Friday, July 29, 2011

Photographing Cemeteries with Ansel Adams

I figured a title like that would make the search engines happy. So just to put it out there, I’m not old enough to have photographed anything with Ansel Adams (though I could have possibly caddied for him). However, a friend of mine did photograph with him, when he participated in one of Adams' photography workshops before Adams died in 1984. My friend from the Photographic Society of Philadelphia had some 120mm film left over from this workshop that he'd kept in his freezer for the past 27 years! He gave it to me a week before I was headed to Texas on business. With such perfect timing, I decided that the gods had intended for me to photograph with Ansel Adams. Call it six degrees of separation.

"The Tetons - Snake River," Ansel Adams
So I took a few rolls with me out west last month, and shot them in a Holga. A Holga, as you may know, is a plastic toy camera. Adams would rather have died than use something like this, so on one hand, its good that he’s already dead. And speaking of death, I actually used the film to photograph some cemeteries around San Antonio. Everyone is familiar with Adams’ mountain vista images, but his singularly most famous and successful image is actually of a cemetery (entitled 'Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M,' shown below)! This, I reluctantly admit to myself, may have inspired me years ago to do cemetery photography. Something about those little glowing crosses in the foreground...

"Moonrise, Hernandez, N.M." (1942), by Ansel Adams
I say ‘reluctantly' because I’m not a big fan of Adams’ work. Maybe I felt he was too commercial, and hadn’t enough of the ‘starving artist’ in him. Moonrise, in fact, was made on a government grant. Was Adams the Maxfield Parrish of photography? Cranking out product that the average citizen could enjoy and afford? 'Good enough for government work...?' Don’t get me wrong, I love Parrish’s work, but both his and Adams' seem a little too – perfect. At least with Parrish, I thought, “Ooh, this stuff came out of his crazy wonky head.” Years ago, I thought that Adams simply took pictures of mountains, very calculated, technically perfect pictures of mountains. 

"Daybreak," by Maxfield Parrish

Dignowity Cemetery, San Antonio, TX
While this may be true, Adams shot Moonrise on the fly, on Halloween, jumping out of his car to set up and click off just one negative before the setting sun ceased to illuminate the crosses in the foreground cemetery. Sort of like how the rest of us average photographers sometimes shoot spur-of-the-moment images (which is exactly how I saw and shot the iron cross at left). For Adams, this was unusual, and perhaps ironic that his most famous photograph required far less calculation than anything else in his entire body of work. Typically, he'd backpack into the mountains of Yellowstone on specific days and times of year, toting his 8x10 view camera, to make specific photographs of, say, a sunrise over the mountains. I guess its this aspect of his work that I find a bit too calculated. And if that weren't enough, getting a great negative was only the beginning of the creative process for him.

Typically Adams would spend hundreds of hours in the darkroom laboring over the making of his prints, altering the look of his original negatives very much like people today spend hours with photo editing software programs. He turned what he considered to be water into wine for the masses. I was kind of surprised when I learned this years ago, as I had thought Adams to be such a purist, with the Zone System and all that. In fact, a straight print of the Moonrise negative shows the sky being much lighter. Adams would darken it because this is how he 'visualized' the scene.

In his book, Celebrating the Negative, John Loengard quotes Ansel Adams: "During my first years of printing the Moonrise negative, I allowed some random clouds in the upper sky area to show, although I had visualized the sky in very deep values and almost cloudless." So the next time you feel you've "manipulated" an image too much with Photoshop, consider Loengard's comment:

"Photographers do this and more. Since light shines through a negative but is reflected off a print, making a print from a negative is a bit like translating a novel from French to English. Such translation is an art, and it is wise to remember that what is translated is the original work of art." - John Loengard

One of the things I like about using a Holga (or any analog camera) is that the film original really is a work of art, in the sense that it would require a 40 MP digital camera to produce an image with the resolution of a 120mm negative! I also like the fact that with a Holga, you simply cannot be very calculated (which is why Adams would have hated them.) The camera has no controls to speak of, so your results are based solely on a wing and a prayer. Do I succeed? Not often. I'm lucky to get one or two usable images off a 12-exposure roll. My four images in this article come from two rolls. Sometimes I have to tweak the image of the scanned negative to achieve what I intended when I snapped the shutter, to achieve the result I 'visualized.'

