Monday, June 24, 2013

Angel Skies

In a prior lifetime, I lived near a cemetery. Whenever I was home and the sky grew dark with an approaching storm, I would always check to see if the setting sun was also throwing bright horizontal light on the buildings in my neighborhood. If the conditions were such, I called this an “Angel Sky,” perfect (for me) lighting conditions for photographing cemetery angel statues. It was my personal, yet skewed version of "Rembrandt lighting," portrait lighting in which part of the figure is directly lit while a portion of it is in shadow.

Statue in Holy Cross Cemetery
I would jump in the car with my camera gear (always loaded with the right film!) and drive the two miles to Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania (a southwestern suburb of Philadelphia), to photograph the statues. This didn’t happen as often as I would have liked, but still, I made some great photographs over the years. Here's an example (at right) of one of those early images.

Fast forward a dozen years and I’m living in South Philly, eleven miles from Laurel Hill Cemetery. Laurel Hill is the closest cemetery to my house now - that is, the closest cemetery that has statues placed high enough off the ground that will allow me to take full advantage of an angel sky. Through city traffic, that’s a minimum of a half hour drive. So now when the atmospheric conditions are right, it is more difficult for me to make the most of it. Therefore, in most cases, I just curse my ill luck and go back to doing whatever I was doing, ignoring the sky.

This past Friday evening (in June), I looked out my window and the sky to the east was almost black! Not only that, but the late spring sun was blazing brightly low on the horizon (it was around seven p.m.). Assuming I’d never make it to Laurel Hill in time, I called my friend Frank who lives there (!) and asked him go out into the cemetery and make great photographs. I would enjoy the conditions vicariously through his work. He said, “Well, come on up.” It’s very convenient having friends who will unlock the gates for you at a moment’s notice! (Most cemeteries around Philadelphia are locked up at night.)

William F. Hughes, Philadelphia Hay King
I told him I couldn’t possibly get there in time and hung up. My wife said, “Go.” Was the long trip through ridiculous traffic worth ten minutes of actual shooting time? Arghh! Decisions! I dropped off my wife and our 3.8 year-old daughter at the neighbors’ for pizza, jumped in the turbo Saab and tore up the parkway. I called Frank and told him that I was on my way. Like William Hughes (statue at right) might have said, best to make hay while the sun shines (Hughes made a fortune as a hay marketer in mid-1800s Philadelphia). Frank said he’d put beers in the freezer and added, “There’s a rainbow over the cemetery.” Blast him. I dodged all the slow-moving traffic where I could and made it to Laurel Hill in about twenty minutes.

I arrived to find the lighting conditions still good! Score! I’m golden, literally and figuratively. The white marble statues were painted yellow by the sun. If only the darned things would have the common decency to be facing the right direction! Ah, well, one takes what one can get. I shot mostly in color, whereas in the past, I would have done all black and white. The intense golden saturated colors were too good to pass up!

The rainbow was gone, but there were about twenty minutes of sunlight left and the eastern sky was still dark! We jumped into Frank’s truck and sped off to the best part of the cemetery for front-lit statues. We utilized those last twenty minutes of sunlight quite efficiently, shooting a half dozen or so angels and other monuments in their gorgeous contrasty golden splendor. Soon after, the light grew dim and the sun lowered itself behind the trees across the western shore of the Schuylkill River. We retired to his patio for beers as we watched the azure sky grow darker over the hillside graves behind Laurel Hill’s gatehouse.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"TearDrop Memories" and the Mourning Arts

If you’re at all into the mourning arts, you owe it to yourself to visit a shop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, called TearDrop Memories. The proprietor, Greg, is well-versed on the subject and can be wildly entertaining and informative. If you’re also into antique bird cages, he has them as well. I’ve never asked him about the connection – I’m sure there is one.

Pre-Civil War Hair Work Memorial
I just made my second visit to TearDrop Memories in six months. I suppose it will be a routine stop for me from now on when I visit New Hope or Lambertville (in Jersey, just across the river). Greg’s shop is unparalleled as to the extent of his collection, all but one item of which is for sale (you can ask him what that singular item is!). He has an inventory of thousands, large and small. Yes there are coffins and Victorian mourning attire, but there are also death masks and fine examples of Victorian mourning jewelry. (All the close-up images of mourning art pieces in this article are from TearDrop Memories' website.)

