Saturday, March 26, 2011

Photographing Mausoleum Stained Glass

Photographing mausoleum stained glass windows is easier than photographing stained glass in say, a church, simply because with a mausoleum, you’re at eye level with your subject! That said, there are certain devices and techniques that will make your task easier. Also, the cheaper version of stained glass, painted glass, photographs the same way.

You might think that since the inside of a mausoleum is dark, you would need to shoot at a high ISO. Not so. This is one of the few situations where your intention is to shoot directly into the sun, with the stained glass window between it and you. To the photographer’s benefit, cemetery planners and mausoleum designers purposely situate mausoleums facing east or west. That way, the sun illuminates the stained glass window either when it rises or sets--except of course in the southern hemisphere, where it rises and sets north to south*(see footnote below for more on this).

Typically, in your average sized mausoleum, you have one big stained glass window opposite the mausoleum door (which you typically can’t open, in case you were wondering). Your best lighting conditions are when the sun is low on the horizon (either morning or late afternoon) and shining directly onto the stained glass. Then you can photograph it through the front door. If you can’t be there at the edges of the day, a bright cloudless day with crisp, even light works okay too.

Now, about taking the actual photographs. Since your subject is bright, you don’t really have to worry about shooting at a high ISO. The inside of the mausoleum will be so dim compared to the stained glass, you don’t have to worry about including distracting detail in your image—these details will be so dark your image sensor won’t even pick them up. If you have a lot of bright areas in the glass, you can easily shoot at ISO 200. If the glass has a lot of darker areas, you may have to shoot at ISO 400. Remember though, that you’re shooting a flat pane of glass so you don’t need ANY depth of field! You can shoot wide open (maybe f5.6 with your average digital point-and-shoot, f3.8 with a DSLR) and enjoy a relatively fast shutter speed, perhaps 1/30 second.

The Unobstructed View
Okay, you really don’t have one of those, in most cases. One of the minor challenges of photographing mausoleum stained glass windows is that the entry door opposite the window is typically partially obstructs your view. Whether for security** or ornamental reasons, these clear-glass paned doors are usually covered with very intricate bronze or iron design elements. (The door glass, though clear, is usually dirty, cracked, or covered with cobwebs, adding to the challenge).The gridded metalwork allows a view of the stained glass, but the spaces between the design elements are seldom more than two inches in rough diameter. What this means, of course, is that you can’t put your 62mm (filter size) DSLR lens right up to the door glass and shoot. In other words, the diameter of the lens barrel is too wide. When push comes to shove, I’ll shoot anyway, then crop blurred obstruction out of the photograph, if possible.

Camera Type
Front lit door
Now, for almost any other photographic purpose, I would recommend using a DSLR rather than a DPS (Digital Point-and-Shoot) camera, because a DSLR produces far better image quality (regardless of megapixel count). However, since the lens barrel diameter of most DPS cameras is far smaller than the diameter of a DSLR lens, the DPS lens fits more easily between the ornamental bronze and ironwork ornately artistic metalwork designs on most mausoleum doors! Since you don’t need a high ISO or a super low f-stop, you can do a lot of good work with the DPS camera.  DPS zooms are usually longer than those of a DPS lens, so this can be very helpful with composing and isolating sections of the stained glass.

Megapixel Count and Camera Type
I mentioned megapixel count in the previous paragraph, and I’d like to clarify that a bit. Because the image sensors of DPS cameras are smaller than those in DSLRs, the image quality of a DPS camera is ALWAYS inferior to a DSLR for the same MP (megapixel) count. In fact, since the pixels themselves are larger in a DSLR sensor, they hold more information and are more sensitive to light (that’s why DSLRs are capable of such higher ISOs than are DPS cameras, for example, ISO 1600 for the former, ISO 400 for the latter). Your print resolution is much better with the DSLR as well, allowing you to make bigger enlargements. One of my pet peeves is salespeople telling you that you need, oh, let’s say 12MP to make a fine 11x14 enlargement. Bullfeathers. An 11x14 enlargement from a 2MP DSLR might be far superior to a 12MP enlargement from a DPS camera! I go on and on about this in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, so if you’d care to read more, check out Chapter 4, “Magical Devices for a High Speed World.”

Get Creative!
If lighting conditions aren't exactly right or you can't really get the angle you'd like, be creative. Just shoot the door itself, or experiment with reflections (as I did in this self-portrait). If you can't photograph the intended pictorial elements of the glass, consider that simple patterns are sometimes worthy subjects in themselves (the image at left reminds me of a Mondrian painting). Bear in mind that even small mausoleums can have really nice stained glass, so don't pass up the opportunity of checking them out. In conclusion, since many cemeteries line up their mausoleums in one area, and usually in a row, its relatively easy to shoot half a dozen mausoleums in a short period of time. It’s an efficient process, so get out there and start shooting!

