Friday, August 26, 2011

Andy Warhol and Cemetery Photography

I’m taking a break from the deep philosophical and historically riveting cemetery-related blogs I’ve been writing. This one’s just a throwaway. I’m only thinking of you, dear reader. The intensity of all that revelation is far too much for the human mind to bear on a constant basis. No doubt you’ve already achieve Satori (Buddhist enlightenment) from reading The Cemetery Traveler. Were I to continue at this pace, you would most certainly reach Nirvana, and then there would be no reason for you to go on living. And we just can’t have that. I can’t handle the responsibility.

That said, I wouldn't have had the following experience if I didn't do cemetery photography. So here I am, gallery-sitting, staring at an empty gallery with about fifty pieces of artwork on the wall. Well, empty except for me and the artwork. And the cat. Potential customers are not about to leave their air-conditioned homes and come out in this Saturday afternoon heat for sparkling water and cheese doodles. 

For this month-long show entitled “Then and Now,” at Philadelphia’s DaVinci Art Alliance, each member is expected to sit the gallery for a few hours. Two of the fifty pieces in the show are my photographs, the ones you see below. Though only five of the fifty pieces are photos, no one's complaining – photographs are acceptable art here at DaVinci. The management has a fabulous all-inclusive philosophy, which allows up-and-coming artists (working in all media) to get public exposure. Granted, this is easier for private galleries to do than it is for commercial ones, as the continued existence of the former is driven by grants while that of the latter is driven by sales.

My rationale for submitting these two pieces under the theme “Then and Now” initially brought to mind an Andy Warhol quote: “Art is what you can get away with.” But a little pondering made them fit rather nicely:

Then” is 1956, when the city of Philadelphia tore up Monument Cemetery so that Temple University could build a parking lot – thousands of headstones were dumped into the Delaware River to be used as riprap. (Link)

Now” is Philadelphia’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery, abandoned and currently in danger of a similar fate. (Link)

Nico, the gallery cat, wanders in after the first hour and strangely starts to jump up the wall at the skull. Most of the other work in the exhibit is less morbid than mine. As the only three people to appear during my shift wander around at hour deux, I think of this great line a friend once came up with. You say it as you peer thoughtfully at any piece of art work, when you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about. You say, “It’s strangely sexual, yet somehow it reminds me of death…” Applies to anything and everything.

Deb Miller, Ray, and Ed
And speaking of everything, I had a very serendipitous encounter at the opening reception for this show a few weeks ago. I noticed this guy wearing a tee shirt with a Warhol-type design of Edie Sedgwick (one of Warhol’s actresses in his films). I asked him what that was all about, as I didn’t remember Warhol having made such a silk-screen design. He told me that when he and his wife were going through the Warhol archives doing research for a book with Billy Name (Andy’s photographer during the “Factory” period), they happened on the design and so they made a tee-shirt graphic with it. Huh, THAT’S pretty awesome. And why does it say “BILLY NAME” in black hand-written Sharpie letters under the design? “Because he signed it,” was his response.

Okay, now I’m totally confused yet wildly impressed. I was about to ask why he had such access to the Warhol archives but I thought I’d be prying, so I said, “I bought a copy of the Billy Name book some years ago when he was at a local book store signing copies.” He said, “Rizzoli BookStore on Walnut.” That’s odd, why would he remember that? Was he some sort of Superfan? I mean, that was 1994, for god’s sake – sixteen years ago! Then he added, “My wife wrote that book with Billy.” I said, kind of stupidly, “Who’s your wife?”Deb Miller,” he replied,” the president of DaVinci Art Alliance. She’s over there. Let me introduce you.”

Turns out Dr. Miller is an art historian, professor, and author. I feel like a total doofus, as Ray, her husband, tells her I have her book. Which I have never even opened, as I had purchased it as a gift for my brother. Other than the fact that I was familiar with Name’s work as the “Factory Fotographer” (meaning he documented all the goings-on of the Warhol “Superstars”), I really didn’t know much about him. I did tell her I would borrow the book and read it, which I did soon after. People associate Andy Warhol with photography mainly from his Polaroid photos of celebrities, but he actually spent much more time behind a Super-8 movie camera as director and cinematographer of dozens of his own movies. He assigned the task of documenting the stars and sets to Billy Name, having given him a Pentax 35mm camera (which is the camera I started with, coincidentally, back in 1976). 

