Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Hercules and the Best Cemetery Statues

Its certainly great fun exploring a new (to you) cemetery looking for unusual statues to photograph, but have you ever given up trying to find that elusive statue you heard was in a particular cemetery? Or maybe you just spent hours scouting around a graveyard you'd never been to, and you're wondering if you missed a particularly interesting monument? One method I've discovered to help me find unusual statuary in cemeteries is to ask the groundskeepers where their favorite statue is!

The first time this occurred was back in 2003, in Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore. I was photographing with my friend Krista and we saw a worker loading a riding mower onto the back of his truck. One of us asked him, "What's your favorite statue here?" The guy got so excited he jumped into his pickup truck and said "Follow me!" As I’m writing this, I can’t recall which of us can take the credit for thinking to ask, which is odd because-to paraphrase Mark Twain-my memory’s so good I can remember things whether they happened or not.

The groundskeeper drove to the back of the cemetery and stopped at a three-foot-high white marble statue of a child. He got out of his truck, proudly showed us the statue said, "I call her 'Little Red Riding Hood!'" We were extremely grateful and spent the next half hour just shooting this unique sculpture.

Over the decade I’ve been photographing cemetery statuary, this image remains my favorite. It graces the banner on my website and is featured on my business card. It is one of my best selling photographs, and has turned out to be the most enigmatic.

Obviously, its not Little Red Riding Hood. The androgynous child is covered in a full animal skin (a bear? a lion?) and is holding what appears to be a shaleighleigh. The only thing the caretaker knew about the statue was that it graced the deceased man’s home (the person whose grave on which the statue stands). The man liked the statue so much that he requested it be placed on his grave.

Whenever I exhibit the photograph, people ask me what the statue represents. While I know the ‘stories behind the stone’ for much of my work, this one has eluded me. People have offered explanations, the most plausible one coming from an historian who saw it in one of my shows and said, “Oh, that’s Hercules as a child.” According to Greek mythology, Hercules did kill a lion and wear its skin, but he didn’t do this as a child.

Gallery curators expect you to title your work, but I have a difficult time with this image, since I really don’t know its meaning. I’d prefer not to title any work, really, as it forces a frame of reference on the viewer, beyond which they see nothing else. A title defines it for them. I’d rather leave a photograph open to interpretation, even one as seemingly plain and simple as this one. I like to think of the photographic image I created as being singular, and ultimately unknowable, much like ourselves. I’ve made the statue more abstract, in a sense, by photographing it out of its familiar context and giving it a new identity (through  the angle of view, the lighting, the dark background).
I like to think those of us who photograph cemetery statuary in a creative manner imbue the artistic philosophy described by the musician Patti Smith (in her book Just Kids, Ecco, 2010):

"It is said that children do not distinguish between living and inanimate objects; I believe they do. A child imparts a doll or tin soldier with magical life-breath. The artist animates his work as the child animates his toys."

Read more about Patti Smith and Hercules