Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cemetery Coffee

I sit here in my kitchen at 7 a.m. nursing a cup of hot coffee and some minor bodily bruises. Fell on the ice in my driveway last night after getting out of my car. Went down like a ton of bricks – “ass over tin cups,” as my father would have said. Car keys ejected themselves from my key ring as it left my hand; with the projectile force of small missiles, they shot randomly into the darkness and snow. Ow. 

Anyhow, I’m sitting here staring at my coffee cup and wondering why I never wrote about Leverington Cemetery, which is located in Roxborough, Pennsylvania. That’s the horizon of the cemetery you see beyond Bob’s Diner on the mug above, the headstones casting long shadows from the morning sun. Weird design, huh? Bob’s owner (who I don’t think is actually named Bob) had a rather lively turn of mind to celebrate the fact that his diner was right next to a cemetery – great landmark to find the place!

Bob’s may just be the best greasy spoon diner in the Philadelphia area. I bought the mug there after a completely satisfying breakfast. You sit at the counter eating your scrapple and eggs while the short-order cook stands in front of you slamming more of the same on the grill for the next person. You can see the cemetery out the window, with traffic running on busy Ridge Avenue in front of the place.  Truly a “5 Star” “Monumental” eating experience, as the sign and mug describe.

Civil War Memorial, Leverington Cemetery
Roxborough is a suburb of Philadelphia, physically above Manayunk on a steep hill. Bob’s essentially sits at the top of Levering Street, or the “Manayunk Wall,” which is the focal point of the (bicycle) cycling world’s most grueling U.S. race course. “The Wall” is a section of the race circuit that is an 800-meter incline up Levering Street – it reaches a seventeen percent grade in spots. Doesn’t sound like much? Try walking that one time! The race is a 124-mile one-day event consisting of a 14.4 mile circuit that has cyclists riding up the wall SEVEN TIMES in the same day! (See link for more bike race info.)

At the top of Levering Street is the Leverington Cemetery. Its old American civilian graves are scattered among the graves of Revolutionary war soldiers and monuments, Civil War graves and a monument to those who died in that “War of the Rebellion.”

There is an amazing monument to a Civil War nurse, Hetty Ann Jones, with a medical tent carved in marble (see image below). Jones worked as a nurse caring for Union soldiers wounded in the war. She left Philadelphia's Roxborough area in 1864 to be closer to the front lines, at General Grant's HQ in City Point, VA. Within a month, she succumbed to pleurisy (a lung disease) in her “chilly, leaking tent.” She died alone, fairly quickly. Her family was sent for, but it was too late. I wonder if the tent flap is open awaiting them to come bid her farewell …? Like a faithful soldier, she died at her post,” says the book, Woman's Work in the Civil War.

Civil War nurse Hetty Ann Jones' grave, Leverington Cemetery

Leverington Cemetery is quite large, its land running far back off Ridge Avenue. The frontage is only about half a city block wide, which might give you the idea that it is rather small. The grounds are surrounded by wonderfully spooky iron fencing, the kind Tim Burton might have patterned the sets of The Nightmare Before Christmas after. I love the unusual granite pillars at the cemetery entrance.

The last time I’ve visited (summer 2012) I explored a bit back beyond the maintenance shed reading the names on the older headstones. I snapped this photo (above) at the time because I thought the headstone in the shape of a bread slice was distinctly odd. The older stones are back behind the adjacent closed Baptist church, its graveyard adjoining Leverington Cemetery with no perceptible line of demarcation. The church has been closed since the 1980s.

Most burial records for Leverington Cemetery were supposedly lost in a fire in the 1960s. Aside from the Civil War monuments, most of the grave markers are regular-sized, marking the graves of regular, non-affluent people. A lovely small-town cemetery up on a hill, with trees and grounds that are well-cared for (by whom, I don't know), Leverington Cemetery is a quiet oasis in the center of a busy commercial district.

