Saturday, April 16, 2011

Colma Cemeteries and Points Beyond

California in the Spring of 2008, I spent some time shooting the cemeteries of Colma (a southern suburb of San Francisco). Yes, I know − normal people would visit Fisherman’s Wharf or the Golden Gate, but Colma is a wonderful place if you do cemetery photography. I made it a point to shoot at the edges of the day, since that’s when you get the best shadows, the best depth effect for black and white images. The first day I shot in the afternoon, the second in the morning.

Colma is a city of cemeteries − San Fran’s official cemetery, in fact − truly a city of the dead. Unlike New Orleans, Colma’s dead population outnumbers its living by a thousand to one! Within the town’s two square miles are 18 cemeteries  − 17 for humans and one for pets. The city’s live population consists of about 1500 people (2010 census) while its dead number 1.5 million.  Certain notables are buried here, including William Randolph Hearst, Wyatt Earp, Vince Guaraldi, and Joe DiMaggio. However, what really interested me in Colma was the Poole monument at Cypress Lawn Cemetery (Jennie Roosevelt Poole was a cousin of president Theodore Roosevelt.). This weeping angel (above) captured my interest ten years before when I first saw a photo of it in Doug Keister’s book, Going Out in Style. Its beauty enthralled me, and as I would be in the area, I had to see it in person.

Though I visited several cemeteries in Colma during my two-day stay, my sights were set primarily on the Poole monument. The statue itself did not disappoint, though it was difficult to photograph. This beautiful white marble sculpture is on a hill of sorts, and I could have used a stepladder to get a better angle. Also, the first day I was there, the weather was a bit dismal and there were sprinklers on near the statue! That’s a drawback with these lovely well-maintained garden cemeteries. The first day I also photographed in nearby Hoy Sun Ning Yung Cemetery and The Italian Cemetery. I planned my return the next morning in an attempt to photograph the Poole angel, sans sprinklers. (You don’t think Ansel Adams got that shot of Half Moon Dome on his first visit to Yosemite, do you?)

That first day, I found the Italian Cemetery to be a marvelous place, full of wonderfully detailed monuments. It’s really your best bet for close-up work, like this image at left. The following day, I spent many hours at Cypress Lawn and Holy Cross Cemeteries, Colma’s two largest. They’re essentially across the street from each other − or rather, across the El Camino Real. Everything around here is so steeped in history, it gives you a feeling of limitless creativity. As writer Christopher Buckley says about California, “You can be anything you want to there as long as you don’t mind being stuck in traffic.

Cypress Lawn Cemetery, Colma, CA
Holy Cross Angel
Now, you wouldn’t think two square miles of cemeteries is a lot of ground to cover. However, after two half-days, I was only able to visit the few I mentioned. In addition to the Poole monument, Cypress Lawn is as close as you’ll get to an east coast Victorian garden cemetery, with its grand sweeping vistas, large monuments, ornate mausoleums, and a columbarium that left me utterly speechless. Holy Cross, the first of Colma’s cemeteries (1887), was the initial recipient of the mass exodus of dead San Franciscans when that city decided to move all its cemeteries outside the city limits. Holy Cross features a Googie-inspired receiving chapel (which must be seen to be believed) and a community mausoleum that was featured in a the 1971 cult movie classic, Harold and Maude.  Surrounding these imposing structures are 300 acres of densely packed religious iconography − so many angels that, as Mark Twain would say, you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one.

And speaking of Twain, back in 1850 when he worked as a reporter for Nevada’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper, he levied this strong opinion about San Francisco cemeteries:

"A prominent firm of undertakers here own largely in Lone Mountain Cemetery and also in the toll-road leading to it. Now if you or I owned that toll-road we would be satisfied with the revenue from a long funeral procession and would "throw in" the corpse--we would let him pass free of toll − we would wink placidly at the gate-keeper and say, "Nevermind this gentleman in the hearse − this fellow's a dead-head." But the firm I am speaking of never do that--if a corpse starts to Paradise or perdition by their road he has got to pay his toll or else switch off and take some other route. And it is rare to see the pride this firm take in the popularity and respectability of their cemetery, and the interest and even enthusiasm which they display in their business." − Mark Twain (

As a result of the Gold Rush of 1849, many saw California as the land of opportunity and flocked to Sacramento and San Francisco. By the late 1800s, the latter was becoming so developed that its government leaders decided the land was too valuable to be wasted on the dead:

"...eviction notices were sent out to all cemeteries to remove their bodies and monuments. Colma then inherited hundreds of thousands of bodies. Many went into mass graves as there were no relatives to pay the $10.00 for removal."  (

San Fransisco's cemeteries were closed, with a parade of hundreds of thousands of bodies headed for Colma. Colma became San Fransisco’s official burial space and in 1900, the City and County of San Francisco passed an ordinance that there were to be no more burials allowed in San Francisco. Although the monuments and tombstones from the original cemeteries were dumped in San Francisco Bay, the angels did not totally disappear − I found this one painted on a wall in Haight-Ashbury.