Check this out on
If you’re unfamiliar with mourning arts items, there’s a good book called Mourning Art and Jewelry (2004), by Maureen DeLorme. According to the author, decorative art to commemorate and memorialize the dead reached its zenith in beauty and popularity in the Victorian era. When the husband of Britain’s Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, died in 1861, Victoria went into a period of mourning that was unheard of up to that time. She eventually emerged from her overwhelming grief, and although she resumed her official duties, she dressed in black crepe for the remainder of her life. An entire industry of mourning arts grew out of this.

DeLorme explains: “Life spans were short … with the average age of Victorians at death being forty to forty-five.” Due to prevalent wars and the filth and grime of cities in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, people frequently did not live past the age of seventeen. Out of respect for the dead and a desire to preserve their memory, things like hair jewelry and mourning clothing were invented.  DeLorme states:

“Thus the pressures of continually facing death as an intrusion into everyday family life made the need to keep both the presence of the “Lost Beloved” near while simultaneously bidding farewell, a preoccupation. Victorians met this need by creating an extensive mourning culture employing elaborate mourning dress, jewelry, and funeral trappings; memorial portraits (both drawn and painted); postmortem photographs; sculptures, busts, and death masks; and a myriad of commemorative artifacts.”

Example of Victorian Mourning Jewelry:
Human hair Memento Mori Remembrance Mourning Brooch
And by no means was this mourning culture isolated to Britain - mourning arts spread across the United States as well. You can see hundreds of full-color examples of these memorial items, with their histories, in DeLorme's book. You can also see most of them in person at TearDrop Memories. I’ve included in this article some photos I took in the shop, and you can see more on Greg’s website. Honestly, until you see such objects up close or hold them in your hand, you cannot fully appreciate their intense human connection.

Scene inside TearDrop Memories Antiques, showing Victorian bird cages

TearDrop Memories is located at 12 West Mechanic Street in New Hope (click for map), a block up the hill from New Hope’s storied Main Street (two blocks south of the bridge over to Lambertville). If you’ve never been to New Hope, you’re in for a surprise. This little town has a most intense tourist trade! Custom automobiles cruise the main street on sunny Sunday afternoons, while packs of deafening Harleys rumble by. In a four-block length of road, its not unusual to find fifty motorcycles parked. Leathers and feathers co-exist among the shops as well as on the shoppers themselves. Leaving the tourist traps one can veer up Mechanic Street past the quiet coffee shops and restaurants to number twelve, a storefront that welcomes you with an antique birdcage and an arrow inviting you down the steps to the back of the building, where TearDrop Memories is located. Goth girls, couples, and Victorian enthusiasts alike amble in to the small shop at a regular rate.

Greg Cristiano of TearDrop Memories
Outside on his patio, Greg stands a bird cage on a pole with a child’s white coffin propped against it. A curious juxtaposition for Main Street tourists to see. Once lured in, TearDrop Memories can certainly give you the willies. However, the one thing you can never fear is the act of asking questions. Greg, the owner, is most engaging, entertaining, and I might add, extremely well-schooled on his subject. He has been in this business since about 1996. He supplies both private collectors as well as cemeteries and museums with authentic mourning arts items.

Photo from TearDrop Memories' website

What can you find at TearDrop Memories?

One of  many displays at TearDrop Memories
Probably many things you never knew existed, like antique embalming pumps, mourning jewelry, wall hangings, clothing, memorial plates and other ceramics, coffin handles, coffin name plates, oh yes, coffins themselves. There are books, creepy dolls, death masks, post-mortem photographs, antique funeral parlor signs from when undertakers also built furniture. Many of the wall hangings and many of the brooches, pins, and rings incorporate the woven hair of the deceased (think weeping willow trees made of human hair). All in all, TearDrop Memories is a fabulous history lesson in our seldom discussed past.