San Jose Burial Park, San Antonio, TX
So while the print (or an electronically published image) is actually what the viewer sees, a Holga forces you to pay way more attention to creating a successful negative. There's only so much you can do after-capture with a poor original. Given the amount of work involved to make a great print back in the pre-digital age, you have to hand it to Adams for his perseverance. He was dedicated to reproducing what he SAW (as opposed to what was actually THERE) – so in that sense, he was more an artist than a photojournalist or documentarian. When I shoot with a Holga, I view things similarly. Film allows me to be a photographer – I don't have to worry about also being a digital imaging computer technician. I don't really spend a lot of time on the image after-capture, and experience with the Holga has helped me create better originals (which I can later tweak in Photoshop if I really need to). I put a lot more thought into what I want the image to be, rather than just firing off scores of automatically bracketed JPEGs.

The Alamo (San Antonio, TX)
Images made with a Holga are like a photographic Haiku - not much there to go on, but if you ponder awhile, you'll realize there's more of the artist in a crappy Holga image than in many a finely-crafted digital print. Why do I think that? Well, partly because its only six o'clock in the morning and I'm barely awake - and its the first thing that popped into my head. What I'm actually trying to say is that composition is what a Holga image is all about, its the only thing the photographer can control. Aperture, shutter speed, light leaks, lens distortion  - all inherent 'features' of the camera that cannot be changed. So a successful image requires a lot more effort on the part of the photographer, which Ansel Adams would have appreciated. Like a haiku, the resulting photograph lends itself to one simplistic idea, characterized by a familiar object presented in a sort of dream-like manner, such as the images you see here of tombstones and the Alamo.

And what better way to end this article than with a photograph of the latter, as a tribute to Ansel Adams' creativity. In addition to mountains, he photographed many of the mission churches in the southwest - the Alamo, or Mission San Antonio de Valero, being one of the more famous ones.

Further Reading:

Ansels Adams' photography in the Public Domain
Shooting Cemeteries with a Holga
Learn about "The Alamo" 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mt.Moriah Cemetery Rising from the Dead?

Well, the big Clean-Up happened today, Saturday, July 18, 2011, and boy am I beat! Through the mayor’s office, the City of Philadelphia organized a volunteer day clean-up through the organization ‘SERVE Philadelphia’ at Mt.Moriah Cemetery. I registered on-line the week before and showed up today at 8 a.m.

Since the place was officially abandoned a few months ago, Mt. Moriah's 380 acres (Pennsylvania’s largest cemetery, opened in 1855) have met spring and summer with a vengeance. Trees, grass, honeysuckle and poison ivy grow rampant, all but covering even the part of the cemetery that was sort of being maintained. When some plot owners recently filed a lawsuit against this inner city cemetery for negligence, the man and woman who worked in the office packed up and left. As the city has not been able to identify any actual owners, my guess is that these people who were taking money for burials over the past however many years (some say since the 1970s), were just squatters! What a way to make a buck! Find an abandoned cemetery and bury people! You pay for the backhoe, keep the grass cut on a few acres, and pocket the profits! No taxes or license fees, nothing! So the city finds itself with a huge eyesore with many irate citizens and plotholders on its hands.

Trash collecting in the cemetery
Last week I stopped by to see what the place looked like, as I hadn’t been here in the couple months since the city padlocked and barricaded the entrances. Looks like the city has really taken over, investing money into its clean-up and security, as it waits for some group to step forward and take it over. In addition to confiscating all the records from the office they apparently weed-whacked the tall grass in this (non-overgrown forest) section of the cemetery (tho the weeds had not been cut on the Cobbs Creek side and that just looked wild). 

Tires and Tombstones
The piles of old tires were gone from behind the gatehouse fa├žade (shown at beginning of this article), dirt roads were scraped clear of trash and heaps of old building materials. In fact while I was there, a city garbage truck flew by me on its way to the entrance on Kingsessing Ave. As I turned my car to follow it a few minutes later, I was surprised to find the front gate chained shut! Not to worry, as large sections of fencing are missing, so I just drove my car up the embankment, out over the sidewalk and into the street. But I still got that panic-y feeling you get when you first realize you’re locked in a cemetery!

Registering for the Mount Moriah Cemetery Clean-Up Day
Saturday, July 18 was when a hundred people showed up to see what they could do. After registering and signing waivers (so you don’t sue the city if you get hurt), we were assigned to work crews and told not to lift any headstones and be careful not to fall into sunken graves. The city provided police protection, an ambulance for first aid, rakes, trash bags, gloves, and water and juice for the duration. It was supposed to be hotter than hell and they really didn’t want people overexerting themselves.