That said, ghost hunters seem to love the place. Search the Internet for “Leverington Cemetery” and instead of historical information, all you’re likely to learn is that “apparitions” are seen “frequently.” On returning to my car the last time I was there, I walked around the maintenance shed and found one of the large red barn doors open. Luckily I only glanced inside -  I wished the sight had been just an apparition. However, I was mere yards away from some warm-blooded breathing guy taking a dump into a plastic five-gallon can. Perhaps he had a key, perhaps not. When your time comes, you have to let nature take its course, right? Time to finish my coffee and close the book on this topic.

References and Further Reading:

Friday, January 25, 2013

Soul in the Stone

What you see here is the cover of a book I purchased some years ago, though I don’t remember why. I suspect it was because there were so precious few cemetery photography books in print a decade ago that I would buy anything I came across. I think I probably saw Soul in the Stone (Cemetery Art from America’s Heartland), by John Gary Brown,  for sale on the front desk at some Midwestern cemetery (which is where most of these books are, I suspect - someone should make a list).

Satchel Paige (ref.)
Anyway, I pulled Brown’s large coffee-table hardcover off my bookshelf the other day after someone told me about baseball great Satchel Paige’s burial spot, and how wonderful the cemetery is in which it resides (Forest Hills), which is in Kansas City. I figured I might find a photo of it in here. Paige was a black pitcher in the major leagues and a Baseball Hall of Famer. His career spanned the twenty-seven years from 1926 to 1953, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1971. There are no photos in the book of Satchel Paige's gravesite, just a few words about Forest Hills being the location of his burial spot. (To see photos of his memorial monument, check this link.)

“Don't look back, something might be gaining on you.” – Satchel Paige quote, from his tombstone

Paige's gravemarker (ref.)
In looking through the book, I was taken aback by the photography. It really is a portfolio of haunting black and white cemetery images (especially the chapter on children’s graves). The photographs are not happy, but ponderous and sad – moods which likely reflect that of many of the people who commissioned the sculptures and imagined their loved ones’ epitaphs. There are no photos of Paige’s tombstone, possibly because it is somewhat happy and celebratory, but what I did find was a treasure trove of cemetery art, both iron and stone.

The text is informative and will provide interesting reading to both the experienced and novice cemetery traveler alike. Brown introduces the reader to the concept of the Victorian garden cemetery, then moves to the movement’s influence specifically on those cemeteries established in America’s “heartland” states - Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Missouri, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Colorado, and New Mexico.

“Go very light on the vices, such as carrying on in society. The social ramble ain't restful.” – Satchel Paige quote, from his tombstone

Brown covers all the standard topics - gravestone symbolism, epitaphs, graves of the famous as well as gravestones that are famous themselves (e.g. the astounding Davis Memorial in Hiawatha, Kansas). Surprising to me is a section entitled “Outstanding Burial Grounds.”  What a great idea! I LOVE subjectivity! Seriously, I don’t mind considering another person’s opinion on such matters as long as sufficient detail is provided. THIS is what I want to see as I plan my travels to new places! Brown does an excellent job with this, as the cover leaf indicates: “Brown’s own artistry and insights reveal the ways in which these works embody or reflect personal grief, family relationships, religious and ethnic values, occupations, avocations, and social status.” The book itself a “haunting tribute to a neglected art form.”

“Avoid Fried meats which angry up the blood.” – Satchel Paige quote, from his tombstone

As if the author's photographs weren’t melancholy enough, I also found in the book two love letters from old girlfriends. (For the record, both are dated prior to 2008, the year I got married!) But hey, this is supposed to be a book review, of sorts. So let's get back on track. Some of Brown’s images rival those of Ansel Adams (who was also known to make a cemetery photograph or two) – these are far more than snapshots taken to support the text; they are truly riveting in their own right.

