Thursday, May 27, 2010

Art for the Cash Poor

This will be the 11th annual "Art for the Cash Poor" event sponsored by InLiquid in Philadelphia. Its a wild weekend of art, beer, live music, food, and people. Held in a ginormous remodeled warehouse in the Fishtown section (roughly 3rd and Girard), the festival draws thousands of people and is arguably the largest art-related event of its kind in the city. Why do they call it "Art for the Cash Poor?" Because the artists present (and there are scores of us) cannot charge more than $199 for any single piece of artwork.

I've participated for many years, selling my work, even before I became a member of the InLiquid artists collective. Its a great way to make new friends and to reestablish old relationships. It never ceases to amaze me that so many people have similar interests in cemeteries. People stop by to tell me their about their experiences in various cemeteries. Although many of these turn out to be in great places I may never get to like London's Highgate or Pere Lachaise in Paris, its always fun to hear the stories. I always write this info down, just in case I ever get there (heck, even my UPS guy has been to Pere Lachaise!).

Click here for more info on "Art for the Cash Poor"

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Voices in the Cemetery

Many of the images I've photographed remind me of the experience acquiring the image. Sometimes, however, I was so scared that I never got the image!

I like to think that I'm not superstitious. However, I am susceptible to suggestion. One time I travelled to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx (NYC) to shoot with my brother. I found the amazing life-sized statue at left (angels are the same size as us, right?) and photographed it. We ended up getting locked in, much to my brother's chagrin, but that's another story! After arriving home and processing the film, I found that somehow the film was grossly overexposed--useless. So I planned another trip a few months later, by myself, just to make photographs of this statue (one of those you see here)!

Not only that, but I scheduled my trip with the intent of being locked in the cemetery! The reason? The lighting is better at dusk. Photographers typically shoot at the edges of the day, in order for the sun to produce as much shadow as possible. Helps to create the illusion of a 3D image.

So I go to Woodlawn on the appointed day, spend a couple hours shooting around the cemetery, find the statue (which I've since titled, "End of Miles"), then hide and wait until the gates are closed (and locked). Having done this before, I didn't see a problem with scaling the 10-foot wrought iron gate to get out. (Also having done this before, I was prepared for the strange looks from passing motorists. I mean, in the North Bronx, I'm sure they thinking, "He's nuts! It's much safer inside the cemetery than out!").

When the setting sun was in the correct position, I made the photographs of the statue you see here. All that remained was to make my way through the cemetery to the front gate, scale it, then have a nice cold one at the Woodlawn el stop across the street.

On my way I stopped to photograph a statue. As I was looking through the viewfinder of my camera to line up the shot, I distinctly saw a long furry ringed tail disappear behind a bush! I left my camera on the tripod and walked over to, and around, the bush. Nothing! No hole, no animal. I could think of only one thing--The Bronx Zoo! What made this even more disturbing, was the deafening quiet of the cemetery.

Victorian Garden Cemeteries like Woodlawn were landscaped by architects in the 1800s with the purpose of maintaining contemplative serenity through floral beauty and silence. While in such an idyllic paradise, you simply cannot see or hear anything--not trains, planes, or automobiles! The silence is very much with you when you know you're the only person locked in the cemetery...

Already rattled from the tail sighting, I packed up my gear and continued (but this time briskly) walking toward the locked entrance gate. As I walked along, I passed a monument that had a statue of a woman with two children at her knee. I read the inscription as I passed--it was something like, "Dedicated to a mother who loved her children." As I said the word 'children' in my mind, there was a loud audible baby's cry! My blood froze as I ran for the gate! That statue is not the one I've included here--this one is simply for illustrative purposes. I was too scared to stop and photograph that one.

I've since discovered that the ransom money dropoff related to the famous Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932 occurred at this very gate!

More info on Lindbergh kidnapping

Sex and the City Cemetery

Sex and death. Freud believed them to be our driving forces, forces that coincide yet conflict. Why does the notion of having sex in a cemetery seem so adventurous yet prohibitive, so titillating yet taboo?