Our conversation ended with a discussion of Pittsburgh’s fabulous Warhol Museum and finally The Factory, and the interesting description of it by Patti Smith in her book, Just Kids (about her life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe). To my surprise, neither Ray nor Debra had gotten to read it so I promised to loan it to them (and I later delivered). I was kind of surprised to have so much in common with a pair of total strangers. Small world, but I wouldn’t want to paint it.

When I finally got my hands on my brother's copy of the book, Billy Name – Stills from the Warhol Films, I was pleasantly surprised to find that both Billy Name and Deb Miller had signed it. Why was I surprised? I mean, I was there, wasn’t I? Well, no. This is one of the things I was uncomfortable talking with Ray and Deb about – I told them I bought the book at the signing, but I didn’t tell them I wasn’t actually there!

The reason the book (which is intensely researched and fabulously written, by the way) stands out in my mind is because when I found out when the signing was to take place, I knew I would be out of town. I wanted to get a signed copy for my brother as a Christmas present. So I went to Rizzoli’s (which is no longer there), bought a copy, and asked the manager if he could please get it signed for me. He graciously agreed. I really was bummed not to be there, but such is life. My burning question to him a week later when I picked up the book was, “What was the crowd like?” His reply? “A lot of chains and black leather.”

The DaVinci Art Alliance is hosting an upcoming juried exhibit, “Warholized,” which I plan to enter. Awards judges will be Madalen and James Warhola, Andy’s niece and nephew. Always something to look forward to. I may enter something like the collage you see at the beginning of this article, which I made about five years ago from my photograph of a cemetery statue.

Further Readings:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries

Now here’s an odd little story, even by my terms. A friend of mine from West Philly told me about an abandoned Jewish cemetery near her house. It’s only a block away from Philadelphia’s most notorious abandoned cemetery, Mount Moriah. Though I used to live nearby, and have been to Mount Moriah many times, I never knew about this small, back alley graveyard.

So one hot summer afternoon, I followed her directions and found a fenced-in half acre of weeds near 65th Street and Chester Avenue (actual address is 1850 Cemetery Lane). I really couldn’t tell if it was a cemetery, but luckily one of the sides − an old stone wall − was easier to scale than the iron fencing along the other sides. Once on top of the wall, I could see tombstones along the inside of the wall and fencing. I heard a man’s voice say, “Can I help you?”

I looked back to the alley to see one of the neighbors (I presumed). You can’t just say. “Oh, no thanks, I’m fine,” when you’re caught trying to enter someone’s private property. So in some cases, honesty is the best policy. I told him I wanted to see the cemetery, and quickly added “How are you supposed to get into this place?” Always make it seem like you’re entitled to be in there. I had a big DSLR slung over my shoulder and I was dressed in a shirt and tie, so I don’t think I looked like a vandal.

In answer to my question, the man said, “An old guy who lived down the alley used to cut grass in here, but I haven’t seen him around in a couple years.” After a bit more small talk, I just said, “Well, I’m going in to look around, and dropped inside.” He walked off and no one bothered with me while I was there.

Strange little place. The iron fence looked kind of new and I could see a locked gate at the other side. While the weeds were high all over, headstones could be seen along all sides of the fence and wall. The place was small, barely half a city block in size, and had lived-in look despite the new fence. As I walked through the graveyard, a strange thing became apparent – there were no headstones on the majority of the property, just high weeds. The headstones were only located along the perimeter of the grounds. And not only THAT, but they were all set in concrete! And actually set in a little too deep, so that some of the names and dates were obscured. What’s up with THAT?

Headstones sunk into concrete
As the old wall bordered an ally, I was not surprised to see kids’ clothes, balls, and other toys in the graveyard weeds. Probably tossed over the wall by bullies for an unfortunate kid to retrieve. Kind of impossible for a little kid to scale this wall, as it was about eight feet high.

I photographed stones around the walls and fence as I made my way around (dates ranged in age from the 1870s to 1940s), and then came to a newish, professionally-made sign, the kind you see in historic parks! Turns out this place had been left for dead back way back when and brought back to life in 1999. Let’s look at what it says on the sign:

Who would have ever thought such an entity as the “Association for the Preservation of Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries” existed? THIS warrants further investigation, but for now, let’s see what else the sign says:

So the place had been established in 1856 by a Dutch Jewish congregation, B’nai Israel, then taken over by the “Hebrew Mutual Benefit and Benevolent Society of Brotherly Love.” This happened in 1879 when the B’nai Israel congregation disbanded. The Hebrew Mutual maintained the cemetery until the late 1960s when it too disbanded. The cemetery had been left to ruin over the ensuing thirty years. To quote the article, ‘Philadelphia Story − Learning Lessons from Eastern Europe, a Cemetery Emerges From Disarray:’

A cemetery “neglected, vandalized, and filled with trash, listed on the City’s roster of abandoned properties,” … nestled among the almost total disarray are toppled memorial stones, some vandalized, and with no surviving descendants dedicated to their maintenance.

