Thursday, August 19, 2010

Lock Me in the Cemetery Vault

Sometime in the early 2000s, I went to Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery in Phila, PA to shoot a roll of Infrared Ektachrome film (which is no longer made). It was a bright sunny day in the summer, and the photograph you see here was one of the ones I made that day. The Warner Memorial is a dramatic life-sized (assuming granite cemetery beings are the same size as us) statue depicting the Angel of Death lifting the coffin lid and releasing the soul of the deceased to the heavens.

I shot a few frames and then my camera jammed. What to do? No darkroom nearby. No changing bag, either (all you digital newbies are probably wondering what that is...). See, you can't just open the back of a film SLR without exposing the film to light (which ruins it). In some cases with regular film, you can shut yourself up in a closet or bathroom with the lights out and unjam your film. Infrared is different. This film has to be loaded and unloaded in pitch darkness. So where in a cemetery could I find such a place?

Assuming they had a bathroom, I went into the gatehouse to ask. The gentleman behind the desk directed me to the second floor, where there was a nice clean bathroom with bright sunlight coming in the shadeless window. Rats. Now what? I went downstairs and asked if there was somewhere I could open my camera in total darkness. He offered to lock me in the vault! Now, the vault he referred to was not a burial vault, but a walk-in security vault much like the more modern bank vault you see here. It was where they stored important papers, historic documents, and all their burial records since 1835. I didn't know this guy, no one knew I was here, and he's offering to lock me in the vault... Kind of like someone offering you a vegan donut--I felt strongly both ways. But of course I said "ok," being driven to produce quality photographs at any cost.

In retrospect, I remember it being a tough decision, but one I had to make on the spot. Was I willing to suffer this much for my art? The risk of death at the hands of a madman just so I wouldn't waste a $25 roll of film? Sure I had mixed feelings--like watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your favorite car. But after many years, I had figured out how to get the best pictorial effects with infrared Ektachrome (ISO 100, orange filter, bright sunny day with lots of folliage, and slight underexposure due to its contrasty nature) and I wasn't going to waste the opportunity. This sunny day offered the best conditions for success!

So I allowed a perfect stranger to lock me in the unlit vault and close the door. I nervously asked him to give me 10 minutes. I managed to unjam the film, which, upon my release, allowed a very productive day of shooting. Sometimes you just have to trust people! Over the years, we became good friends, as I have with many people who work at Laurel Hill. Unfortunately, my relationship with infrared film ended, as it is no longer being produced by Kodak. Neither is their SO-283 satellite tracking film, which was a great choice for shooting celestial beings like cemetery angels. Just kidding. Wanted to see if you were still paying attention.

As an aside, an even stranger thing occurred around 2005 with regard to this vault. Two armed men came into the gatehouse near closing time and demanded that the vault be opened. When the cemetery director tried to explain that there was nothing of immediate monetary value inside, they pistol-whipped him until he opened it! On finding no cash, gold, or jewels, they left. They'd obviously heard the cemetery had a bank-type vault and mistakenly assumed it was full of money.

Click here for more info on infrared photgraphy.


  1. Ed, have you tried an infrared filter for your digital camera? Amazon sells them for about $25. I am tempted to buy one, I could use a new toy....

  2. nevermind, I just researched it and apparently you have to have your DSLR permanently modified in order to shoot IR, and it's irreversable. :(

  3. Freaky story, glad it all worked out!

  4. Hey,Ed, the moral of the story is to always carry a small changing bag in your camera bag. You never know when it will come in handy.


  5. Changing bag is a good way to go! Also, the IR filter only gives you maroon-tinted images, that you can desat for a pseudo BW IR look. Digital can't mimic IR color!