Image from TearDrop Memories' website
On my most recent visit, I asked Greg to show me the weirdest thing in his shop. I won’t tell you what it was, but I’m guessing if you asked him on a different day, he’d pull something even more shocking out from under the counter! This place is not for the faint of heart. On one of the walls hangs an 8 by 10 inch lithographic remembrance of a child’s death (maybe from the late 1800s) – with four small coffin handles surrounding a little broken white porcelain angel. I commented “Why would you want something that grotesque hanging in your home reminding you of your child’s death?” Greg very astutely pointed out that it was one of the few things the family had to remind them of their child, not simply its death. He added, “Photography was invented in 1840, but it really wasn’t until after the 1910s that people could actually afford to have their picture taken. Up until then most people only had their photograph taken once in their lifetime.  So they wanted SOME tangible memory of the child.

Post Mortem Ambrotype Photo 1850
As a photographer, I obviously have a soft spot in my heart for photographs and photography. I never thought about how precious a photograph could be, or used to be. Back in the Victorian era (1837 – 1901), it was a major life event to have your photograph taken. So after a child’s death, a remembrance of some sort was needed. I’m sure that if the cost of a photograph was great, the cost of a commissioned oil painting must have been out of most people’s reach. That said, people who had the money at the time of their child’s death would sometimes have a post-mortem photograph made of the child. Such photos might show the child in a coffin or dressed up and sitting up in a chair. Sometimes open eyes were painted on the closed eyelids, so as to appear alive, the way the family wanted to remember the child. TearDrop Memories has photographs of this sort for sale.

Queen Victoria Mourning Pin
The items in Greg’s store (and on his various websites, listed below) are not inexpensive. Even (at the time) throwaway Queen Victoria commemorative death pins can cost forty dollars. But you must remember that most of Greg’s inventory is unique, like the human beings they were designed to memorialize. So if you need an antique wicker casket or old marble headstones, this is the place to get them. Unlike the epitaphs carved on grave markers, Greg’s hours are not set in stone. It’s best to call him (215-862-3401) and leave a message regarding the day you’re planning to come by. He’ll phone you back and most likely have the door open for you whenever you’d like to stop in.

References and Further Information:

TearDrop Memories Antiques website
TearDrop Memories photos on Yelp site

Visit TearDrop Memories' web shops for great antique treasures:

TearDrop Memories Antiques
12 West Mechanic St. 2B
New Hope, PA. 18938
215 862-3401

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

A Reason to Photograph Things

I’ve just become energized. Energized to be a better photographer. I just met a friend of mine in the supermarket who showed me the iPhone images he made on a recent trip to Guatemala. Basically, they were black and white photos of people during a religious parade (kind of like the Catholic parade of saints held in many Italian-American parishes). Holy shit, I have not seen photographs that riveting in years.

Since I do not have any of my friend's images to use for illustrative purposes, I am sprinkling my own images here from the 2009 Catholic community street Procession of Saints in Philadelphia's Italian Market. The procession is a springtime fundraiser, patterned after the Italian May Day events. People carry or wheel platforms bearing statues of saints through the streets, while onlookers stick dollar bills to the statues' clothing or ribbons. (Also, this gives me a reason to publish these images!)

So back to my friend Eric Mencher’s photography. When he showed me examples on his iPhone, I could not help but compare them to photographs I saw in a “fine art photography” (whatever that means) gallery in New Jersey earlier that same day. There were maybe one or two images in the gallery show that were interesting, but compared to Eric's, they were nothing. (For the record, they were black and white staged and still life photographs, rather than candid street photography like Eric's.)

Just a spring clean for the May Queen
Eric is a veteran newspaper photographer and has worked with all kinds of expensive gear throughout the years, both film and digital. He says he loves the iPhone as a camera because he can shoot spur of the moment, just like when he started out years ago with a Leica rangefinder around his neck. He doesn’t need super high resolution and he likes the lo-fi look that cell phone cameras produce.

Which is not to say that cell phone cameras automatically produce art. Eric is an artist with a unique vision which the iPhone allows him to realize. I may go purchase an iPhone just because of his energizing, emphatic description of this tool that allows him to be so creative. However, I’m sure that I’ll never be able to make such photographs. I could buy an iPhone and visit Guatemala, but still never create images as good as his.

