate negatives for photomechanical work, or for making ceramic enamels. For the latter process the image was produced on collodionized glass, to facilitate stripping, and the image transfered to the enamel plaques.
3 )Carbro or carbon printing on the enamel.
4 ) Transfer of a processed colloidal or albumen emulsion onto the enamel surface.

    After any of these processes, the image is coated with a low-temperature transparent glaze, and the plaqued is then fired.

Link to, the company we used to have Dad's ceramic photo made.
Link to George Krause's series of headstone portraits, "Qui Riposa."
Link to George Krause's book, "A Retrospective," which features his cemetery photography.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lock Me in the Cemetery Vault

Sometime in the early 2000s, I went to Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery in Phila, PA to shoot a roll of Infrared Ektachrome film (which is no longer made). It was a bright sunny day in the summer, and the photograph you see here was one of the ones I made that day. The Warner Memorial is a dramatic life-sized (assuming granite cemetery beings are the same size as us) statue depicting the Angel of Death lifting the coffin lid and releasing the soul of the deceased to the heavens.

I shot a few frames and then my camera jammed. What to do? No darkroom nearby. No changing bag, either (all you digital newbies are probably wondering what that is...). See, you can't just open the back of a film SLR without exposing the film to light (which ruins it). In some cases with regular film, you can shut yourself up in a closet or bathroom with the lights out and unjam your film. Infrared is different. This film has to be loaded and unloaded in pitch darkness. So where in a cemetery could I find such a place?

Assuming they had a bathroom, I went into the gatehouse to ask. The gentleman behind the desk directed me to the second floor, where there was a nice clean bathroom with bright sunlight coming in the shadeless window. Rats. Now what? I went downstairs and asked if there was somewhere I could open my camera in total darkness. He offered to lock me in the vault! Now, the vault he referred to was not a burial vault, but a walk-in security vault much like the more modern bank vault you see here. It was where they stored important papers, historic documents, and all their burial records since 1835. I didn't know this guy, no one knew I was here, and he's offering to lock me in the vault... Kind of like someone offering you a vegan donut--I felt strongly both ways. But of course I said "ok," being driven to produce quality photographs at any cost.

In retrospect, I remember it being a tough decision, but one I had to make on the spot. Was I willing to suffer this much for my art? The risk of death at the hands of a madman just so I wouldn't waste a $25 roll of film? Sure I had mixed feelings--like watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your favorite car. But after many years, I had figured out how to get the best pictorial effects with infrared Ektachrome (ISO 100, orange filter, bright sunny day with lots of folliage, and slight underexposure due to its contrasty nature) and I wasn't going to waste the opportunity. This sunny day offered the best conditions for success!

So I allowed a perfect stranger to lock me in the unlit vault and close the door. I nervously asked him to give me 10 minutes. I managed to unjam the film, which, upon my release, allowed a very productive day of shooting. Sometimes you just have to trust people! Over the years, we became good friends, as I have with many people who work at Laurel Hill. Unfortunately, my relationship with infrared film ended, as it is no longer being produced by Kodak. Neither is their SO-283 satellite tracking film, which was a great choice for shooting celestial beings like cemetery angels. Just kidding. Wanted to see if you were still paying attention.

As an aside, an even stranger thing occurred around 2005 with regard to this vault. Two armed men came into the gatehouse near closing time and demanded that the vault be opened. When the cemetery director tried to explain that there was nothing of immediate monetary value inside, they pistol-whipped him until he opened it! On finding no cash, gold, or jewels, they left. They'd obviously heard the cemetery had a bank-type vault and mistakenly assumed it was full of money.

Click here for more info on infrared photgraphy.

Friday, August 13, 2010

"I See Dead People"

One of the most unsettling experiences I've ever had occurred a few days after seeing "The Sixth Sense" in the theater when it was first released (August 1999). The movie affected me in a disturbing way. Like so many other people, I was shocked  by the ending. I really don't like horror movies, and the ending really turned it into a horror movie for me. Not in the sense that I could no longer enter a darkened room without someone chanting from the Bible, but I was just rattled -- I wasn't the same for days afterward. Maybe I was open to suggestion.

I'd just begun my quest to photograph cemetery statues, and the one you see here was one of the first ones I photographed (at Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, a western suburb of Philadelphia), a few days before seeing the movie. I assumed all cemetery statues were pretty and angelic until I began creeping around graveyards and finding sculptures like this.

Our story begins one Saturday in Philadelphia, after I picked my daughter up from University of the Arts where she was taking  a photography class. This was a few days after I'd seen The Sixth Sense (which was filmed in Philadelphia, by the way, a few blocks from UArts, at St. Alban's Court near Grays Ferry Avenue). I drove toward Rittenhouse Square on Walnut Street and asked her if she wanted to jump out and get us a couple Frappuccinos at Starbucks. I told her I'd circle the block while she did that as there was nowhere to park.