Poole Angel (double exposure)
Back to my photographic travels. My second day plan was to do a morning shoot in Holy Cross and Cypress Lawn (hopefully capturing the Poole Angel without the sprinkler) then a departure for other photographic pursuits. I did mange to get some reasonable images of the Poole Angel that day, although Keister did it better. (In emulating the masters, we learn from them.) Afterward, I wanted to head south to Carmel and Point Lobos, near Big Sur, to shoot not stone angels, but another kind of stone on the rocky coast. Before I became interested in shooting cemetery statuary, I was a nature photographer. In this prior life, I loved shooting landscapes and such, but when I moved from upstate New York to Philadelphia, I found the latter to be totally devoid of nature! I was photographically stalled for years. All that said, it wasn’t necessarily the California landscape that drew me, but rather the aura of Edward Weston.

Santa Cruz Roadside
Carmel, California is about 130 miles south of San Fran, which I allowed 3 hours to reach. Unfortunately, that was barely adequate, given the traffic through Santa Cruz. The scenery was breathtaking, even at high speed − the landscape had the true coloration of an Edward Hopper painting. By the time I blasted through Monterey, it was late in the day.  Some other time, Seventeen Mile Drive − I needed to check in at the Weston Gallery before hitting the beach, Weston Beach, that is − black rocks, movie stars. Weston Beach, as they now call it, is at Point Lobos State Reserve, a couple miles south of Carmel, just above Big Sur.

Edward Weston, one of my photographer idols, lived and photographed in Carmel in the 1930s.  He kind of lived life in the fast lane, but then most great artists are a bit eccentric. (I’ll bet not many people know that one of the medium’s heavyweights, Robert Frank, was the photographer and filmmaker of the Rolling Stones’ most famous unreleased film, Cocksucker Blues.) The Weston Gallery is actually run by Weston’s family. So a visit to the gallery is sort of like vicariously spending time with Weston himself. (As an aside, one of the items in which I take greatest pride is my rejection letter from the Weston Gallery, from when I sent them some of my cemetery photography back in the early 1990s.)

Carmel-by-the-Sea could never be confused with North Jersey’s Avon-by-the-Sea (tho I love them both dearly) − it’s more like Aspen, Colorado, a high-end retail resort. But you can ignore all that and enjoy the Weston Gallery, the pearl of the town. The gentleman running the gallery was very friendly, despite the fact that he knew I wasn’t going to plunk down ten grand for a Weston print. When I eventually told him I was headed for Point Lobos, he said, “You’d better hurry, fog’s going to be rolling in soon.” Panic. Run. Drive fast. Bear in mind last visit to CA when you almost pancaked the rental T-Bird into stalled traffic on the PCH. 

One of Weston’s passions was photographing the stones at a particular beach at Point Lobos. Sounds absurd, but then, you never saw such stones. I’d seen the photos, and was intrigued, but I was totally unprepared for what this place looks like in real life. It’s like another planet. I’m not sure such rock formations exist anywhere else on earth. And it all looks so fragile, weirdly eroded smooth rock held together by sandy grit. How could this all not just wash away? (See Weston Gallery Website for examples.)

Weston Beach, Point Lobos
Weston Beach is within Point Lobos State Reserve. A couple miles south of Carmel, you come upon the park entrance. You drive maybe a mile through the woods to the Pacific, where you can get out and walk around. I got there toward the end of the day, and the air was misty. I shot some digital images, but felt that was a bit sacrilegious. The light was too dim to use my Holga, so I shot a roll of 35mm slide film. I walked around for about two hours, photographing here and there, mostly taking in the ambiance of the place. As the light faded, I thought about Weston shooting at the edges of the day. I was torn between spending this last hour of daylight either soaking it all in, or trying to capture it in photographs.

Toward the end, I felt a bit of what Weston must have felt every day he was there, when the light faded to the point where you could no longer photograph. I think it was the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had in my life, feeling as he must have felt amidst this stunning natural beauty. You want to make hundreds of photographs of the rocks, try to capture the limitless abstract shapes and details. But then heaven’s curtain begins to close on you. I wonder if Weston ever felt he truly captured the images for which he strived so hard?  I think it’s a bit like the feeling I had of not getting the perfect shot of the Poole Angel. So close to elation, but never attaining it − like searching for the Grail.  As the fog slowly enveloped everything, it was time to release the doves and go home.

Ed at Weston Beach

Further Reading:

Colma History.Org
Bella Morte Website, truly wonderful firsthand walk-thru accounts of each of Colma's cemeteries
Video, Nancy and Michael Visit Colma, City of Cemeteries
Robert Frank NPR story, "The Americans - The Book that Changed Photography"
Cypress Lawn Cemetery
Weston Gallery Website