You won’t see very many angel statues in the book, which may be one reason I neglected it on my bookshelf for so long. This may be due to a paucity of such statues in the cemeteries visited by the author, or simply his avoidance of the more common cemetery statuary as subject matter. The book, however, does not suffer from this. Brown documents some wildly imaginative monuments that more than hold one’s interest (for example, the Harding family plot in Nebraska City which is a full-sized marble rolltop desk and the 1925 Chevy engine mounted in stone as a grave marker in Garden City, Kansas!). It must be said, however, that Brown’s photographs of even the most simple and spare grave markers are as fascinating as the elaborate ones – a tribute to his skill as an artist (he paints as well as makes photographs, as his website indicates). He seems to infuse many of the cemetery stones he photographs with his own soul.

Soul in the Stone, by John Gary Brown
One of the few examples of an angel statue in Soul in the Stone is actually a photo of a statue in Italy. Brown's descriptive history of the Herman Luyties monument in St. Louis (above, left side of page spread) is typical of the attention he gives to subjects in his book. The following is directly quoted from Soul in the Stone:

While on tour of Italy in the early 1900s, Herman Luyties, owner of the  first proprietary drug store in the city of St. Louis, Missouri, met and fell in love with a sculptor’s model. Luyties proposed marriage to the beautiful lady, but she declined his offer and he returned to St. Louis brokenhearted. Before leaving Italy, he commissioned the sculptor to produce a twelve-foot marble statue based on his beloved model.

After the statue was delivered to St. Louis, he kept it in the foyer of his home, so that he could see it every time he arrived or departed. Because the several-ton sculpture was thought to be damaging the structural integrity of the house, it was eventually moved to the family burial plot in Bellefontaine Cemetery.  After Luyties died at the age of fifty, he was buried at the foot of what came to be known as “the girl in the shadow box.”

Herman Luyties was probably unaware that the statue produced for him was based on a cemetery monument that his love had modeled for previously. I found and photographed this voluptuous angel in Viturbo, Italy, long before discovering the Luyties monument. The addition of wings makes her seductiveness all the more unsettling, bringing to mind a Mae West voice that coaxes us to “come on up to heaven and see me sometime.”

References and Further Reading:

For more information on Satchel Paige's grave site, click here.
Soul in the Stone available at

Thursday, January 17, 2013

A Retrospective Show

While it is certainly true that artists exhibit their work to show it off and to sell it, there is a more subtle reason: to see how it affects other people. I don’t do this consciously myself, but after a recent exhibit, it was apparent to me that many people were affected by my photographs in various ways. The show was a retrospective spanning 15 years of my cemetery photography, though I hadn’t planned it that way. I just gathered together all the framed pieces I had lying around and set them up at a gallery for a one-night show. It was ad hoc, initiated at the request of a friend.

The gallery owner, Richard Prigg of Sycamore Studio in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania (a southwestern suburb of Philadelphia) needed art in a hurry as his scheduled artist backed out at the last minute. Each month, he has a one-day exhibit of his own paintings and stained glass work along with that of a guest artist. So I delivered about seven each 16x20 and 11x14 framed photographs, some images of which I've included here in this article.

"Stone Emotion," Holy Cross Cemetery, Yeadon, PA, 1997.
"Blessing," 2012
A few days later at the reception, I was quite pleased at how he hung my work in his gallery. One side of the white room were his original paintings and stained glass art, the other side had my photography. As I viewed the hodge-podge of my work on display, I realized that it was a loose retrospective of the cemetery photography that I've done over the past 15 years. From “Stone Emotion” - one of the very first stone angel images I’d made, back in say, 1997, to very recent work in the abandoned Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery ("Blessing," see right). There were also pieces from near and far – many from the Philadelphia area (where I live) to California and Rome, Italy. Looking at some of my more recent work, I could easily see some photographic miscegenation, which is just a nice way of saying that everything is derivative.

"Eros and Psyche"
A few nights later when people began showing up for the opening reception , I was frankly amazed at how most of them came up to me and asked me about my work, either in general or about some specific aspect. Oddly, no one but the gallery owner asked me the most obvious question, which is “Why do you photograph cemeteries?” (I really have no good answer to this.) But all topics and questions brought up were astute observations or probing questions, such as those related to the image at left: "What is this?" and "How did you manage the lighting?" It was very enjoyable discussing my work at both the artistic as well as technical levels. (This image, by the way, will be used as the front cover for the January 2013 issue of the [British] Journal of the Centre for Freudian Analysis and Research - the issue topic will be "Love.")