 Further Reading

* Just kidding about the southern hemisphere, wanted to see if you were paying attention. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west no matter where you live on Earth, because we all see the same sky.

* * Security issues? Why would anyone want to break into a mausoleum? Aside from the potential thrill of forbidden sex or some black arts ritual (neither of which is legal, mausoleums being private property), there exists the possibility of theft and vandalism. Thieves may think that if the deceased was affluent enough to buy an expensive mausoleum, the bodies inside may have been buried with valuables. And in some cases, they might be right. People have also been known to steal each others bones (see links below). In reality, the objects of most actual value in a mausoleum are the bronze entry door and the stained glass window, as you can see in the following links (my favorite of which is, "Metal Bandits Raid Queens Cemetery" -- sounds like a rock video, doesn't it? Speaking of music, click on the Buckethead link below to hear their song, "Mausoleum Door"). Tiffany stained glass windows bring hundreds of thousands of dollars on the black market and with the price of scrap metal rising, bronze has become an increasingly valuable target for thieves. Ever notice a mausoleum where a cinder block wall has been placed in the opening of the door or windows? Most likely the result of vandalism or theft.

Expert Charged in Sale of Tiffany Glass Stolen From Tomb
Faux Tiffany Windows Are Stolen From Tomb (now THAT’s pretty funny!)
Cemetery Vandalism blog posting on The Cemetery Traveler
Interview excerpt on mausoleum stained glass from Ed Snyder’s StoneAngels website 
Precious heirloom stolen from mausoleum adds to family's pain
Cops: Brazen Thieves Came Prepared, Ransacked 3 Mausoleums
Couple at peace again after mausoleum fixed
Deer Park funeral home will donate a new coffin and liner to the family of a woman whose family is seeking return of her stolen remains
Metal bandits raid Queens cemetery
Russell-Cotes mausoleum doors stolen in Bornemouth
Tiffany stained glass  

Click here to listen to the song, "Mausoleum Door" by Buckethead

Monday, March 21, 2011

Abandoned No More - The Knights of Pythias Cemetery

The Knights of Pythias Greeenwood Cemetery is an unusual gem of a place located in the Northwood section of Philadelphia. It has until recently been shrouded in mystery, not to mention an overgrown forest. I was surprised to see it referred to as “abandoned” on the Internet, since I thought for sure there were active burials occurring there. So I needed to make a road trip to see for myself (which really only amounts to a half hour drive from my house).

Upon my arrival on a wintry crisp Saturday afternoon, I found the place closed (front gates locked). However, the front left side of the cemetery was open as it bordered the driveways of some houses. So I could get in without scaling a wall—always a good thing. As far as I could see, the cemetery was well-maintained and orderly, with a big old house in the middle of the grounds, which appeared to be the office. No one about, so I went walking around. What struck me as being extremely odd were the piles of tombstones along the left front border of the cemetery, near the homes where I had entered. These scores of headstones, each with a pink ribbon tied around it, ranged in date from the late 1800s to the mid 1900s. I assumed they had been gathered from the grounds of the cemetery, but why? Curious. Looking out over the densely populated (with grave markers and monuments) grounds, it didn’t appear that any stones were missing. Where did they come from?

I went walking through the cemetery and stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a grassy hillock with a receiving vault built into it. Not too unusual a sight except for one thing—this was the SAME receiving vault I photographed back around 2004 when I was just starting my cemetery exploration endeavors. (I refer to this initial visit in my blog posting “Freddie Krueger,” an experience that was truly a Nightmare on Adams Avenue.) It would be hard to mistake this receiving vault for some other one, as it had this strange coat of arms on its front.  (the weird colored infrared photo at top was taken in 2004). The Coat of Arms is that of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization that became associated with Greenwood Cemetery soon after its inception in 1869. As befitting any association of its kind (e.g. Masons or Odd Fellows), the Pythians acquired graves within the cemetery for use by its members.

In 2004, while making the infrared photograph of the vault, I was accosted by a bib-overall-clad, pitchfork wielding character who kept demanding of me, “Are you with us, or against us?” The outcome of that tense and prolonged interrogation was that his company had just purchased the (at that time, truly overgrown and seemingly abandoned) cemetery and was facing stiff opposition from the local community. Why, you might wonder? Do Philadelphians prefer their cemeteries abandoned, desecrated, and overgrown? Certainly there are enough of these around to make one believe that (see links at end). 