Humans seem to be simultaneously death phobic and sexually driven. Death and desire just seem to go together in our minds. Note, for example, all the sensually carved angels and semi-nude forms that adorn many cemeteries. Whether its the statuary, the solitude, or simply the thrill that motivates people, some like to have sex in cemeteries. Now, I'm not talking about sex in the car while in the cemetery. I'm talking down 'n' dirty, in the grass, on the wolf table, or on the mausoleum steps. I've stumbled upon skindiving couples a few times, and two of my friends who work as cemetery caretakers have had to ask some folks to please apply the brakes! One has had to ask people on numerous occasions to cease their nude photography sessions! Mainly its a respect thing. These are sacred grounds, and besides, visiting mourners certainly don't want to see trysting by the reflecting pool.

As humans, we're as obsessed with death as we are with sex, but in a less open way. The fear of death fascinates us, but we avoid it like, well, the plague. Can the act of having sex in a cemetery somehow privately, subconsciously, help us come to terms with our own mortality? Does getting boned in the boneyard put a more enjoyable face on death, this pleasurable experience? Think back on those sensual cemetery statues, they're more life-affirming than death-centric, aren't they? Sex in a cemetery, then, may reinforce in us a feeling of life, which really was the original intent of the architects of the early garden cemeteries (such cemeteries are almost always associated with cities, thus the title of this blog). The Victorians believed if death is portrayed as beautiful, perhaps it will lose its sting.

That said, if you've ever actually tried to have cemetery sex, you might have noticed that the environs can produce a certain, well, frisson of discomfort. Pleasurable to some, but downright distracting to others, making certain things, well, kind of ... impossible. If you try it, you're sure to see that its not as easy as you might think (from the physical and mental perspective)! This refers to nocturnal adventures, of course, daytime doesn't count. I mean during the day, you only risk getting caught; at night, you risk being eaten by zombies. And with regard to trespassing--let's just say that some people think its easier to get forgiveness than permission!

Friday, May 21, 2010

On the Road to the Necropolis

This blog is a reasonable facsimile of an article I had published in the Oct. 2004 issue of Weird New Jersey magazine. In the years I’ve been roaming around cemeteries, the first four were spent shooting angels. I bagged a good number of them by the time someone told me about this great cemetery that flanked the Parkway, near East Orange, NJ. So I made the trip.

They were right. The place was thick with angels. You couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one, as Mark Twain would say. During that visit, maybe in 2001, my head was turned from the saintly to the creepy. New Jersey certainly has its share of creepy, and many of them were here in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

Surrounded by innercity-ness, the large, yet quaint garden cemetery was punctuated by police cruisers and groundskeepers. Not atypical to find a cop or mailman lunching in a boneyard, but the sheer quantity of the cop cars at Holy Sepulchre was unusual.

A groundskeeper with a weedwhacker, working in the cemetery, stopped me and said “Don’t lose sight of your car.” One on a riding mower cut his engine and came over to me saying: “You know, I was held up at gunpoint here last year while on my mower …” Hence, the cop cars.

As I walked around shooting the necrotecture, the chief caretaker rolled up in his pickup and wanted to know my business. (With regard to photographing in cemeteries, I've long felt that its much easier to get forgiveness than permission!) After I explained, he was ok with my shooting, but added: “These damn film crews from New York come in here to make movies… They run around knocking over tombstones.”

The images accompanying this text were captured on that day (in 2001) and remain some of my favorites. I’ve continued to feed my morbid fascination at other cemeteries around the country, but few images match the intensity of this one that I call "The Bishop." The relief was mounted over the entrance to an ornate mausoleum. Years later, because people would ask me where I made the image, I Googled the cemetery and found it to be actually nicknamed “Bishop’s Cemetery.” Go figure. Must be more to the story, but that’s where I run out of talent.

Tomb of the Voodoo Queen

Marie Laveau, the Voodoo Queen of New Orleans, died in 1881. Her remains lie in its St. Louis Cemetery No.1, close to downtown. Supernatural things aside, New Orleans has one of the most dangerous collection of cemeteries in the world. Take a look at this video of Laveau's tomb, and you'll see why. Note how the smallish tombs seem to make up a small city of buildings? These tombs are about 7 feet high, and very close together, allowing for narrow walkways for theives to hide. 