People ask me, “How do cemeteries come to be ‘abandoned?’ Well, this is one way. The idea is so totally foreign to most people.

Stanley Barer - Jewish Leader

My guess as to why the headstones were set in concrete around the perimeter of the grounds is this: after thirty years of vandalism, they had gotten so knocked about that it was just easier to reset them this way. Most likely there were no records available to show where the bodies were buried anyway. The intent may have been to actually reconstruct the area more as a PARK, if you look at this satellite map (compliments of the Mount Moriah Cemetery website). A sidewalk can be plainly seen cutting through the center of the graveyard, though weeds obscured any trace of it when I was there. You can see the white tombstones along the sides, and the wall I climbed at the bottom on the photo.

So in 1999, along came Stanley Barer, the big clean-up and renovation happens, and then what? At least the fencing kept the place safe from further vandalism. According to the guy I met on the way in, someone had been cutting the grass up until a couple years ago. I decided to do some research, especially about this “Association for the Preservation of Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries.” I mean, how great is THAT?! If only such a service would catch on with other religions! (… and non-sectarians as well.)

After some Web searching, I was dismayed to find out that the Association, which was an official Agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, no longer exists. (Its web links have expired and now point to a travel agency, of sorts ( Tangential links and news stories (shown at end of this article) indicate that the Association was initially formed to raise the $270,000 needed to restore B'nai Israel /Hebrew Mutual Cemetery. However, it doesn’t appear that it took on any additional projects. Apparently, the additional $200,000 in endowment funds was enough to keep the place in shape for another decade. Maintenance seems to have stopped a few years ago.

Shortly after my initial visit to B'nai Israel , I decided to stop by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to see I could find out what happened to the Association. The security people in the lobby at 2100 Arch Street in Philadelphia had no listing of such an agency, even though this was its last published address. Stanley Barer, it seems, died in 2010.

I did find out that the 440 actual burials are merely represented by the perimeter headstones. MAYBE there are 100 stones in all. When the Association for the Preservation of Abandoned Jewish Cemeteries assumed ownership in 1999, most of the stones, which were either broken or weathered-to-obscurity, were bulldozed into a pile outside the actual burial area. These can still be seen in the woods near Cemetery Lane, which separates tiny B'nai Israel from the vast expanse of the abandoned Mount Moriah Cemetery.

The songwriter Shane MacGowan (of the Irish punk band, the Pogues) might have described B'nai Israel Cemetery as a ‘road apple,’ which he likens to “an apple that falls in the road…bruised and beautiful” (from the book, A Drink with Shane MacGowan).You just walk around this place and you can see it has character just by the feel of it, its inner city location, it’s old carved white marble and granite headstones. The sense of history is intense – where did the descendants of these Civil War and Spanish American War veterans go? Mainly due to persecution, you can almost sense the intense range of emotions in these peoples’ lives. It’s almost as if their graves have had as rough a time as they did (read more about the Dutch Jews who emigrated to Philadelphia).

The story has a relatively happy ending, however. After discussing the condition of the cemetery with my friend, she and her husband (who live near the cemetery), contacted the Jewish Federation and worked out a deal where they would cut all the weeds and keep the grass cut on a regular basis. I stopped by today and was astonished to find it all neatly trimmed like it appeared in the old aerial photograph! Relatives may no longer visit this resting place of their ancestors, but at least it has ceased to become an eyesore and a temptation for vandals.

Related Reading:

Jewish Graveyard Rabbit ("A blog on international Jewish cemeteries, preservation and restoration projects, reading Hebrew tombstones and more").

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mount Moriah Cemetery, on the Cusp

Who thinks about visiting an abandoned cemetery while in the dentist’s chair? Well, yours truly, for one. I apologize if I ever gave you the impression that I was normal. Yesterday afternoon, I drove out to Delaware County where I used to live, to let my dentist have his way with my teeth. Afterwards, I figured I would check out the Cobbs Creek Parkway side of Mount Moriah Cemetery.