Why would there be opposition to anyone taking over an abandoned cemetery? I mean, along with the pitchfork guy, other workers appeared to be chopping out the trees and cutting weeds, essentially cleaning the place up. Is that a bad thing? Before we get into that, why would anyone BUY a cemetery in the first place? How is that even allowed?! Does ownership entitle you to any gold, silver, antiquities, gems, or jewelry buried with the bodies? Do you own the bodies themselves? I know a fellow whose den floor is inlaid with dozens of white marble headstones. Decades before he bought the (18th century) house, a prior owner had collected the symmetrical and uniformly-sized stones from an abandoned nuns’ cemetery that was situated behind a closed-down convent. Is that right? Would anyone care if you collected all the headstones from an old, out-of-use graveyard and used the stones for a walkway in your garden? (Someone actually kind of did this at Johnson Cemetery “Park,” in Camden, New Jersey, as described in another of my blogs, “Abandoned Cemetery … or just Repurposed?”)

After my confrontation with the lunatic farmhand in 2004, he eventually told me that his company had purchased Greenwood Cemetery and was planning to build a crematorium on the site. Apparently, there’s money in that (for instance, crematories will contract with the city morgue to cremate the bodies of unidentified/unclaimed bodies). The locals were not amused. So now, seven years on, it appears that the crematorium has not been built, but the cemetery appears to be entrenched in a restoration project. This is likely the reason behind the piles of pink ribbon-tied headstones bordering the cemetery—they must be marked in some way for future placement. The receiving vault was shored up with timbers and was undergoing some sort of makeover, while the old house in the middle of the grounds had been completely restored.

About half of Greenwood’s 44 acres has had its wild trees cut back or pulled out, grass is cropped close, and there isn’t a weed to be seen. The monuments and gravestones in this front half of the cemetery looked to be in fine shape. The back twenty (acres) are still a forest grown around the monuments, however--an odd inner city wood bordered on one side by rowhomes, another by a corporate complex, and the other two by busy avenues. As I made my way through the thicket during another winter visit, I was startled to see a twenty foot high vibrant green glade of bamboo crowding out a fifty foot square section of headstones! The bamboo stalks were so close together, you couldn’t walk through. On seeing the intricately carved yet broken marble coping surrounding forgotten family plots (above right), you half expect to come upon Jude Hawley making repairs. Hawley is the enigmatic stonecarver character in Thomas Hardy’s darkest novel, Jude the Obscure. (This beautifully written book is a covert treatise on flawed Victorian sensibilities.) Like Jude, Greenwood cemetery seems to have suffered the same fate at the hands of a cruel and uncaring world: “…whoever or whatever our foe may be, I am cowed into submission. I have no more fighting or strength left; no more enterprise. I am beaten, beaten! …

The Knights of Pythias Greeenwood Cemetery had been so badly beaten, in fact, that at one point the Knights themselves attempted to extricate themselves from the enterprise.

So what’s the story with this half-restored Victorian cemetery? Intrigued, I decided to do some investigating. Greenwood had been on my mind for years; it took time, but as Keith Richards says about songwriting, “If you chase a song far enough, you’re gonna corner it.


While half the cemetery is still a forest, it appears that it is being slowly restored to some semblance of its original splendor. What had been the decrepit Knights of Pythias Greenwood Cemetery is now a quaint Victorian garden cemetery, with gently rolling slopes and landscaped roadways. Gone are the abandoned cars and rusty household appliances, the headstones are upright and clean. No longer do the Knights seek to remove their name, upset over the declining conditions in the cemetery.

To my amazement, the cemetery now has a website, which describes the transformation in detail. Its a rather odd scenario. The previous owners gave up on the crematorium idea when community opposition proved to be too strong.  After that, they let the cemetery go to pot again until the adjacent business, the Cancer Treatment Centers of America (CTCA) Eastern Regional Medical Center, took over, in conjunction with the Friends of Greenwood.  In exchange for taking part of the cemetery grounds to use as a parking lot (!), the Center agreed to relocate 2400 bodies from that section (to other areas of Greenwood), clean up the rest of the cemetery, and restore the old farmhouse on the property. The Knights seem to be happy with this as the official name remains “The Knights of Pythias Greeenwood Cemetery.”

Benjamin Rush Farm House
The house in the center of the cemetery, which dates back to the 1830s, has been restored. During the project, it was renamed “Greenwood Estate at Rush Farm,” as the land on which the cemetery resides had been owned in the 1700s by Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of America’s founding fathers and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Greenwood Cemetery may not look exactly like its original 1869 self, but thanks to the involvement by the CTCA, it is on its way to becoming a viable cemetery again. Restoration continues, with the published intention of the new owners to treat its 20,000 inhabitants and their descendants with due respect and to make the cemetery a safe and picturesque memorial park. Whether for profit or some altruistic reason, this long-ignored Victorian-era resting place is being restored.

In closing, I found this interesting tidbit in the FAQ section on Greenwood's website:
Q: Do the owners intend to try and build a crematorium on the property after it has been revitalized?
A: Absolutely not.