Sometimes people just show up at these opening receptions for the cheap wine and cheese doodles. This did not happen at Sycamore Studio (for the record, the gallery owner actually served craft beer, good wine, and fine crudités!) Most of the attendees were friends of his, and most were involved somehow in the arts - even the retired police officer/artist who used to sketch nudes on the backs of his reports. (Once when the judge was reading one of his reports at a hearing, the district attorney started laughing because everyone could see the nude on the back!) Since it was really an unusual experience for me to literally talk myself hoarse to dozens of people about so many aspects of my work, I thought I'd blog about it. Here are some of the topics and questions raised:

"Angel Face"
  • "How do you title your work?" Not well, I'm afraid. Descriptive titles work better for me than artist gibberish. For example, "Angel Face" to describe the image at right, versus, oh I don't know, something like "Space and the Passage of Time.
  •  "How do you print your work?" Well, I pay other people to do it. In my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient (available from, the chapter on printing is the shortest! That's because its really difficult to do it yourself and trying to explain how and where to get professional prints made from digital media is an enormous topic. Also, the technology changes rapidly.
  • "Have you photographed the wonderful oceanic view cemeteries of Ireland or Hawaii?" Um, no, but I have been to Baltimore.

By Ed Snyder (Amazon link)
I really appreciate the fact that some old friends of mine came too. It certainly takes some of the pressure off! There were also people in attendance who are involved with the Lansdowne Arts Board, a group of people exemplifying and promoting various artistic endeavors in the town. One project they are currently funding is an “art house,” in which people can take classes in the arts. The plan is for it to be staffed by three artists-in residence: a poet, a painter, and a sculptor. The fact that such a vibrant arts community exists in Lansdowne,  Pennsylvania was surprising to me, as I used to live nearby and had no idea this was all happening!  

    "Under the Betsy"
  • Have you visited the abandoned buildings in Centralia [Pennsylvania]?” No, but it is on my bucket list. Along with the cemetery there. I think this came up as we were discussing my images of the discarded tombstones under Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross Bridge (click here for that bizarre story!). A photographer at the opening wondered if I thought it possible to film the  tombstones from underwater!
  • Would you like to do a show of your work in the old one-room schoolhouse in St. Paul’s cemetery?” [This is in Ardmore, PA, a suburb of Philadelphia]. Why certainly, thank you for asking.
  •  “How do you achieve these photographic effects, Photoshop?” I'm always flattered when people ask this as I rely mostly on my skills to achieve the best initial image capture; very rarely will I Photoshop something afterwords.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating conversations I had was with a woman who was on the board of a non-profit organization called “In Company with Angels.” For those of you who appreciate Tiffany stained glass, this is noteworthy. She told me the fascinating story of how seven early-1900s Tiffany angel stained glass windows were found in a barn near West Chester, PA, in 2001. "In Company with Angels, Inc. was founded by people from a small town in Pennsylvania who were inspired to share their rediscovery of a unique set of seven Tiffany angel windows with the world." The angels are part of a traveling exhibit, currently at the Montgomery [Alabama] Museum of fine Arts. I'm sure these are amazing and hope to see them (and photograph them!) one day.

Rick Prigg, the owner of Sycamore Studio, is in fact a stained glass artist in addition to being a PAFA-educated painter (Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). As I have photographed and written a bit about mausoleum stained-glass windows (and had a photograph of one in the exhibit, see above), I was able to discuss such things with him on at least a peripheral level. He shared some fascinating stories about retrieving valuable stained glass windows from old churches for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia which it had been closed by the Archdiocese over the years. Trying to remove stained glass windows as vandals were actively throwing bricks through them from the outside must have been a trying experience!