I did invite him to lecture to the Photographic Society of Philadelphia, because I think all photographers become energized when they hear other photographers discuss their creative endeavors. It makes no sense, of course, to run out and try to duplicate someone’s work, but seeing what other creative people can do may energize you in your own work.

If you're a photographer, it helps to have friends who are photographically inclined, supportive, and encouraging. I appreciated Eric's comment as we parted that he has a great deal of respect for photographers who tackle long-term projects such I have with cemetery photography. But then I began to think about it - is my cemetery subject matter just a “project?” Should I be looking to end it and find some other subject matter?

If you have some reason for doing something  that’s very strong and you start working at it, you must look around every once in a while and find out if the original motives are still right.” At least that’s how scientist Richard Feynman felt about continuing his work in nuclear physics, work that in 1945 helped produce the atomic bomb (ref). Such self-examination as he describes is more easily said than done. I still don't quite understand my draw to cemetery photography, even after doing it for fifteen years. Maybe its just a draw to cemeteries in general, or simply death itself. I don't understand the reason yet, so I guess I'll keep the project going at least until I do. After that, I can re-examine my motives. In the meantime, I’ll just get that iPhone and see what happens ….

Further exploration:
Eric Mencher's website with some examples of his fine photography
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard  P. Feynman (
Italian May Day events

Friday, June 7, 2013

Funerary Music

June 6 marks the anniversary of the founding (in Britain, 1586) of the Guild of Funerary Violinists. How do I know this and why should you care? Well, I know this because I read it in an obscure book I purchased last year called, An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin (Overlook Press, 2006), by Rohan Kriwaczek. Show of hands - how many of you have read it?

And to the point of why you should care -  funeral music is obviously a major component of the mourning arts, yet not one which is given much consideration. Other than “Taps", Chopin’s Funeral March, or the occasional dirge, can you think of any piece of funerary music?

Contemporary accounts from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome indicate that musicians were an integral part of funerary processions. The instrument usually played was a flute-like device, to create plaintive melodically-based music to express grief and mortality. Due to its association (by Christians) to pagan ritual, all funerary music (played on instruments) was banned by the Vatican throughout Europe from about the third century A.D. through the next thousand years.

This all changed with the Reformation (sixteenth century) and the arrival of the Violin in England. Led almost singularly by George Babcotte (1542 - 1607), the first of the funerary violinists, the age of the funerary violin flourished for the next 150 years, i.e., until the Great funerary Purges of the 1830s and 1840s.

From the book, An Incomplete History of the Art of Funerary Violin
The great WHAT, you say? Kriwaczek (who happens to be the current Acting President of the [British] Guild of Funerary Violinists) tells us in his book:

“The Great funerary Purges of the 1830s and 1840s [by agents of the Vatican] were to spell the wholesale destruction of this venerable practice and drive the few remaining artists underground, but not before a last grand flourish of creativity had fixed the form of the seven-movement Funerary suite and, within that suite, had defined the morbidly ambiguous and secretly symbolic funeral march once and for all.”

The Vatican in about 1830 began to condemn Funerary Violin as the music of the Devil, slowly wiping out all trace of it throughout Europe. The extent of the purge was devastatingly efficient – almost no trace of the art’s 300-year history (up to the 1830s) exists today.

In consideration of what we have lost, then, this synopsis of Kriwaczek's book (from the website) describes the matter quite well:

Rohan Kriwaczek's book, available
"During the Protestant revolution in Europe, a new kind of music emerged, one that ultimately sought to recognize the deceased and to individuate the sense of loss and grief. But the tradition was virtually wiped out by the Great Funerary Purges of the 1830s and 40s. Kriwaczek tells the fascinating story of this beautiful music, condemned by the Catholic Church for political as much as theological reasons, and of the mysterious Guild of Funerary Violinists that, yes, defends its secrets in our time. This is unquestionably one of the strangest books any publisher has ever risked publishing. Discussing the evolution of European culture, musical forms and society's changing attitudes to mortality and the emotional effects of music upon the soul, this is a dark and magical history."