Further Reading:

Friends of Greenwood
Testimonials to the Restoration of Greenwood
FAQ from Kof P Greenwood Website
Fascinating “Burial Relocation Process” at Greenwood (Powerpoint)
Restoration of Benjamin Rush House at Greenwood

Abandoned Cemeteries in the Philadelphia Area:
Knights of Pythias/Greenwood (back when it was abandoned)
Johnson Cemetery (1) (2)
Mount Moriah (1) (2)
Evergreen Cemetery
Mount Peace Cemetery

Knights of Pythias Website
Knights of Pythias video
Pythagoras and the Origin of the Pythians

The Knights of Pythias

The Knights of Pythias organization is associated with Pythagoras, the mathematician (I can feel your body tense as you read this, thinking back on those horrible moments in high school geometry class when you were forced to learn the nuances of the Pythagorean Theorem). But it makes sense, right? Funerary monuments and headstones are all angular and symmetrical, so why not worship the almighty angle? Actually, Pythagoras (582 – 500 BC) is ALSO known as the Father of Greek Philosophy, whose presocratic principles the Knights adopted: "FRIENDSHIP, CHARITY and BENEVOLENCE." (The American Cancer Society, by the way, is the National Charity of the Knights of Pythias, which may be part of the reason the Pythians approved of the purchase of Greenwood by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.)

According to, this Pythagorean Brotherhood was actually the first fraternal Order to be formed by an Act of Congress, at the suggestion of President Abraham Lincoln, in 1864. The Order began during the Civil War, and its founder, Justus H. Rathbone, believed that it might do much to heal the wounds and allay the hatred of civil conflict. (Rathbone had been inspired by a play by the Irish poet John Banim about the legend of Damon and Pythias, students of the Pythagorean school of philosophy). With 2011 being the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War, it is most appropriate to quote President Lincoln:

“The purposes of your organization are most wonderful. If we could but bring its spirit to all our citizenry, what a wonderful thing it would be. It breathes the spirit of Friendship, Charity and Benevolence. It is one of the best agencies conceived for the upholding of government, honoring the flag, for the reuniting of our brethren of the North and of the South, for teaching the people to love one another, and portraying the sanctity of the home and loved ones. I would suggest that these great principles by perpetuated and that you go to the Congress of the United States and ask for a charter, and so organize on a great scale throughout this nation, and disseminate this wonderful work that you have so nobly started. I will do all in my power to assist you in this application and with your work."

The suggestion made by the President was adopted. An application was made to Congress for a charter, and the Order of Knights of Pythias was the first American Order ever chartered by an Act of the Congress of the United States.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Shooting Cemeteries with a Holga

Cross-processed Ektachrome image, made with a Holga
Looking for a new photographic tool with which to capture those great cemetery images?  Want to realize even more of your creative genius? Well, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t need to spend a boatload of money to do this. Instead of acquiring expensive hi-tech gear and software, go lo!

I guess it’s not surprising to see so many serious photographers these days experimenting with lo-tech, lo-fi cameras (e.g. cell phone cameras, pinhole film cameras, and vintage digital point-and-shoots). Even back in the 1960s when Richard Avedon was making magnificent portraits with 8x10 film cameras, Andy Warhol was creating arguably more notable ones with a simple Polaroid camera. Given today’s super-sophisticated photographic technology, I sometimes get fed up with the precision and accuracy of digital.  I need to go lo--which is why my thirty-dollar Holga is always packed next to my ridiculously expensive DSLR.

Thought you’d never ask. It’s essentially a toy camera, an all plastic, all manual 120mm film camera. (Yes, you can still buy film and yes, you can still have it developed—see links below). The photo at left shows a basic Holga, which measures about 5x4x3 inches and weighs next to nothing.  After exposing a roll of film, you can have the individual image frames scanned so you can work with them as Jpegs (also enables any photofinishing lab to easily print them). The Holga is deceptively simple, having one shutter speed, limited focus, and two aperture settings (which is a joke, since it’s “Sun” and “Shade” settings are virtually the same, around f11). While it’s often used as an intro camera in art school photography classes, the Holga is really not that easy to use. Having been a photographer since the earth’s crust started cooling, I’m of the opinion that it would be much easier to learn the principles of photography with a basic film SLR. With a Holga, you really have NO IDEA how successful your photographs will be, until you get a load of practice under your belt!

THEN WHY USE A HOLGA? (or more to the point, why use it for cemetery photography?)

  • Well, for one thing, the Holga’s imperfections bestow upon your images an unparalleled flawed elegance, a very organic shroud of analog mystery that is distinctly non-digital. It’s cheap plastic lens vignettes and loses focus around the edges (as you see at right). These slightly blurred and distorted dreamlike images have a cult following the world over. The effect is so popular that one manufacturer sells sawed-off Holga lenses to use on your DSLR and another makes expensive lens attachments that allow DSLRs to produce images like those from a Holga! (See links below.)
  • The Holga is cheap and lightweight. Easy to carry around and who cares if you damage it? Here’s a shot of one of my Holgas I dropped in the snow.