So, sometimes you do a show of your art work to score a point or just stay even. Sure, you might make a few sales, but perhaps the best reason for showing your work publicly is to stimulate discussion. This may (or perhaps should) result in the stirring of your own creativity. It may reinforce what you're doing right and make you consider ways to improve your weaker areas. So my advice to anyone who publicly exhibits their artwork: don't ever pass up an opportunity. As for an answer to the question sometimes posed to me of “Why do you photograph cemeteries?” The best answer may very well be to stimulate discussion in related areas. And since cemeteries are really all about us, I suppose anything and everything can be a related area!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Photographing Cemetery Snow

I’m not one of those people who accepts the lemons life gives you and makes lemonade. I’d rather just smash them against a wall, then take a photograph. Still, I do manage to recognize an opportunity when it presents itself. Last Saturday they were forecasting snow, so I wanted to make a quick trip to a local cemetery and shoot some snow angels. Unfortunately, I had a “million things to do,” as my father used to say.

The roof leaked water the day before during a rainstorm, so I needed to get up there with a ladder to investigate. So the morning of the snow, I was up there searching for shingle damage when I noticed a ten-foot length of rain gutter missing. Wind must have blown it off. After it landed on the ground, the old Chinese woman who collects aluminum cans from our trash must have spirited it away. So off I went to Home Depot for a gutter and accessories.

It was on my way home from Home Despot that it began to snow. Decisions must be made − photography or more water damage to my house? Normally, I’d choose the former. But guilt is a prime motivator, and since several pair of my wife’s shoes were ruined by the water leak, I must resolve this first. The cemetery would have to wait.  I took solace in the words of  the (third century B.C.) philosopher Mencius: "I desire fish and I desire bear's paws. If I cannot have both of them, I will give up fish and take bears' paws."

Entrance Gate, Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia
After about a half hour of sliding around on the roof attaching the gutter, I packed up my photo gear and headed out to Woodlands Cemetery in West Philly. A gorgeous Victorian sculpture garden, with two hours of daylight left. Woodlands holds the distinct honor of being the first cemetery that I got myself accidentally locked into – see my blog posting “Trapped in a Cemetery.” That was a decade ago, I believe. Since then, I pay close attention to the “Closing Time” noted at front entrances of cemeteries. In fact, Woodlands has a lovely big old iron entrance gate with an hourglass design. This reminds me that my time is short, in more ways than one.

Drexel Mausoleum
I spent about an hour slowly driving slowly around Woodlands in the snow, thoroughly enjoying the experience. From the old eroded marble monuments to the Gothic mausoleums, snow just makes everything look better, cleaner, prettier (a notion that I, incidentally, did not hold when I lived in snowbound upstate New York). Woodlands even boasts the family mausoleum of one of America’s only three (American-born) saints. The Drexel family mausoleum, behind the Neoclassical estate house, contains relatives of Saint Katharine Drexel. Her body itself resides not here, but at the Saint Katharine Drexel Shrine in Bensalem, PA (northeast Philadelphia).

Woodlands in West Philadelphia is situated near 40th Street and Baltimore Avenue (click here for map), by the Veterans Hospital at the edge of the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve seen more pedestrians stroll this old graveyard than any other in the city. I suppose this is because it is situated in a densely-populated area and is the closest “park,” of sorts, in that vicinity. It more than serves its original intended purpose –a bucolic getaway, a beautiful sculpture garden and park, where bodies just happened to be buried (Woodlands was established in 1840). In the fifteen years I’ve been coming here, I have yet to see anyone actually visiting a grave! So on this cold, late December afternoon, I shared the roadways with at least half a dozen people – joggers, strollers, and people walking their dogs – through snow squalls.

Fast shutter speed (1/125 sec.)
It was snowing rather lightly during the hour of my visit, and I made several photographs from inside my car (heat on, windows down). However, there was a ten-minute interlude in which the snow fell hard. These were exactly the conditions under which I wanted to make photographs.