Raked piles of dried grass
The majority of the work involved raking up the dried grass cut by the weed-whackers over the past few weeks. Everyone raked it into piles, pushed the piles onto tarps, then dragged them down to one of the cemetery roads where city workers would later load them into trucks to be hauled away. We joked about whether this would happen before some jackass set them on fire!

I started thinking that maybe a controlled burn in the place would make more sense than all this raking (which was tough work, by the way, given all the tangles of vines and other ground cover). Really, all we were doing was removing the dead grass and giving breathing space to the live grass and weeds below − so that it would all grow faster! A sort of prairie fire would renew the place, burn the trees and weeds, which I was told was actually suggested by the fire department. They wouldn’t have to worry about hurting the wild pit bulls – one of the SERVE volunteers told me the city had them removed (not sure about the coyotes, though). The burn idea was shelved not because it was technically unfeasible, but because it was esthetically, shall we say, Armageddon-like. The sight of a cemetery on fire might not sit too well with the public, or the neighbors, for that matter. (Besides, Philadelphia doesn’t need another out-of-control ‘MOVE-style’ inferno.) Also, it was pointed out that the tombstones and monuments would be blackened in the process, and then would require cleaning.

So about 8:30 a.m. everyone started into it. About 8:45, the grunting and groaning began. More than one person said, “I should’ve worked out for a week before doing this!” Really, it was hard work, especially in the hot sun. My group was working around the old gatehouse where the Fox News truck was filming. My wife asked me later that day if it was emotional, doing this kind of work. 

I’m not a real emotional kind of guy, but it did give me an odd feeling scraping unseen headstones with a rake - a strange sound that always caught me off guard. They'd been toppled over and lay buried in the grass. I never thought about the insensitivity of vandals in this way – if you’re going to knock over a gravestone, how about doing it so it lands face-up? That way when people come looking for their ancestors’ graves (as many people did today), they’d be more likely to find them. 

Filling a Sunken Grave
There were people here of all ages, and all walks of life − all with their own personal reasons for coming. (Oddly, I couldn’t really put my own reasons for being here into words, when asked.) From the few people I spoke with and conversations I overheard, some were registered members of the volunteer organization, SERVE, some were war veterans or Civil War enthusiasts. Some came from as far as thirty miles away.There were Freemason and Rotary club members. One ex-funeral director I know was there filling in a sunken grave. An old woman who had family buried here and was just observing the spectacle was very thankful. Most people didn’t really chat much, just worked hard  to do what they were assigned. Mayor Michael Nutter stopped by and chatted with us a bit, thanking everyone. 

Mayor Nutter, at right

Father Time, engulphed
I spoke with one of the volunteer organizers about the many millions of dollars it would take to get this place into shape. I’m not talking about restoring it to its original grandeur – it may be beyond that. Why not try to get other professional organizations to volunteer or donate their specific expertise? Wouldn’t that be great publicity for them? Have arborists come in and cut down the forest of trees that encroach upon the monuments, have a fencing company replace parts of the missing main fence on Kingsessing Avenue, cemetery restoration companies provide crews to right all the toppled tombstones.

But what might happen is local labor unions would balk, like the Streets Department did when the idea was brought up to use prisoners to do the grounds crew clean-up and grass cutting we were doing. That would go against the contract, take work away from them! The fact that the city doesn’t have the money to pay people to do this doesn’t enter into the equation.

Freeing tombstone from its arboreal prison
Freed Tombstone
Around noon, one of the guys from a group that was cutting overgrown trees from around monuments called out to me. He asked if I wanted to take a break and go over to the Circle of Saint John, through the trees on the other side of the cemetery. Everyone was sweaty and tired, but it wasn't like you could just drop down and rest in the shade of a tree - the deer ticks would eat you alive, so we all took a hike. 

Our tour leader had been here many times with two of his Masonic lodge members to hack out trees growing around various monuments in that area, so he knew the terrain as well as I did. It seemed there were a few guys in the group who had never been back there in the deep woods, so we all took a hike. Always interesting to see the facial expressions and hear the exclamations of first-timers here when they see the magnificent family memorials in the woods, the crazy foliage smothering giant monuments. 

Burned-out car, hung up on tombstone
The access roads leading to the back part of the cemetery had been widened a bit as the city’s heavy equipment had barreled through – these little dirt roads were not made for giant trash trucks and front-loaders carrying burned-our cars out of the cemetery. As a result, unfortunately, some roadside monuments were knocked out of place and others were side-swiped. 

Land of the Lost
As we approached the circle and could see the top of its central marble column about thirty feet above  the trees, we cut into the tangle of dense growth, poison ivy, and raspberry vines as several people wanted to see it up close. Wresting our way through the jungle, one guy ahead of me said, “I feel like I should be carrying an M-16.” The column is part of an enormous 1871 monument to the late Masonic Grand Tyler, William B. Schnider. Just to give you an appreciation for the size of this amazing marble sculpture, the photo at right shows one of our volunteers standing at its base.

For the past eight years, these three guys from the local Pennsylvania Masonic lodge would come here a few times each year to saw down trees from around various monuments and carry away trash from the area. One time two of them were in the circle working  with machetes and a chainsaw, and unwittingly provided some visitors with a close encounter they’ll never forget. For years, hookers would bring their johns to
the Circle of Saint John (no pun intended) by car to do their thing (which you can't help seeing if you spend any time in this cemetery). While they were there, a pickup truck appeared out of nowhere as they were working. They looked up – while brandishing the machete and chainsaw – only to see the horrified look on the faces of the couple in the truck! They said the hooker started screaming and the driver hit the gas and you never SAW a vehicle go so fast in reverse!

As we headed back through the wooded cemetery roads, we came upon two small groups of our fellow  volunteers who were lost. People think I exaggerate the dangers of this place, but even on a bright sunny day, you can feel strangely vulnerable here. As this thought occurred to me, I realized this is one of the few times in recent memory that I’ve ventured into Mt. Moriah without a weapon! Maybe if the cleanup continues (as its scheduled to) each month, there may come a time when people can safely visit this place and enjoy the history, nature, art, and architecture it has to offer.

After the clean-up, I was exhausted. Although I brought all my serious cameras, they sat in the trunk of my car parked on 62th Street. The photos you see here were taken with my little digital Panasonic point-and-shoot, between swigs of water or bandaging the calluses on my hands.

Important Sites to Visit for further Reading:

News Coverage:

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Lost Cemetery Found ! (…maybe)

Kind of a miserable afternoon here in Philadelphia. Raining like all get out. Sitting in the living room thinking that taking half a day off from work is the only right decision I’ve made in years. Certainly, the decision last weekend to find a certain old abandoned cemetery was not one of my best. In retrospect, I should have done a bit more research, but the thrill of the hunt was upon me. What I won't go through to find an abandoned cemetery...

Upfront, I thank Kim Thompson for the information on the lost cemetery of Pennypack Nature Preserve, and the detailed map she drew for me. (You did say there was probably an easier way to access the cemetery, but I didn’t bother to check into that – my bad.) So, armed with a hand-drawn map, my friend Frank, water, beer, and snack bars, we set out to find this strange place in 95-degree weather. Her description of it being lost in the woods screamed “abandoned!” to me, and as you may know from reading my blog, I have more than a passing interest in abandoned cemeteries. Also, being an artist, I'm not as detail-oriented as I should be.

However, I did look up the Pennypack area and found that the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust (the location in question), was not to be confused with Pennypack Park in northeast Philly (although Pennypack Creek runs through both). I’d heard of the park over the years I’ve lived in Philly, but had never been there. Philadelphia is an enormous area, twenty miles across, with just so much nature, city, and everything in between (like water ice, which I’d have given anything for during this hike), that after twenty years, I still haven't taken it all in.

Tracks to Nowhere
Kim and her husband had come upon the cemetery (in retrospect, I’m not sure how you come upon something hidden on a cliff above you and totally out of sight) during a hike through the Pennypack nature preserve, here in northeast Philadelphia. Actually, they went off the grid when they found a set of abandoned railroad tracks leading off into the woods (points for them - I'm not even sure that I would have done that). According to her map, I should follow the tracks about half a mile and I should see a couple houses up on a hill to the right, and the cemetery would be opposite them, on a hill to the left.

Pennypack Creek
I parked my car at the Pennypack Road entrance (as the map indicated, near the intersection of Davisville and Terwood Roads) and Frank and I loaded up for the hike. It really was a beautiful area, with Pennypack Creek running alongside the main trail. About a quarter mile into the woods, Frank nonchalantly mentioned  that he hoped we didn’t come across any rabid beavers. Say what? At the beginning of the month (June), three people had been bitten in and around Pennypack Creek. “You mean that happened HERE?” I yelped. I made a mental note not to get too close to the water.

I hadn’t paid much attention to this seminal beaver event at the time, but now that I read up on it, I find it highly amusing, though for the folks involved, I’m sure it was not unlike the opening scene in the movie JAWS. According to an NBC news article, ‘Rabid Beavers Bite Folks in NE Philly,’ "[The beaver] kind of went underwater and came up." Czech said "The wife started screaming and the husband looked over and saw the beaver biting on her leg." The article goes on to say this happened in Pennypack Creek near 'Ax Factory Road,' which I think you’ll admit is the best street name ever!

The whole thing seems kind of stupid if you have no concept of how big beavers get. I for one, was shocked some years ago when I came across this stuffed beaver in a Baltimore thrift shop. The thing was huge, maybe four feet long including the tail! Throughout the day, Frank and I saw deer, snakes, and chipmunks, but met with no beavers (or bears, for that matter, as did the unfortunate hiker in Yellowstone Park last week).

It’s odd how major roadways cut through the Pennypack Preserve. Not unlike Philadelphia’s Pennypack Park and Fairmont Park, both of which go on for miles in haphazard directions, with roads cutting through them every which way. They’re not like New York’s Central Park, in which no cars are allowed on its roadways. A couple times Frank and I came to a park entrance gate at a road. The creek went under a bridge and the trail continued on the other side. According to the trail maps on Pennypack’s website, I count seven of these separate entrance gates. There would be parking for half a dozen cards, and there were always people about – joggers, bicyclists, families with children.

Old stone bridges and remnants of foundations of houses and prehistoric toll booths from the first Pennsylvania Turnpike appear along the trails. One of these bridges across Pennypack Creek, a few miles south of here in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia, is in fact the oldest surviving roadway bridge in the United States, erected in 1698 and in continual use since then! The nature preserve, which actually came into being in 1970, is located in Huntingdon Valley, where the “Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust manages the 725-acre (2.93 km2) Pennypack Preserve which is open to the public and includes 10 miles (16 km) of pedestrian, equestrian, and bicycle trails.” (Ref.)

Tracks leading off the grid
After making our way along the trail for about an hour, we came upon a particular and “surprisingly large stone bridge," as Kim wrote, which was our roadmark that the abandoned train tracks lay just on the other side. According to her map, we were about half way to the cemetery. The bridge was most likely one of those old turnpike bridges, and the unused tracks, I’ve come to find out, are from the old Reading Railroad.

The track foundation was about six feet above the natural ground, sloping down to the creek on the right, and down to a drainage ditch on the left. Except for the initial thousand feet or so, where the left side was lower than the tracks, a sixty-foot wooded hillside stayed with us for the remainder of the trip. Here’s a PHOTO of what it looked like, with Frank walking ahead. Everything was old growth forest, with tulip trees, hickory, tangles of raspberry bushes and more poison ivy than you could shake a stick at! Luckily, not much of anything grew in the gravel between the railroad ties, so we were able to progress relatively quickly through the dense forest. As you can see, weeds were overgrown on both sides of the tracks, so you really couldn't see much through the trees.

At one point two huge red deer came through the thicket and disappeared again. Deer ticks would abound, so we were careful to stay on the tracks and not brush up against any deer-high bushes.Which was not easy, especially the two times we came to areas where trees had fallen across the old tracks, and we had to make our way up the embankment and back down to the tracks. We were encouraged by this "666" carving in a tree, so we continued on. Even though I had on hiking boots, the loose dry dirt made it seem like I was climbing in rollerblades. Old telegraph poles still lined the railway from god knows what era. As I was checking out the wooden wire insulators on one at the top of the slope, the ground gave out from under me and I went sliding down to the railbed past Frank in a cloud of dirt, tree branches, and poison ivy.As I gathered myself up, I looked across the tracks and saw the scene in the photo below. It looked for all the world like a cemetery monument! Upon closer investigation, it was just a reasonable facsimile.

We were at least a half mile down the tracks when we came to an amazing stone throughcut hill, where the tracks were totally blocked by boulders that had come loose off the excavated rock walls. I offered to Frank that we can turn back anytime he felt like it, but he said, “No, we’ve come this far…” Truthfully, this Bataan Death March was wearing me out and I was beginning to think we took the tracks in the wrong direction. I was exhausted, and dying for one of the chilled beers I offered to carry in Frank’s ungodly heavy cooler, but hey, there’s a time and place to man up, so we made our way over and around the ten-foot high boulders and continued on up the tracks. It was in the nineties and sunny, but at least we were shaded by the majestic old forest for most of our hike.

According to the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust website, there were two stone quarries in this area, so I imagine we were in that vicinity. It was kind of spooky in the shade of all these hickory trees, with no sound but the creek down below us in the mossy forest. We hadn’t seen any people since veering off the hiking trail onto the tracks, and I was a bit concerned when I saw these signs on trees here and there. I joked with Frank about this being one of those exotic game preserves where they hunt people. He started humming the theme song from the movie Deliverance.

Only a few hundred feet after we passed the boulder avalanche, Frank saw the three houses up on a hill to the right, which were our supposed markers – the cemetery was supposed to be opposite the houses on the left side of the tracks. We trudged on a few more minutes but only saw steep embankment to our left, about thirty feet above the railway. But wait…was that rusty barbed wire and poles along the cliff up there? I was seriously considering fording the creek, finding the nearest road, and taking a cab back to my car – but as I thought of the angry beavers in the water, Frank began to scurry up the hillside. I followed. He got to the top first and yelled, “We found it!

Lone Tombstone in the Woods
Though we hadn’t discussed it beforehand, I know we both expected ancient tombstones covered in weeds, with a forest grown up around them. As I climbed over the barbed wire, I saw a clearing about a city block in size, trees on all sides, punctuated with small groupings of tombstones. Tombstones which looked rather … modern. We sat down and broke out the beer and joked about our travails, and the possibility that none of these graves looked older than a decade. Strangely juxtaposed with these gravemarkers was a century-old hand water pump in a corner of the cemetery. As we walked around the headstones we were rather shocked to find that their dates only ranged from about 2006 back to maybe 1970! Amidst the twenty-five or so headstones, there were a couple family plots, but this didn’t seem like a public cemetery. Most notably, I suppose, was the family of Philadelphia Orchestra composer Richard Yardumian. Very curious.

By the age of the water pump, Frank (who works at a cemetery), thought that maybe this was an old cemetery that had fallen into disrepair and in the late-1960s someone decided to put it to use once again. So we’re both wondering if some astute local historian knows the story and would post some explanatory comments at the end of this blog. All I can offer is that there are small groupings of Armenian family names.

I noticed what appeared to be wooden guardrails uphill at the back of the cemetery, which I took to be a road. Thinking we’d hitchhike back to the car, we climbed a set of stone steps up to the road, which turned out to be not a road at all, but a driveway. Curiouser and curiouser. Seemed to be an estate of some sort. Strange-looking building with many uniformly sized windows along the side facing us, woods all around. Not a soul to be seen, which was good, as we were on their front lawn. We walked up the driveway toward the house, thinking it led past the house and out to a road. Nope. Just went up to a sort of parking area. I suggested it might be the clubhouse of the human-game hunting club. We headed off in the opposite direction, down the driveway into the woods away from the house. The road meandered through a field and signs that said, 'Private Drive.' Yeah, we knew that – we’re just trying to get the hell out of here.

Cemetery access road, leading to Creek Road
Finally, we came to a main road, and saw one of the gates leading into the Nature Preserve. About fifty feet from the driveway was a chained gravel road, leading to the cemetery we just left. Meaning that we could’ve driven right to this gate (had we known where it was), parked the car, walked down the chained road for four minutes and come to the cemetery!

As we approached the gate, a young guy walking a dog came down the road. We asked him if he knew the way back to Pennypack Road and he said just follow the trail on the other side of the creek. The return trip only took an hour or so, as we were on an established trail and back on the grid. Strange how this Creek Road Trail sort of meandered through the backyards of farmhouses, estates, and a big country retreat-looking place called something like Lords of the New Church (not to be confused with the punk supergroup, I suppose). On returning to the car, we were both exhausted and my feet ached. We finished off the remaining cold ones and headed home.

After all that, it turns out that we hadn't found the cemetery we were looking for! I saw Kim and Brad Thompson a week later at an art event and Kim reminded me that the graves in the cemetery they had found were sunken, with old stones covered with graffiti. I had forgotten that part. So SOMEWHERE between where the tracks began and the boulders covered them, is an old abandoned cemetery nestled in the woods. Sounds like another trip, but it will have to be in the winter, when the trees are bare, the poison ivy is dead, and the beavers are safely under the ice-covered creek.

References and Further Reading:

Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust
Rabid Beavers Bite Folks in NE Philly
Kim Thompson's Dark Mind Design

Thursday, July 7, 2011

How to Paint Tombstones

Moonlit scene, Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia
I thought that might get your attention! I’m actually referring to the photographic technique, "painting with light." Over the years, I’ve toyed with the idea of going into a cemetery at night to take time exposure photographs of statues and monuments, illuminating them solely with a flashlight. The idea is to essentially photograph the darkness, while gradually illuminating the object by “painting” it with a flashlight beam. The only real gear you need is an SLR camera, tripod, and flashlight. Oh, and a cemetery at night.

That last issue was resolved for me last month when my friend Frank, who works at Historic Laurel Cemetery in Philadelphia, suggested getting a group of photographers together for a full moon shoot on the grounds.

Before I went, I could have read up on painting with light techniques, but as is my nature, I prefer to learn from my own mistakes. At the time, a laser pointer seemed like a cool idea – you know, outlining the statue, drawing fine designs. Well, as you can see from this image at right, such technique requires much practice! And since I have the patience of a gnat, I’d be better off next time just illuminating the entire statue with a broad flashlight beam, like my friend Zen Bojczuk did with this image below.

Photo by Zen Bojczuk
Before I get all technical on you, let me share some images with you from Zen Bojczuk’s Facebook album from that evening's shoot, "Graveyard Shift." (His gear and settings: Camera: Pentax K10D; Lens: Pentax 18-55 at F8 - F11; ISO 100). Also, being in a graveyard at night is a bit unsettling, even if you are there with a group of people. We all sort of wandered off in different directions as we waited for the full moon to appear (hoping of course, that it would not be accompanied by werewolves). I chose to make some photographs behind Millionaire’s Row, the hillside stretch of fancy Gilded Age mausoleums. Peering into the rear windows of these buildings (like the one at the top of this article) at night is enough to give you the willies – and it certainly doesn’t calm your nerves when you scare a bunch of bats off their roost in a nearby tree!

While we all waited for it to get dark enough to start our light painting, I played around with ghost images of myself (long shutter speed, hit the self-timer, then run over and get in the scene).

Photograph by Frank Rausch
Other photographers like Frank were somewhat more productive, making wonderful moonlit images like the one above. (His gear and settings: Camera: Nikon D90; Lens: AF-S Nikkor 18-105mm f3.5-5.6G; ISO 400; 30 - 40 second exposures). About 10 o’clock the full moon seemed to just appear. Since I didn’t know exactly where it would be, it was difficult to plan on what statues to photograph. You can photograph them lit by the moon itself, but that’s not really what I wanted. If the scene is evenly lit, albeit dimly, your camera will just compensate for the low light and provide you with a best possible exposure, which will probably just look like a very grainy daylight photograph. When you paint with light, you illuminate a specific object or objects, while everything around it will be dark (unless lit by other sources, e.g. street lights). The moon itself is best used as a compositional element, a point light source to add interest to your scene.

Shooting the Moon
When you look at my photo at left, why is the moon just a bright ball of light? Shouldn’t a rising moon (think wolf moon or harvest moon) be big and yellow, allowing you to see its crater details? You’ve seen the photos − a properly-exposed moon rising above a dim landscape like the one below. Well guess what?  Such photographs are impossible to take. They are all doctored!

Yosemite Moon stock photo (ref)
They’re either double exposures (two separate images sandwiched together) or Photoshopped to dim down the bright moon and/or boost the brightness of the landscape (this is the principle behind HDR, High Dynamic Range, which essentially evens out the range of an image’s brightness extremes). If you’re a photographer, you know you can’t have a properly-exposed bright object and a properly-exposed dim object in the same image. Photography doesn’t work that way. Neither do your eyes, by the way. Your brain compensates for such differences in brightness almost immediately, making you THINK you see everything with even brightness. Consider those times you’re driving and are blinded by the headlights of an oncoming car – overpowers your ability to see anything else, doesn’t it? Well, that’s how a camera reacts to exposing for a bright moon – all other dimmer detail is lost.

What Camera Should You Use when Painting with Light?

While you can hypothetically set a point-and-shoot digital to make a 60-second exposure, its image sensor is not very light sensitive. This will result in grainy, mottled images. You’d have much better results with a DSLR, whose larger image sensor is much more light sensitive. (A film SLR will work fine too, only you won’t see your images immediately). Put the camera on a tripod and lock the shutter up or set the shutter speed to ‘B’ (shutter stays open as long as the shutter release is held), bathe the statue with your flashlight beam, then close the shutter. Of course to do this, you need a cable release or remote for the shutter – you can’t hold your finger on the shutter release for a minute because you’ll move the camera. You need the camera to be perfectly still during the exposure. Since I forgot my shutter release cable, I used the camera’s self-timer to initiate the exposure. The image above was made with a thirty-second exposure, which gave me time to trace the walkway with my laser. The weird colors are a result of ambient skylight and my camera's image sensor misbehaving in its non-linear region (different image sensors will respond differently to low light situations). My gear, by the way, is a Canon Rebel XT DSLR with a Canon 28 -135mm lens. I shot at ISO 1600, which in retrospect, was a mistake. I should have used a lower light sensitivity, which would've underexposed the ambient-lit parts of the scene.

Exposure Settings

A reasonable point at which to start your experimentation is the "Auto" mode on your camera, though your results will vary widely from one camera to the next. In my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, I refer to the prime determinants of a successful photograph (besides composition, which only the photographer can control) as LAFSLight sensitivity (ISO), Aperture, Focus, and Shutter speed. Outside in the sun, you can usually set your camera on ‘Auto’ and let it make all these adjustments for you. However, for painting with light, the ‘Auto’ setting probably won’t work that well. LAFS are critical when making photographs in low-light conditions, so it makes sense to know how to adjust all of them. You might even want to experiment with all manual settings, though I prefer to use aperture-priority. Let’s look at each of the settings individually.

Light Sensitivity (ISO)

Photo by Frank Rausch
You would think that to achieve a properly exposed image you’d want your ISO cranked to max in a situation where the light is extremely dim. Not so fast, 60-Wattson..You really don't want a properly-exposed image, you want the background to be black, and the subject to be well-lit. You’re being very selective here. Think about shooting fireworks – you really just want to record light trails on a black sky, right? You don’t want the sky to be “properly exposed.” So you really don’t want an ISO of 1600 or higher. Try ISO 400, like Frank did for the image shown here, or even ISO 100 like Zen Bojczuk uses! Seems counter-intuitive, doesn't it? But it works.


This one’s a bit tricky. You would think shallow depth of field, wide open aperture, right? After all, You don’t need anything in front of or behind the statue to be in focus, just the statue itself. Also, a wide open aperture (f-stop) would allow your lens to gather more light. Ah, but this works against you. You actually want a small, closed-down aperture for two reasons. One, exposure time should be at least half a minute allowing you time to paint the object – a small aperture will force this (small aperture requires longer shutter speed). Two, a small aperture will allow your lens focus to be more forgiving. What do I mean by that? Read on!


Ever try to focus in the dark? Not so easy, is it? Automated cameras have different ways of doing this, and some focus better than others. Some focus ultrasonically or with an infrared beam, invisible methods which could conceivably give you a properly focused image. Others use a burst of the camera’s own on-board flash to illuminate the object, allowing the lens’ optical focusing system to make the necessary adjustment. You can also manually focus your lens by pacing off the approximate camera-to-monument distance then rotating your lens barrel to that distance (its handy to have a small flashlight to assist you in this process!). I actually had to manually focus because one of the people in our group had epilepsy, and an attack can sometimes be triggered by strobed light.

What I plan to do on my next light-painting expedition is bring a bright flashlight to illuminate the statue while I allow my camera to auto-focus on it. Then I'll turn the auto-focus to manual, locked at that proper focus, and start taking pictures. Another practical tip for manually focusing in the dark: after you estimate the distance the best you can, shoot at a small aperture (i.e., a high f-stop). The smaller the aperture, the greater your depth of field – which means that there will be more things in focus around your set focus point. A wide angle lens also works to your focus advantage –  a 28mm lens inherently has greater depth of field than a 50mm or longer lens, for example.

Shutter Speed

Lasered statue
Shutter speed, or your exposure time, needs to be long enough for you to paint the tombstone, statue, or monument. Generally, this might need to be 15 seconds or more, depending on how wide a swath of light your flashlight provides and how large the statue is. My shutter speed for the image shown here was about forty seconds – cut a bit short when a helicopter appeared out of nowhere! (In case you're unaware, you can get thrown in the slammer for such an irresponsible act as aiming a laser at an aircraft. Check out this Philly news item from April 2011: Man Gets 33 Months for Aiming Laser Pointer at Helicopter.)

Though you can paint with light using a film SLR, the beauty of digital is that an LCD display gives you instant feedback on your technique. You just need to understand LAFS so that you know what you need to adjust to make your next image better! As I was leaving Laurel Hill that night, it occurred to me for next time, why not get a few people with flashlights – and various colored gelatin filters – to bathe a statue in various colors while I photograph it! Psychedlia!

References and Related Links:

Read about Ed Snyder's book, Digital Photography for the Impatient
Zen Bojczuk attributes his knowledge of light painting to photographer Harold Ross. View Ross' "Night Portfolio" on his website.

Learn more about HDR - "High Dynamic Range"

Man Gets 33 Months for Aiming Laser Pointer at Helicopter