  • Since film is relatively more expensive than digital, the Holga forces you to concentrate on every shot. With only twelve 2.25 inch square images per roll (which will cost maybe $7.00 to process, see link below), you need to carefully consider the focus, light, and composition of each frame. With digital, we’re used to the excess of ripping off twenty shots of the same subject, from different angles, color and monochrome, with bracketed exposures and varying depths of field. The Holga forces you to frugally concentrate on achieving the one final image you want to achieve (a la Ansel Adams).
    Light leak effect
  • With a shutter speed of 1/100 sec in bright light, a Holga is better-suited to still lifes.  And what’s more still-life than a tombstone?
  • The images are square (unless you use a special adaptor inside the camera to make them rectangular), which opens up a new world of composition rules (to break) for those of us shooting rectangular digital format. You’ve seen thousands of square photos in galleries, magazines, and books. Well, this is where they come from—cameras that use 120mm film! (This is known as medium format, by the way.)
  • Unpredictability! From happenstance light leaks to the intentional effects achieved by using out-dated or alternatively-processed film, analog weirdness simply cannot be duplicated in the digital world! The photo at the top of this article is a product of the unholy alliance between the Holga and cross-processed slide film. Try it! You’ll surprise yourself with your creative prowess.
In my new book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, I talk about mastering even the most complex digital cameras through an understanding of how to use the four basic settings (of any camera)—Light intensity (ISO), Aperture, Focus, and Shutter speed. The Holga forces you to be aware of these settings, though it really only allows you to vary two of them—focus and the ISO of the film you load. What could be simpler? Well, you’ll find the camera to be rather inflexible, for all its simplicity, especially if you’ve begun your illustrious photographic career shooting digital, with its myriad technological capabilities. You can’t just whip out a Holga and freeze-frame the world with it. You essentially have to decide whether it can successfully capture your subject before you shoot. A creepy old cemetery on a sunny day, for example, is perfect.

One of the things I try to get across in my book is that any camera can take great pictures outside in the sun. The true test of a camera happens in low light situations, because with most cameras, that’s where the wheels fall off. Kind of like a disposable cardboard camera, the Holga is only useful in daylight, when you can hold it relatively still (its single shutter speed is 1/100th of a second). It’s lens vignettes and distorts, its back allows light leaks (which is why they pack a roll of black electrical tape in the box when you buy the camera new!). Cemetery photography lends itself well to the Holga, but you do need to work in bright sun. Even with ISO 400 film, things just don’t look very good in the shade. The Holga you see at right is one of the fancier models ($60)—fancy because it’s got a built-in flash. So this should solve the problem of only being able to shoot outdoors in bright sun, right? Ah, but you are so wrong! The flash is virtually useless.

Precisely because it’s that quirky and unpredictable! If you’re getting bored with your digital images, tired of manipulating them with software, give lo-fi a chance! While many photographers (or should we say, ‘digital artists?’) create great new after-capture images with Photoshop, others prefer to let chance play a larger role in their creative process. So even if you’re a seasoned DSLR user—consider slumming with the Holga. Really, its okay, I won’t tell. Keep in mind that that many graffiti artists are actually very capable fine art painters whose medium of choice just happens to be spray paint. Somewhere around 2005, a photographer friend of mine loaned me one of her Holgas. I never looked back.  I hope this article makes you curious enough to try one!

Pretty much anywhere—on the Web, in art supply places, camera stores. The “Lomographic Community” has many variations of many cheap plastic cameras.

Even if you’ve used a 35mm film camera, the Holga is different enough to cause some consternation. If you’ve never loaded and unloaded 120mm film before, you’d be well advised to have someone show you, or watch a YouTube video to help you along (see link below). Focus is a roughly adjustable rangefinder on the lens, offering portrait (about 3 feet), group, or landscape focal zones. The lens is a moderate wide angle, about a 30mm focal length in 35mm camera terms (yeah, I know it says 60mm on the Holga above, but that’s in medium format terms, and the Holga is a medium format camera). I’ll be the first to admit that the Holga can be challenging and frustrating. Here’s an example: probably the most amazing feature of this camera is it’s handy carrying strap, which is tied to the slide latch that holds the back on the camera. So if you let the Holga dangle by its strap, the latch comes undone, the back pops off, and your film falls out and unravels on the ground! Though not a Buddhist, I am frankly a big fan of the third of Sakyamuni’s four noble truths, “The suppression of suffering can be achieved.” Therefore, I always employ what I like to call the Kinsman Strap when carrying a Holga. After lamenting about the backs coming off and exposing my film to a friend, she suggested keeping a rubber band around the body at all times. Genius!