You can easily get lost in one of New Orleans' many cemeteries, get robbed, and left for dead. No wonder tours are recommended as opposed to strolling about alone--as I was doing one day. Its creepy enough in St. Louis Cemetery #1 in broad daylight (wouldn't catch me in there at night!), but when I found Laveau's tomb, I was surprised to see the burnt candles and Mardi Gras beads strewn about and hanging off the roof. Obviously the faithful come here to pray (but for what...?). I grabbed a ring of beads as a souvenir for my daughter and took some pictures.

When it comes to spooks, I've always felt that the more you believe in them, the more they'll try to get you. Therefore, I don't give them the chance. (For instance, I once had a brother-in-law who experienced sleep paralysis, more commonly believed to be caused by a nightmarish demon sitting on your chest . Me? I simply refuse to believe in such things so they won't happen to me. I choose to not make myself susceptible.

Marie Laveau's grave
Imagine my surprise, then, as I heard a rustling behind the Voodoo Queen's tomb. No other people about, as far as I knew. I walked along in front of the tomb to see if something (or someone) was between it and the next tomb. A the same moment I realized I had forgotten which direction the exit was, I saw the weeds between the tombs moving toward me! Before I had time to react, an emaciated feral cat appeared out of the weeds, bared its fangs and began hissing at me!

I thought it best at that point to discreetly drop the Mardi Gras beads and back away. It was then that I saw the litter of emaciated kittens behind the protective mother. She was simply warding off an intruder. Very effective technique.

As I made my way out of the graveyard, I came upon a hose spigot attached to a pipe coming out of the ground. Must be for maintenance workers. Since it was hotter than hell (pun intended) that day and I was totally parched, I stuck my mouth on the spigot, opened the valve, and got a mouthful of salt water!

For more information on Marie Laveau:

For more information on nightmare demons:

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Buried Alive...

I had originally thought to title this blog, "As I Knifed My Way to the Diamond Pit," but I figured "Buried Alive" would more quickly get your attention. Either, way, I'm lying.

Being buried alive is man's greatest fear, with the possible exception of public speaking. Being locked in a cemetery at night, or having a "friend" pretend to close a granite crypt door on you, are lovely experiences that allow you the thrill of vacariously being buried alive. Your blood freezes and panic reigns supreme. Really, there's nothing like it.

Allow me to relate my experience of being subterranean. Ever see those small above-ground crypts, the ones that look like miniature mausoleums? They're about 5 feet wide and maybe 10 feet long, having a height of maybe 7 or 8 feet. Granite, of course. You can't look inside because there are no windows. The structure looks too small to house coffins. So what's it all about?

More than likely, its simply a portal to an underground burial vault! Entire families may be housed below ground and there may be several flights of stairs taking you there. Once you open the granite door (no small feat), you decend the damp, musty stairs with flashlight in hand (a necessity, as burial vaults are seldom lit with electric lights!). Don't let the spiders and rats scare you.

I did this with a few friends once and it was a chilling experience. Even though I don't consider myself superstitious, I've had enough unexplainable things happen to me in graveyards that my imagination runs away with me, given the opportunity. So after drinking some wine and some nervous exploration of this crypt, I'm bringing up the rear as my 3 friends ascend the cold stone stairs. The lead guy has the light, and exits first. The 2 girls exit and begin to shut the door on me! They laugh and shout "Good night!"

Well, in the 5 seconds that elapsed between that and their reopening of the door, I reevaluated my protocol for choosing friends. I also got the blood-curdling shock to the system that one must get as the end looms. I often think of that last brick being laid in Poe's "Cask of Amontillado," and how I would like to take it and smack each of my friends in the head.


Behind the Scenes

I've had countless (well, actually, 732) experiences in cemeteries since 1997 that are not accounted for in my "StoneAngels" book. I expect to be much more prolific and detailed in this blog, since space is not an issue.

Regarding space, did you know that the "rule" of burying a coffin six feet under is not always followed? This is not really at the whim of unscrupulous gravediggers, but sometimes because of lack of space, rocky terrain, etc. Also, if you venture to New Orleans and stroll the cemeteries, you'll notice that because the city is below sea level, graves are not dug. Instead, miniature mausoleum tombs are built above ground. Bodies are placed in the tombs.

When the bodies decay, parts fall through a screen onto the ground. As I was picking up pieces of shells and rocks from the crumbling gravesites for my daughter to use in her jewelry-making, I realized that among those fragments were human teeth!

"StoneAngels" -- The Book!