So the idea of the violin in funerary music has a long and checkered past, from its origin in 1580 to 1915, when it totally died out. Though the work of better known composers of music in the form of the classical funerary march have survived (Chopin, Beethoven, and Mahler), that of the shunned progenitors of funerary violin have not (Hieronymous Gratchenfleiss and Charles Sudbury, for example).

The Theramin

Image from Divine Hand website
Why I bring this all up now is partly because of my neighbor from across the street, Robin. She stopped me outside my house last week and (knowing my penchant for cemeteries), asked if I saw the Internet-advertisement for the musical concert to be held at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery on June 22 (2013). She thought I would find it interesting. So I checked the web and sure enough, a musical ensemble called “The Divine Hand” is playing a concert at Laurel Hill: "Their music can only be described as ethereal, eloquent and mezmerizing.” Instruments consist of the violin, harpsicord, guitar, harp, and theramin. Now, if you’ve never heard a theramin before, you’re in for a weird treat. Invented by Leon Theramin in 1912, this electric instrument is the precursor to electronic synthesizers, such as those made famous by Robert Moog. If there is a creepier sound to be heard in a cemetery, I cannot imagine what it might be.

The theramin is actually played by holding your hand NEAR it (see photo above), kind of like the EBow from the 1970s that was used to make an electric guitar sound like an ethereal violin (you wouldn't actually touch the strings with the device). What does a theramin sound like?  Playing the saw, is the best I can come up with. Or that weird sound throughout the Beach Boys' song Good Vibrations. But give this video a play - it shows Russian inventor Leon Theramin himself coaxing eerie sounds out of this marvelous instrument (which he patented in 1928).

I think you’ll agree that a night concert of funerary music in a cemetery might be quite riveting, if not downright frightening. Add to that a master practitioner of the theramin, and you have a truly unique experience, not to mention a history lesson in a widely-neglected aspect of the funerary arts.

The Divine Hand Ensemble
Leon Theramin with his invention (ref)
Laurel Hill’s website describes a previous concert played in the cemetery (fall, 2012) by The Divine Hand Ensemble as the “musical event of a lifetime. Their performance comprised the first time in 250 years that a program of funerary music was performed publicly and the first time ever in America.” It goes on: “Witness Mano Divina, leader of the Ensemble, harness electricity with his fingertips and draw music out of the air as master of the Theremin, an early electronic musical instrument controlled without discernible physical contact from the player. In addition to this rare instrument, the Ensemble includes a string quartet, classical guitar, two harps, a glockenspiel, a soprano and a tenor, together rendering an unforgettable listening experience.

The Divine Hand has its own website, which is truly entertaining in its own right. You can watch video clips of performances and hear the wonderful music. Some quotes from their site:

“Breathless entertainment that leaves you hanging on every note and gesture as Divina hypnotizes electricity to release the voices of angels from the air with this finger tips”

"Classical music does not change very often, but we're always in for a shock when it does. The Divine Hand Ensemble has done exactly this through the works of Mano Divina and a few radical Americans. The extremely talented group from Philadelphia, The Divine Hand Ensemble, consists of a Thereminist, string quartet, classical guitarist, two harpists, a soprano, and a tenor. These musicians give a flawless performance; their fine musicianship and incredible talent is ever apparent throughout the entire concert. For music lovers of all ages, The Divine Hand Ensemble is a must see experience that will leave a remarkable impression for a lifetime." - International review board

I conclude this article on funerary music with this interesting accolade, directed to the Divine Hand Ensemble:
"Congratulations to your fine violinist, for a sensitive and expressive portrayal of our fine Art"
-The Guild of Funerary Violinists

References and Further Reading:

A General Introduction to the Art and History of Funerary Violin
The Divine Hand Ensemble website
What's a Theramin?
You Tube video of Leon Theramin playing the instrument he invented
Read on Laurel Hill Cemetery's website, "MUSIC for the HEARING EYE: CONCERT ATOP the CRYPTS presented by THE DIVINE HAND ENSEMBLE."