Slow shutter speed (1/8 sec.)
I’ll admit I was caught up in the moment. I wasn’t in precisely the exact location where I wanted to be to shoot the statuary I wanted, but when the snow began falling harder, I figured it could stop any minute.  So I had better start shooting. I composed a few scenes and clicked them off. Shot at ISO 400 as I wanted good resolution. Lighting was rather dim so I was using an aperture around f8. This allowed a shutter speed of  1/125 second, which, as you can see from the photo above, fairly successfully froze the falling snow. I intentionally slowed the shutter speed down to 1/8 second to allow the falling snow to form streaks (see photo at right), just to see what this effect was like.

Pretty much everyone knows that auto-focus cameras can be tricked, and need to be tricked under certain circumstances.Why? Sommetimes they will focus on something other than your intended subject. These are the situations in which you want to make them focus on something other than what they prefer. For example, if you’re shooting out of a car window and the window is wet or dirty, the camera will likely close-focus on the rivulets of water or the dirt, not the deer out in the field you wanted it to. Or with the photo at left, you would really have to do some work to get your camera to focus on the foreground headstones instead of the background tree.

The fact is that auto-focus cameras tend to focus on contrasty things, rather than the position of a particular subject. To trick the camera (or perhaps, behave the way you want it to), you can either switch to manual focus and adjust accordingly, or choose one of your camera’s pre-focused “Scene” modes. In the example of shooting out the dirty window at a distant subject, you could choose the camera's "landscape" mode (usually indicated by a small icon of a mountain range). Your choice may not be perfect, but you need to make some compensation to override the camera’s auto-focus system. This is precisely what I did not do during the snow squall.

It was not until I was reviewing my images on the computer that I realized the focus was off in the falling snow shots. My intent was to focus on the angel statue (in the two images above). What I didn’t realize at the time was that the falling snow would throw off the camera’s auto-focus. Now this seemingly trivial bit of information can be crucial if you find yourself in a similar situation. Therefore I selflessly share with it with you, my fellow Cemetery Travelers. So take it and may it serve you well.

So why does the falling snow throw your auto-focus into a tizzy? The same way the dirty glass window does. When I pointed my camera lens at the angel statue and expected the focusing system to lock onto it (through the open window of my car), there was a wall of falling snow between it and my camera. I’ll estimate the statue was thirty yards away. That means there was a thirty-yard-thick wall of randomly falling snow between the statue and my camera. Let’s call it an infinite number of potential focusing points. The fact that I got anything worthwhile is simply astounding.

Amtrak train zipping by Woodlands Cemetery
How should I compensate for this in the future, and why did I not notice the unsharpness on my DSLR’s image display? Well first of all, even if you have a three-inch LCD display on your camera back, you’d be hard-pressed to tell if something was in focus or not – the display is too small and the resolution is too low. What I should have done was crank my ISO up higher (maybe to 1600) so that I could use a smaller aperture (f16, perhaps, instead of f8).  At the shutter speeds I was using, this would have allowed a greater depth of field, which would have made it more likely that more of the objects in the scene would be in focus (including the angel statue). Of course, with all this modern technology, I’m not sure why the camera cannot be programmed to just say, “There’s no way I can focus through this, Dave.”
The Woodlands' Neoclassical Estate House

An ISO of 1600 would decrease my resolution, of course, but with an image as busy as the snow falling around the angel statue, you’d be hard-pressed to notice even on a large print. Also, the larger your digital camera’s image sensor, the less of an issue this becomes (bigger sensor, better resolution). During the time I was at Woodlands, I photographed out the window of my car as it was very cold, windy, and snowing most of the time. The only exception was when I got out with an umbrella over my head to shoot down at this reclining female form. When I posted the image on the Facebook site, “Sensual Cemetery Art,”the famous cemetery photographer and writer Doug Keister commented, “Accomplished photographers go out when others go in.

So, to sum up the Woodlands as a destination site: any cemetery photographer would revel in the plethora of architectural details here – grave art abounds. From the hourglass with wings on the entrance gate to the restored estate house in the back, there is plenty of interesting subject matter here – add snow and it becomes a 54-acre-wonderland. And if you just want to jog around the place, you can do that too.

If you choose to visit:
Woodlands Cemetery website