"Broken Hearts and Faded Colors"
When shooting black and white film in a Holga, bear in mind that the results are pretty normal-looking (even if you purposely use outdated film). Therefore with monochrome, your compositions need to rely more on shapes and composition. If you REALLY want to throw caution to the wind, use outdated color negative film or cross-process your slide film. This is how I achieve my “special effects.” The image at the top of this article is cross-processed, the one immediately above right is out-dated negative film. If you want faded colors and high grain, shoot outdated color negative (which you can usually buy for half price at camera stores, on eBay, and even on the Lomography site listed below). The more outdated the film, the more the color layers break down, producing more unpredictable results! Cross-processing means to use C-41 (color negative) chemistry to process E-6 (color slide) film. The result can be vibrant contrasty images like the image at the beginning of this article. The local drug store probably won’t understand what you want to do, so it’s best to have this done at a professional photo lab (see Philadelphia Photographics link below).

This blog gave me a chance to extol the virtues of toy film cameras, something I couldn’t do at all in the book I’ve just published, Digital Photography for the Impatient (although I did sneak in this Holga image at the end of the book!). Beside the fact that impatient people could never use a Holga, the book focuses on digital photography. Its really a shame that new photographers are immersing themselves in megapixels and fancy software, while ignoring the creative pleasures of analog film imaging. Don’t get me wrong—there’s a place for both in your bag of tricks. I just happen to love the mystery of the Holga photographic process, compared to the exacting precision of digital.  And for all you pixel counters out there—one frame of 120mm film has resolution about equivalent to a 300MP image sensor!

Further Reading:

There are many YouTube videos available to show you how to load and unload a Holga, but this is one of the better ones.

There are many Flickr sites devoted to the Holga, images created with it, and other lo-fi photographic devices and techniques. (here are some of my Flickr images).

Check the Lomography site for a great variety of choices of cheap film cameras. In fact, the Lomo brand has become so popular that in 2010 they started selling their own brand film, both 35mm and 120mm.

Accessories available for the Holga
Be a “Lomographer!
Where to process your film: Philadelphia Photographics
Holga accessories for your Holga and to make your DSLR behave like a Holga
Mimic the optical effects of a Holga lens with a Lensbaby for your digital camera!
The short Holga history

Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Graves of Pirate Island

I learned about Petty’s Island from a photographer friend of mine. About a year ago, he told me about an abandoned graveyard on an island off the Camden (NJ) shoreline—at least that's what I THOUGHT he said. Of course I was up for such an adventure. Problem was, he didn’t know exactly where the island was or how to get to it. He suggested we might have to rent a rowboat. I was intrigued. After a few miscommunications (I don’t hear very well—too many KISS concerts as a teenager), I realized that Glenn, a Professor of Art History, was not talking about a cemetery, he was talking about a tugboat graveyard on the island! Alright, I’m still down with that—it has to do with death and dying.

So I began to wonder why, after living in Philadelphia for thirty years, I had never heard of this island. After talking about it with several people, including fisherman with whom I work, I realized that no one seemed to know about it! I became more intrigued. I pictured a small tree-covered expanse of land, closer to the Jersey side of the river, littered with scuttled rusty tugs and other nautical detritus. Glenn and I would row out to it in the mist, across the channel, cameras and adrenaline at the ready.

I did some research. Around the late 1700s, Petty’s Island was a — PIRATE HANGOUT! A robbers’ nest for seafaring criminals who either knew they were wanted by the authorities or did not expect to be welcomed by them with open arms. Since they could not set foot on the mainland, they would drop anchor on Petty’s Island, where they probably built the first gambling casinos and slots parlors (I would assume). Man, if I had a metal detector, I wouldn’t be looking for lost rings at the beach in Atlantic City, I’d be on this island! I mean, I kind o fancy meself a pirate anyway—I carry an old, wooden-handled iron hook with me when I go exploring in abandoned cemeteries (as my father used to say, it’s not the dead you need to fear—it’s the living). And I’ve been known to enjoy the odd pirate cruise, which is a fine way to meet comely wenches (see "Philly Pirate Cruise" link below).

And just so you don’t think Petty’s Island is just ANY old pirate island, here’s its pedigree:

[Petty’s Island] is thought to be the place where Captain Blackbeard docked his ship when visiting Philadelphia. The island was a hotbed for gambling and dueling in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and acquired a reputation for lawlessness and danger; adding to this danger was the large number of shipwrecks which occurred around the island, some of which are still visible at low tide.  —Wikipedia

Cap'n Ed
Okay, so now I really wanted to explore this island! But where exactly was it? At one point I told Glenn of a small nautical map and chart shop near the river—The Pilothouse. One day I stopped in to ask some questions. Pirate books lined the windows—“Terror on the High Seas,” “Scallywags of the Caribbean,” that sort of thing. I was feeling the total swashbuckler when I entered the empty store. A little old man (no eye patch) came out of the back and asked if he could help me. I said, yes, and that I might be looking for a map, or some information. “Someone told me there was this island off Camden with an old ship's graveyard” I swear he responded in near-hushed tones: “Aye, sounds like ye be speakin’ o’ Petty’s Island!