This is the side of the massive abandoned cemetery that has been untamed by weedwhackers since last year. The city, as well as volunteer groups, are going in on a regular basis to try and clean up the other side (Kingsessing Avenue) of Mount Moriah, but 380 acres is a lot of land. Obviously due to limited manpower, the Cobbs Creek side is overgrown with weeds.

It’s an interesting sight, and not for the faint of heart. The densely wooded ridge off in the distance that is home to about seven huge, ornate (albeit abandoned, graffitied, and blocked up) mausoleums only allows a glimpse of one of these structures. While it peeks out like a Cyclops from the overgrown trees and bushes, the aggressive foliage camouflages the others. All but the very tops of fifty-foot obelisks are cloaked in green.

Mausoleums, Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Philadelphia

I pull my car into the lone parking area that’s not blocked with Jersey barriers and get out. The gate to the Cobbs Creek entrance across the street boasts this sign, which seems incongruous given the sad state of the grounds. Well-meaning, of course, and intended to stop the fuckheads who had been dumping loads of trash, old building materials, and old cars in here for years. The gate itself is meant to prevent vehicles from entering, but you can easily enter by foot.
The place is waist-high with weeds. Old tree branches lay on monuments, I trip over knocked-over headstones as I try to make my way through what the papers are calling a “public nuisance.” The crushed stone and broken blacktop roads are still walkable, the weeds not having totally covered them. Trying to capture the atrocity of this place photographically is like trying to photograph the Grand Canyon – it’s just too expansive to portray in one, all-encompassing image. One must simply experience it in person. What must families of recently-buried loved ones think of this place? (Some in fact want to remove their family members, but cannot do so until the cemetery's legal owners are found!) What can people in the cars zooming up and down the parkway possibly be thinking as they drive past this place? Probably nothing, they’re too busy honking their horns at each other.

Only two angels are left on this side of Mount Moriah. Most have abandoned ship. The remaining two are forever earthbound, caught in a tangle of vines. Kind of analogous, I suppose, to the red tape that must bind the city’s efforts to wrest control of Mount Moriah from its mystery owners via the Pennsylvania Orphan’s Court. (Kind of wish the dentist had used something that strong to bind up my mouth wounds, as I feel the stitches break loose.) The perceived “owners” of the cemetery flew the coup back in the Spring of 2011 when they were sued by plot owners for not maintaining the grounds in proper condition. For those readers new to my blog, my opinion is that these people were just squatters, taking money to bury bodies! If you can believe it, during the legal proceedings, it was not possible to determine the actual owners of Mount Moriah, the largest cemetery in Pennsylvania! Maybe the mafia is involved, as my father would have said. Certainly a great place to bury bodies.

I spent about an hour just on the front hillside of the cemetery - I didn’t want to lose sight of my car. About the time my stitches broke, I saw a red, late model Dodge Charger pull in next to my parking space. Realizing I was unarmed (not typical of me during visits to Mount Moriah), I picked up a piece of broken white marble just in case. As I came down the hill toward the road, I saw a guy get out of the Charger and pull out a bottle of car wax. He’s going to shine up his car in front of this atrocity of a cemetery, a cemetery that will probably never shine again.

Related News

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Atlantic City Cemetery

Its summer, and everyone goes to the shore. At least that’s what those of us on the east coast typically do. And Atlantic City, New Jersey is one of the popular destinations. What people don’t realize until they visit AC is that it isn’t all beaches and glitzy casinos – that’s just the actual boardwalk area. The rest of the city is really just a shanty town, like Hollywood, California. Kind of run down, with cheesy bars, pawn shops, and cheap motels. Just like me to go for the seamy underside of things, isn't it?

And speaking of Hollywood, the first time I was there, I was walking near Hollywood and Vine when I heard a man calling out, "Ten ninety-five! Fresh cut today!" I turned the corner to see him standing there selling mechanical severed hands that were slowly crawling around the sidewalk! But I digress.

Casino-intensive beach area of Atlantic City, NJ (ref.)

Atlantic City is like any other large town - its got laundromats, supermarkets, and ...cemeteries. People certainly don’t associate this beach resort with cemeteries, but such things are a part of life, right? Though you won't find it listed in the tour guide, a two hundred year old city (est. 1854), must have one. Established in 1865, its respectable Victorian-era, non-sectarian cemetery is rather off the beaten path. It’s actually on the mainland (AC itself is on Absecon Island), outside the main city area - in Pleasantville, NJ, to be specific (see map). The two-block long by two-block wide cemetery is nestled between the AC Expressway and the Black Horse Pike (Route 40). I was there back in 2005 and it is definitely worth a visit.

