Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Symptoms of Cemetery Photography – Exhibit at Red Hook

"And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts And I looked and behold, a pale horse And his name that sat on it was Death And Hell followed with him ..."
- Johnny Cash, from "The Man Comes Around" (2002)

I haven’t put up a solo show of my cemetery photography in a while – been busy with other things. However, on March 22, 2013, I’ll be having an Opening Reception for a solo show at Red Hook Coffee and Tea, a lovely establishment in my neighborhood. (This is the Queen Village section of Philadelphia, near Penn’s Landing. The venue is a few blocks south of South Street on Fourth.) The exhibit will run until about April 22.

I’m showing all new work, about a dozen framed images that I’d never printed before - disturbing work, things that have scared gallery owners off in the past. Luckily, the open-minded proprietors of Red Hook appreciate a wide variety of art and self-expression. The printing of the images themselves was a new experiment for me, they’re not just regular photo paper prints. I had these professionally made on various Canson archival fibre rag papers of different weights and surfaces -  some even on watercolor paper. It is amazing how different papers can bring out the unique characteristics of an image.

So what are the “symptoms” of cemetery photography? Basically, you see death everywhere – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You want to photograph dead things. It helps you to accept your own mortality. People today don’t want to think about death, don’t want to know anything about it. We’re obsessed with living. Which is fine, I’m kind of partial to it myself. Typically if you become obsessed with a certain thing, you miss it greatly when its gone. Not so with life: You don’t miss it when its gone. Life allows you to be obsessed with it, and when you finally lose it, guess what? You’re dead! Or maybe I shouldn’t assume that you don’t miss it? How would any of us still among the living know that for sure? Gosh knows I’ve experienced enough weird stuff in cemeteries to believe there’s something out there we can’t understand. Not while we’re alive, anyhow.

Symptoms of Cemetery Photography
by Ed Snyder, author of "The Cemetery Traveler" blog
In my print ad for the show, I made note that the artist, Ed Snyder, is the “author of The Cemetery Traveler blog.” I wanted to impress upon interested and/or prospective viewers that I’ve been around, a practitioner of dark tourism, and that these photographs were culled from years of experience, some even painstakingly researched. A friend of mine jokingly asked, when he read the title for the show, “What are the symptoms?  Abrasions on your legs from climbing through briars on the way to the abandoned cemetery?” Well, yes, but those are corporal symptoms. Certainly cemetery photography is all about seeing shapes and capturing moods, but I was referring mainly to psychological symptoms. I am proud to say that these images look like the result of some fevered dream.

"I Am Alive"
You cannot spend a decade photographing cemeteries without it affecting your art in some profound way. I say this in retrospect, after being chronically affected by them. I don’t see things the same way anymore - for instance, I no longer see our existence as having a definite beginning and end. Hopefully, the photographs in the show will offer some evidence of that. An example would be “I Am Alive," the title for the white bronze memorial plaque at left. I toyed with various titles for this as well as all the other images. Poring over the poetry of Baudelaire and Edward Young, while pouring Angel’s Envy bourbon over ice offered me a plethora of disingenuous titles like “The Black Hearses of My Dreams.” I decided to stick with simple titles, like "I Am Alive," and for the image below, “Cherub Red.

"Cherub Red"
Sometimes you find a scene or subject that you just don’t want to leave. In the words of singer Neil Young, you think in your mind, “I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” But everything changes - you know you’ll never see the same scene the same way again. This might be the most profound symptom of my doing cemetery photography – realizing that even seemingly staid things like cemeteries do in fact change. They change with the seasons, with age, with weather, with living people sometimes ruining them for the rest of us.

I often have no idea why I made a particular photograph until years after the fact. Some of the images in the show are ten years old, some just weeks old. I chose them not only for shock value, but also for aesthetics. Dark images would not look good in a dark room against a brick wall! So there’s a challenge – bright, yet grim images! Hmmm. Well, we’ll see how it works. Stark black and white looks good in these surroundings, but only a few of mine are monochrome. Most are muted color images. Some are digitally enhanced photographs, or graphic art. Hopefully, the photographs themselves will transport the viewer to another place.

That said, this blog posting could very well be the longest "Artist's Statement" ever written! Am I looking to make an actual, discernible “Statement” with this show? Not really. I could be all pompous and say something like “Time is the avenger, death the great equalizer,” but I simply present the work for your consideration. Draw parallels if you will. Some of the images are very personal, some a bit embarrassing, some frightening, but together they make a statement I suppose, of where my head is at right now. I apologize in advance if anyone becomes offended by the images. God will forgive me. It's his m├ętier.

Other “symptoms” of cemetery photography:
  • The experience trains you to compose photographs in such a way that the result cannot look like a snapshot (or “snapshoddy,” as I like to call it).
  • It makes me wish that many cemeteries weren’t in such a sad state of disrepair, that we as a people would, should, show more respect for our ancestors, our history.
  • The endeavor made me want to write about my experiences roaming around in graveyards, hence, “The Cemetery Traveler” blog, entering its third year (!) of weekly posts.
  • Have I become better able to accept my own mortality? Am I afraid to die? Not at all, though I don’t want to be around when it happens.
  • You eventually learn that if you make connections with people who know where the bodies are buried, the quality of your cemetery photography is sure to improve. The more you understand about your subject, the better you can capture its essence.

So if I haven’t totally scared you off, please stop by the Red Hook for a beer! Meet some like-minded people at the Opening Reception; several of my friends, relatives, and fellow photographers will be there Friday night (6 to 9 pm, March 22, 2013). If you’ve read my blog, I’d love to meet you in person, so you can tell me what you think of my writings and photography. If you’re unfamiliar with my fine art photography, here’s an opportunity to fall down my rabbit hole. The show will be on display for a limited time only (until about April 22, 2013).

Opening Reception: Friday night 
6 to 9 pm, March 22, 2013
Directions to Red Hook in Philadelphia
Red Hook on Facebook