So I guess you’ve… been there?” I asked, hesitantly. He said no, but he knew people who had (and lived to tell about it, I hoped.) I asked if he could show me there the island is on one of his maps. He went over to a rack of rolled up charts, chose one carefully, and brought it back to the counter. He unrolled it, weighed the edges down, and began tracing the Delaware River with his finger from Wilmington north. While doing so, I asked, “Do you know how people can get to the island?” To which he replied, “Well, there’s a bridge. You can drive over.” What? Oh. My grandiose piratical fantasy fizzled out.

Then his fingertip lands on the part of the map depicting Petty’s Island. It’s the size of Texas. It’s no small, tree-covered island at all! No wonder no one knows its there—if you look across the Delaware River at Camden from the Philadelphia side, the coast line you see is actually the freaking ISLAND, It’s that big! (Between 300 and 400 acres, by some accounts, just under the Jersey side of the Ben Franklin Bridge.) Another fantasy dashed. The island is separated from Camden by a narrow river channel. To add insult to injury, the mapseller THEN adds, “I think it’s owned by CITGO, they have an oil refinery there.” Turns out the island is actually owned by the Venezuelan government (!), which in turn owns CITGO. Whaaatt…?

The Island
Hugo Chavez owns it. New Jersey controls it. Developers and environmentalists covet it. And one brazen trespasser wants us to pay homage to its forgotten king. Welcome to Petty's Island, a fin-shaped slice of strange, in the middle of the Delaware River.

—Otterbein, Philadelphia City Paper, Jan. 26, 2010

Glenn had not played me for a fool. He just had the same limited information as everyone else. Perhaps he had come across the newspaper article cited above. This article refers to a Northeast Philadelphia cemetery in which descendants of the island’s “King,” Ralston Laird, are buried. Not content with simply referencing Otterbein’s account, I went to the Knights of Pythias Cemetery in North Philly (near Juniata Park) to find and photograph the stone myself. This cemetery, like some others in the Philadelphia area, was at some point left to ruin (which brings to mind homeboy Ben Franklin’s quote: "Show me your cemeteries, and I'll tell you what kind of people you have"). Happily though, this particular cemetery in which we find the Laird family plot, seems to be undergoing restoration. About a third of the grounds is still an overgrown forest, with an oddly imposing twenty-foot-high bamboo glade enveloping dozens of headstones smack dab in the middle of the woods! This certainly gave a more tropical feel to my pirate adventure.

Laird was one of the final inhabitants of Petty’s Island, having died in 1911. He’d immigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia in the 1850s, but due to persecution of the Irish, he adopted Petty’s Island as his home. During the 52 years he lived there, he welcomed other immigrants who were having difficulty adjusting to their new world. A community was built, people fished, farmed, and lived with minimal taxation. After Laird’s death, the island appears to have been purchased by the Venezuelan government, and used as an oil refinery/holding facility for its national petroleum company, CITGO.

The island’s history is brief. Originally purchased from the Lenni Lenape Indians in 1678 by Elizabeth Kinsey (a Quaker who had fled persecution in England), it was later sold to William Penn (in 1681). John Petty bought it in 1732. The island’s pirate era may have coincided with its period as a slave trading depot, in the late 1600 to early 1700s.

Petty's Island, showing access road from Camden
During an excursion to Camden in search of the nearby abandoned Johnson Cemetery (see link BELOW), I found the access road to the bridge to Petty’s Island to be gated and guarded by CITGO personnel. After a few phone calls, I was told that it was private property and that no one was allowed on the island save employees. I don't know about you, but that sounds like an invitation to me!

Further Reading:

"The Island" in Philadelphia City Paper
The Fight to Save Petty’s Island
The Film, “Petty's Island: A Sacred Part of America’s Story” 
Philly Pirate Cruise
Links to Abandoned Johnson Cemetery blogs: (1) and (2)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Cemetery in the Devil's Woods

There’s an odd little graveyard in an odd little corner of southeastern Pennsylvania, the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery in Chester County. Specifically, it’s in the Brandywine area, bordering Delaware, in Birmingham Township. An old girlfriend introduced me to it, and not under the best of circumstances.