Though I didn't realize it at the time, this short visit to the AC Cemetery provided me with several jumping-off spots for what became related interests of mine – voodoo dolls, mausoleum stained glass, and fraternal organizations in cemeteries. Perhaps it was this Ganesh I came across which removed certain artistic obstacles for me, took the blinders from my eyes, as it were.
Jersey cemeteries - maybe not oddly -  are the only places I’ve ever personally seen dolls, dead chickens, candles, and other ritualistic voodoo-type accouterments. So here's a photo of the doll I came across in the AC Cemetery. You can't see it up close, but the fabric is printed with moons and stars. People do tend jump to the worst conclusion when they see such things, which is not necessarily warranted. We fear what we don’t understand. And I for one, didn’t understand the severed hands sticking up all over the cemetery (top photo). They freaked me out.
A ritual evocation of the Voodoo gods and spirits of the dead can be for good purposes as well as for evil. We’re just used to what we see on television, when we really know nothing about any of the various African-derived religions like Santeria and Vodun. However, with Western culture based heavily on movies and television (used to be the other way around), it’s easy to see how peoples’ imaginations can run wild.

It amuses me to see people’s reactions to such things. As I was walking through a cemetery in Camden, NJ back around 1997, I saw a dead chicken on a grave and mentioned this idly to my fifteen-year-old daughter as we walked by. She thought I was joking and physically JUMPED back when she actually saw it! If you search the Web for “Voodoo dolls in cemetery,” you’ll find lots of sensationalistic accounts. Headlines like, "Scouts Find Voodoo Dolls at St. Petersburg Cemetery" are sure to sell papers. This particular one in fact, is quite amusing:

"They looked nothing like dolls," said Bryan McDonough, 12. "They were kind of like ugly creatures that would eat you alive," added his 10-year-old brother, Kevin, a Webelos Cub Scout. - St. Petersburg Times, 2008
Even better than newspaper headlines are the dramatic-to-the-point-of-ridiculous television news stories, like this one from ABC, “Voodoo Dolls Found at Gravesite,” an account of jars of voodoo items found buried under a guy’s headstone in Houston, Texas.

Another item of interest I found and photographed in Atlantic City Cemetery is this broken stained glass window. The place has a smattering of mausoleums on one side. Up to that point in time, I’d never given mausoleums in general much notice. I knew they had stained glass windows and ornate metal doors, but I saw nothing photo-worthy in them. Call it a flaw in my personality. Enter the Ganesh. I guess what drew me to this particular structure was the unusual fact that the stained glass window was on the FRONT of the building, rather than the back, and its glass was smashed, its leading mangled. I guess I’m drawn to the forlorn and damaged more so than to the pretty and preserved. This came to be the beginning of my interest in stained glass mausoleum windows (many of which you can see in my "Mausoleum Stained Glass" album on my Facebook site, Ed Snyder’s StoneAngels Photography). I even wrote a blog about Photographing Mausoleum Stained Glass back in March, 2011.

Oh and the severed hands sticking up all over the cemetery? I found one that still had the Odd Fellows symbol on it - the interlocking rings at the fingertips with the letters "FLT." Mystery solved. I didn't know what it meant at the time, but I later looked it up, which is one of the most interesting things about Cemetery Travel - unravelling these little mysteries that confront you. "FLT" stands for Friendship, Love, and Truth, one of the symbols used by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a benevolent and social society (fraternal organization) which had its origin in England in the 1700s. The local lodge number is written on the palm in this photo.

So for me, the hour-long stopover at Atlantic City Cemetery with my ex-girlfriend was productive, informative, and inspiring. We later went surfing. Feels weird to have written that now, years later, as my two-year-old daughter falls asleep in my arms. Memory surely is not a simple recollection of the facts, is it now? Noted author Brillat-Savarin (see his book below, The Physiology of Taste, 1825) believed that one’s personal experience becomes wrapped up in, and affects how one remembers certain "facts." Remembering is, in part, reliving the situation. Its more than just, "Here's a picture of a voodoo doll I once found." A seemingly short visit to a cemetery can remind you of who you were, and help you to see your present life more clearly.

 For Further Reading: