Monday, February 7, 2011

Gardens of Memories

Waking up to much more than just the “wintry mix” predicted by the teflon-coated weather monkeys, I figured it was a good time to write this blog. Beside not wanting to go outside, I have a sick headache from too much alcohol and not enough sleep yesterday—I attended both Wing Bowl 19 and the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Convention. Talk about photo ops....

Something I saw at the Tattoo Convention gave me the idea to write this blog. Ever hear of “suspensions?” (If you don’t know what suspensions are, think Texas Chainsaw Massacre. If that doesn’t click for you, then feel free to hit the informative link at the bottom of this page—but don’t say I didn’t warn you.) The suspensions reminded me of my friend’s arm being pinned together after being shot by a sniper.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This posting is really about cemetery memories. And not good ones either. When you think about it, the real purpose of cemeteries is to act as "memory gardens," places to help us NOT forget. But I’m sure you would agree, there are some things best left forgotten (if only we could). As I haven’t had many close friends or relatives die, I don’t spend much time visiting people I once knew in cemeteries, but I do spend a lot of time photographing in these places. One particular cemetery I’ve visited in Chester, PA, holds strange memories for me. Not so much for my experience in the place itself, as at the hospital next to it.

Back in 2001, a friend of mine was shot while delivering mail. She was hit twice by a maniac firing an automatic assault rifle out his bedroom window. The Chinese-made MAC-90 (copy of the better-known Kalashnikov AK-47) was just one of the many guns in his legal collection of firearms. I went to see her in the hospital after reading about the incident in the paper. She was in a coma.

"The Turning Away"
I went back about a week later, then visited a few more times over the course of a month. Each time, I stopped at the cemetery across the street afterward, to kind of bring me back to reality, or perhaps to distract. I took photographs, the rather grim ones you see here. Disturbingly, the only time I ever had someone cry after looking at my work was when I put this one (at left) in a show years later. The woman who broke down after seeing the photograph told me that it was a combination of the title and the image that evoked her emotional response. Great—my work makes women cry.

I‘d returned to Chester Rural Cemetery a number of times over the years, for the same reasons I return to any cemetery. Seasons change, the statues age—things look different and you get fresh photographic ideas. I generally make photographs of individual statues, attempting to bring out the character of the piece. Not so much to give voice to what the sculptor may have originally tried to say (which may be lost to erosion or vandalism), but to communicate to the viewer new information that this maturing statue may need to express.

Chester Rural Cemetery has never led me to any such fruitfully recurrent photographic experiences. I have mixed feelings about it, which prevent me from even writing objectively about the statuary, the grounds, or the photographic opportunities. It’s a sad place whenever I visit—I’ve only been back a few times--a garden of memories that may as well be filled with deadly nightshade and hemlock, rather than lilies and pine.

As my headache worsens and feels like a freight train dragging Richard Simmons through my skull, I make the bizarre parallel between the “suspensions” I witnessed at the Tattoo Convention and my injured friend’s arm all pinned together in the hospital. This was after she came out of the coma, which she had been in for a week. I asked her what that week was like, and she told me she had recurring dreams that the walls of her room were sweating ants, thousands of them coming out of the wall and crawling up.

She spent the next several months in rehab trying to regain partial use of her arm and to allow her internal injuries to heal. Bones, skin, and tissue recuperate relatively quickly, but psychological trauma lasts a lot longer. Suspension artists may performer night after night, but they still bleed. Even an onlooker can be scarred for life.

Related Links:

Here’s a link to a “Suspension” video on You Tube. It’s fairly tame, but it’ll give you an idea what I’m talking about. If you MUST know more, feel free to search You Tube for “Suspension Performers.” They’re not easy to watch.

Tattoo Arts Links