Brandywine is fairly creepy, what with its bloody place in the American Revolutionary War, its cold and barren Andrew Wyeth-type stone farm houses, and its Devil’s Woods. The Battle of Brandywine Creek (also known as the Battle of Birmingham) was fought here on September 11, 1777. Due to a miscalculation by General George Washington, regarding the advance of British troops, the battle was a decisive victory for the British. This left Philadelphia, the revolutionary capital, undefended, and as a result the British soon captured it. Driving along Brandywine Creek is kind of an unnerving experience, especially at dawn. There are no houses—you’re out in the boondocks. There are no streetlights, and you can’t see any road signs, so a GPS is virtually useless. I got lost a number of times. One early morning as I was leaving her house and driving south along the creek, I got a bad case of the creepies. As mist rose off the water and pale colors slowly asserted themselves in the ancient woods, I imagined British, Hessian, and American troops fording the creek, battling, shedding blood, and dying. It really didn’t take much to imagine this—I could almost see it as I drove along.

I didn’t know until sometime later that the nearby cemetery is home to a mass grave for the hundreds of British and American Colonial troops that died in this big and bloody battle of the American Revolution. You just know any cemetery with a mass grave has to have many suffering spirits lurking about! The cemetery itself is only a few acres in size, with assorted large memorials and many smaller oddments. The few buildings nearby, e.g. the Birmingham Friends’ Meeting House, were actually standing at the time of the battle. The Quakers continued their service in this building on September 11, 1777, as the battle outside raged on. The Meeting House was then taken over by Generals Lafayette and Pulaski for use as a makeshift field hospital. The dead were buried in the mass grave across the road in what became the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery.

The cemetery is spooky because it’s so peaceful and quiet. Yeah, I know that’s one of the modern purposes of cemeteries, to be meditative retreats, but this is just weird because it’s so far out in the woods. The graveyard is not landscaped for quietude or anything, like the Victorian sculpture gardens—it’s just a flat tract of land with a tree-lined road going down the center. The stone walls of this (originally) Quaker burial ground were actually used by the American army in its first line of defense during the Battle of Brandywine Creek. Paradoxically, this cemetery was a battlefield! The dead were just buried where they fell. A monument was erected to mark the spot where George Washington’s Major General, the Marquis de Lafayette, was wounded during the battle. The cemetery was renamed in his honor.

Living in a city, the lack of people and houses is somewhat unnerving. All that’s here are woods and silence. Doesn’t make it any more comforting knowing about nearby Devil’s Woods, or the “Cult House” (you can read more about these by clicking the link below). The area is rural, country even, and densely wooded. Cemetery trees are one thing, but this place is just too creepy. No doubt due to its weirdness and the legends accompanying it, M. Night Shyamalan fimed his movie “The Village” in the vicinity. (You may recall that the film is about a village of brainwashed people living deep in a dark wood). According to Matt Lake in the book Weird Pennsylvania, nature can even sense the evil in the area, as the trees that line narrow Cossart Road (better known as “Satan’s Road”) rear back from the roadway as if recoiling from something unspeakable. Along that road is the “Devil's Tree,” a big tree that itself is in the shape of a human hand reaching into the ground, not unlike this one in the cemetery itself (see links below).

So my introduction to the Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery happened this way. My girlfriend (of a couple months) and I were out driving in her car one day and without warning, she just stopped at a supermarket a few miles from Birmingham-Lafayette.  Silently, she got out of the car and went in. I followed. She bought a large potted flower and headed back to the car. Silently, she drove to the cemetery. Slowly coasting dawn the single straight road that divides the grounds, she stopped. She picked up the flower, got out of the car, and began walking toward some headstones. She stopped in front of a newer-looking one, put the flower down in front of it, and just stood there. I looked at the inscription on the stone and realized it was her father’s grave. He had died two years ago on this day.

I waited. Eventually she came back to the car, totally dry-faced, and apologetic. I more than made up for her lack of tears by totally breaking down. My father had been dead two years as well. I hadn’t mentioned this to her, and I hadn’t yet cried.

She found it as difficult to let go of her father as my father had found it difficult to let go of life. On his deathbed, he was scared. He was terror-stricken. This anvil of a man, this cursing, coarse and vulgar stone mason cried, and said to me while grabbing at my hands, “It’s not fair!” It was the only time I ever cursed in his presence. I raged bitterly at the situation that had befallen him and said, “Nothing is fucking fair.” What took both her father and mine was a fairly quick illness that caught them in their sixties. I think my dad would have made a ferocious Revolutionary War farmer-fighter.

“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
                               —Dylan Thomas (1952)

I don’t ever have to go back to this cemetery. The photograph relieves us of the burden of memory, says Susan Sontag in her essay, “Uses of Photography," (in On Looking, J. Berger, Pantheon Books, 1980). “With the loss of memory the continuities of meaning and judgment are also lost to us…the camera records in order to forget.

Links of Interest:

Brandywine Battlefield Historic Site
Map of Brandywine area including Brandywine River Museum, home to many wonderful Wyeth family paintings
Andrew Wyeth links on Amazon
Local Legends:
Devil's Road and Cult House
Leaping monsters of Brandywine
YouTube Trip up Devil’s Road