On making my first left onto 17th Street, I hit a traffic jam. Instantly, I thought of that scene from the movie where the mom and boy are in the car, waiting in a traffic jam, and the bloody dead woman from the bicycle accident comes up to the boy's window. It was a bright sunny day and as I looked to my left down Chancellor Street, I saw a guy on a ladder painting a transom above a shop doorway, heard some music coming from somewhere, and a silver late-80s Volvo stopped in the middle of street. Relatively banal city scene. Now Chancellor is a small street, not really much of a thoroughfare, so, seeing a car stopped in the street is not unusual. What was unusual, though, was that the driver's door was open, and an old man was lying half in the driver's seat, having fallen onto the street with his head in a pool of blood.

I remember the blood vividly as it ran from the pool to a storm drain in the street. An old woman was standing in the street on the other side of the open door, looking down at the man. Just standing there. It was one of those things that is so unusual, it just doesn't register. I looked around for the camera crews and the Klieg lights--there weren't any. Why were no pedestrians or people waiting in cars going over to help? The guy painting on the ladder certainly must've seen or heard this happen. But...what happened? No one was gawking, or pretending not to notice. I was about to call 911 on my cell phone when it occurred to me that I might be the only one seeing this. As traffic began to move, I was jarred back to reality by honking horns behind me, and slowly drove away.

There was nothing in the papers the next day or on the news about any incident occurring here that day. Aside from a few close friends (who I trust with my sanity), I've told no one about my experience. Perhaps an inquisitive reader might want to check the police report archives to see if such a thing may have happened on this site, prior to my seeing it? Or...after I saw it, maybe?

Years later (2009 to be exact) I purchased a wooden file cabinet from a local thrift shop. It, along with a shop full of furniture, decorative plants, and what appeared to be movie props had belonged to Sixth Sense director M. Night Shyamalan. Supposedly, he redecorated his home (outside Philadelphia) and donated all these items to the thrift shop. I guess I have to wait til the end to see if it really is a file cabinet....

Monday, August 9, 2010

The One that Got Away

Before I bought my first DSLR and was still vascillating between film and digital as my choice for serious photography (perhaps 2007), I borrowed a friend's Panasonic DMC-FZ30K, an 8 MP SLR-like fixed-lens digital camera, and took it to the Woodlands Cemetery in West Philly to do some gravestone photography. While there, I was surprised to find two roaming herds of deer!

Now, the Woodlands is a small, heavily wooded (250 acre) urban cemetery bounded by city on all sides. Where the deer came from, will forever puzzle historians. I spent an hour or so shooting them (pun intended) from ever-decreasing distances, until I ended up about 20 feet away from them. Obviously somewhat wary of their natural predators (man), I did most of my shooting from this distance.

The Panasonic seemed to produce decent images--as it should, being a $600 camera! However, it had that time lag common to even the least expensive digital point-and-shoots. After following the two herds around, I made the photograph above of the buck. Decent, I'm happy. But I was not prepared for what happened next. The alpha male of the other herd, in an attempt at world domination, lowered its antlers and charged the buck you see in the upper photo!

Camera at the ready, I focused on the still deer and waited for the impact (so very Cartier-Bresson of me...). At the decisive moment, I pressed the shutter release, and -- nothing! No response from the camera! Missed it, the blasted thing! Was it that digital delay, or "buck fever?" It's tough to be objective when your finger's on the trigger. However, looking at the display, I saw a message you never want to see at the crucial moment--"Memory Card Full." Without a doubt, the greatest photograph I never made.

For a review of the Panasonic DMC-FZ30K, see my "PhotographerCoach" website. please click here.

For a peek at Ed's book, "Stone Angels -- A Celebration of the Mourning Arts," click here!

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Child's Death, and other Unfamiliar Territory

Back in 2002, I had to teach in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Never been there before, so I checked into all the surrounding cemeteries, to see which ones I felt were photo-worthy. Plan in hand, I made the trip.

Back in the pre-cell phone era, I would get myself into trouble during these cemetery excursions into unfamiliar territory. I would take a cab from the hotel to the cemetery, where the driver would drop me off. I'd do this maybe every 6 months so I just couldn't get into the habit of remembering that the return trip is not so easy--try to call a cab to pick you up at a cemetery!

I made some interesting photographs at Lakewood Cemetery, a grandly beautiful memorial park in the suburbs of Minneapolis--about 3 miles from the center of town. Founded in 1871, one of its best monuments was unphotographable during my visit, as a sprinkler was going near it the entire time! However, I did make this one of the scallop shell tombstone, on a child's grave. Beautiful sculpture, pitiful sentiment. I often wonder about taphophiles (tombstone tourists) who happen on something like this, having lost a child themselves. My apologies for waxing philosophic, but as I said above, cemetery travel has caused me to make excursions into unfamiliar territory...

The loss of a loved one is a tragedy unequalled by any other for most people. In the "Handbook of Bereavement" (Cambridge, 2003), author Simon Rubin says "The death of a child is forever." He reached this conclusion after his extensive study of reactions of parents who have suffered the loss of a child. He found that:

"parents of deceased children maintain very close ties with their child - even after 13 years of bereavement - remaining preoccupied with their child and highly invested in the lost relationship, often to the detriment of relationships with surviving members of the family."

Reading Cemetery, Reading, PA
Rubin developed a theory to further understand this phenomena, one that explores "multiple meanings" that children hold for their parents. Not the least of which must relate to parents' belief that their main responsibility is to make their child not die, as comedian Louis C.K. puts it.

One of the most famous stories of a lost child is the Lindbergh kidnapping, which occurred in1932 (see my blog, "Voices in the Cemetery")--Charles Lindbergh's father is actually buried here at Lakewood. Not being blessed with the aviator Lindbergh's directional sense, I temporarity shelved my philosophizing and focused on the more pressing issue of finding my way back to my hotel. I left the cemetery and walked to the nearest mini-mart to call a cab from a pay phone.

I was several miles from my home base (downtown Minneapolis, near the Mary Tyler Moore statue), theoretically within walking distance, but you see, I didn't know exactly where Lakewood was in relation to that point. In my haste and excitement to get to a new photographic location, I had, uh, forgotten my street map. One problem with calling a cab if you don't know precisely where you are, is that its difficult to give the cab dispatcher coherent instructions. But I didn't have to worry about that--not only did the "convenience" store not sell maps, but it had no pay phone and the lone employee spoke broken English! Oh well, cabs get so little business in the burbs, that even if they do understand your directions, they're reluctant to drive all that way to pick you up! So, I was stranded. At this point I was about 3 miles outside Minneapolis with no idea how to get back! I did offer a guy who pulled up in his car ten bucks to drive me to back to town, but he fled.

Long story short, it took me over 3 hours to get back to civilization. My last resort--as it was nightfall--was to hop a bus loaded with migrant workers on its way to St. Paul. Over the years, I've learned to be a bit more careful when planning my excursions into unfamiliar territory!

Hear a great interview with comedian Louis C.K.on NPR.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Pave that Cemetery!

One of the most curious things I've seen as The Cemetery Traveler was in Virginia, near Chincoteague Island (you know, that place with the miniature horses...uh, yeah). It was a small, rural (well, everything's rural here) place called Redman Cemetery with sort of a concrete landing strip up the center into which tombstones were vertically embedded! I really have no idea why this exists, it's just very strange. I mean, why did they ...? Anyone care to comment?

While there are in fact three small public cemeteries here in Chincoteague, what really catches your attention as you drive around are the private family cemeteries, such as this one. There may be a single grave, or a dozen, and usually date back a hundred years or more. Makes you wonder about current laws enabling you to bury the deceased on your own family property. For that matter, it isn't exactly legal to just go and bury someone in a bona fide cemetery! There's a bit of red tape involved, as you may imagine. So I did a bit of web-sleuthing.

It turns out that people routinely use the phrase "It turns out" to give the impression they've done quite a lot of research, when in fact they've done very little. In my case, after 10 minutes of Googling, I came up with a marvelous document called "Death Outside the Box" (link to this document at end of blog), published by the Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Virginia Blue Ridge. In answer to my question about Burial On Family-Owned Property, it is allowed in Virginia, but laws do vary from state to state:

"Private property burial is okay provided it does not conflict with public health laws....Guidelines are burial should be 150 feet from a water source such as a well and 2 feet deep to deter animals."

While a Death Certificate is a must, caskets are not. Neither is a cemetery vault (concrete burial box used to house the casket, which prevents the grave site from sinking as the casket disintegrates). If you did elect to use a vault so as not to have your lawn pocked with sunken graves, according to Death Outside the Box Virginians are allowed to bury the vault upside down with no cover so that the casket or shrouded body is exposed to the earth and decomposes easily (!). For burial at sea, you would need to get a permit from the Chief Medical Examiner (a practice that I assume does not apply to pirates).

Click to view the document "Death Outside the Box." 
Visit "Island". for an interesting collection of private family-owned Chincoteague graveyards.