Monday, March 26, 2012

Shooting Film, by Accident

I put myself through an interesting little photographic exercise last week. I call it “Forgetting your digital cameras and being forced to use film.” I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

Last week I planned to spend an hour at West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.  I threw the photo gear in the trunk of my car and drove the ten miles or so out to the cemetery on a gorgeous Spring day. Well, when I arrived, I realized all I had in the trunk of the car were my Nikon F3 and a couple of Holgas – nothing digital! Not even a camera phone! How could I have done this? Well, when you have the attention span of a gnat, it’s rather easy (so many cemeteries, so little time!). I’m actually surprised it doesn’t happen to me more often.

I had to decide whether to a make a go of it or come back another time. After a moment of reflection, I decided to accept my fate − I crossed the Rubicon. After all, prior to the digital revolution, I had lived for thirty years on the film side of the Rubicon! How difficult could it be?

If you are as skilled at shooting film as you are using digital, the only major annoyance is that you cannot immediately upload your image files to Facebook, email them to friends, or play with them in Photoshop. You need to get the film developed and scanned. This takes at least days, if not weeks! Luckily I have a wonderful photo processing lab within walking distance of where I work in center city Philadelphia – Philadelphia Photographics (and yes, they accept mail order). They do high quality work fast and cheap, so I got my scanned negatives back in a few days. The images from that day are sprinkled throughout this article (square ones are from 120mm film in the Holga, vertical images from the Nikon).

Film Can be Annoying!

There are a number of minor annoyances associated with film:
  • There is no instant feedback via an LCD display to show you how badly you messed up. 
  • Your ISO is limited to the film you just loaded in the camera. 
  • You have a finite number of images on a roll of film.  
  • It’s expensive to get film processed, printed, and/or scanned – not to mention time-consuming. 

Holga image, West River Drive
However, if you turn those annoyances around, they can easily be seen as advantages (I can rationalize just about anything). Not knowing what you’ve just shot (and whether anything will come out) can add an element of nervous excitement and surprise to your work (still, do yourself a favor and bracket your exposures!) Having to choose a film with appropriate speed for your lighting conditions makes you appreciate the flexibility of digital, where one image can be made at ISO 100 and the next at 1600. (I had to forgo some great mausoleum stained glass images as I had chosen to use 100 speed film.) Having a finite number of exposures (36 for my Nikon SLR and 12 in my Holga) forced me to pace myself and make each shot count.

I realized at the outset that I would have to concentrate on not wasting film − essentially by composing shots, focusing critically, and metering for proper exposure. These are things we tend not to bother with anymore – we just set the digital on auto and blast off a string of images.

What I Learned Using My Film Cameras

Having shot both film and digital for the past seven years, I have become quite reliant on digital for my documentary and snapshot images, using only the more expensive film gear for serious work. It is amazing that in 2012 you still need to spend thousands of dollars on digital equipment in order to replicate the image quality of a five-dollar disposable film camera with ISO 100 film! 

Film Cameras and Lenses

And speaking of image quality, my Holgas create fabulous lo-fi distortion that would cost hundreds of dollars in DSLR attachments to replicate. My Nikon F3 SLR has a lens assortment that is unparalleled in my digital world. I never purchased digital equivalents of my 28mm or 55mm Macro Nikkor lenses, as the cost would be astronomical. So it was with great pleasure that I got to use a true wide angle and a sharp macro that focuses down to an inch! The vertical image of the names on the Irish memorial was made with the 28mm lens – not something I could have done with my 28mm - 135mm digital lens (whose wide end has about a 38mm film lens equivalency). [That conversion business is rather complicated – I have a good explanation of it in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, available from]


The Nikon F3 has a fabulously big, bright viewfinder that makes manual focusing a joy. Digital doesn’t come close. Unless you’ve shot film extensively, you wouldn’t remember that old film lenses had nearly a full-barrel focus rotation (from close-up to infinity), meaning you have very critical control over the exact focus of your image. Digital lenses typically don’t allow that – in an effort to drain less battery power as a lens auto-focuses, lens manufacturers have minimized the barrel rotation distance from close-up to infinity. So if you’ve ever tried to manually focus a “digital” lens, you quickly realize it’s next to impossible – the range of barrel rotation from close-up to infinity is usually only a quarter of the full 360-degree rotation.  

Depth of Field

Shooting with my fast “film” lenses also gives me much better control over depth of field. That is, I can shoot at f2 and have certain objects in focus while making those in the background blurry. This is usually not possible with digital cameras, since the lenses aren’t as fast. For other optical reasons, point-and-shoot digitals are notorious for having an infinite depth of field (everything from 3 feet to Mars is sharply in focus), which you really don’t want all the time. (Manufacturers have begun making faster digital lenses; however, they are very expensive. An f2.8 28mm “digital” version of my Nikkor film lens costs $500!)

More about Film

Mausoleum at 28mm
There are mysteries and dangers involved in film use. The mystery is whether or not your film will come out the way you want it to. The danger, that you have far less control over salvaging a bad film image than you do a digital one (photo editing programs can manipulate the extensive digital information of a RAW or JPEG file much more effectively than they can the relatively limited digital information acquired from a scanned negative). Also, slide film (which I use) has far less exposure latitude (has higher contrast) than digital images so it’s way more difficult to tweak a scanned Ektachrome image if you need to make minor adjustments in a photo editing program. (The images you see here were made on Kodak Ektachrome color slide and Kodak T-Max 100 black and white films).

Changing film slows you down. Another way to look at this is it forces you not to burst off ten digital images of everything you see! Multiply this by different angles, different exposures, and choosing monochrome and color, and you can easily see how people can shoot twenty digital images of the same scene. Since a roll of film holds way fewer images than a memory card, film forces you to concentrate on the final image. So as an alternative to ripping off a burst of twenty digital snapshots, why not just concentrate on making one good photograph? (I write about this in the chapter, “Possibilities Beyond the Snapshot,” in Digital Photography for the Impatient.) There really is no need to fill up all those hard drives with bad photos, now is there?

One last thing about film: unless you’re using a full-frame DSLR (in the five thousand dollar range), the resolution of your digital images is far lower than what you get with film. When I shoot a roll of 120mm film in my twenty-five-dollar Holga, I get resolution comparable to that created by a $40,000 medium format digital camera. Film has INFINITE resolution. Forget that 2300 x 3400 pixel stuff – film grain is analog and infinite!

Epilogue (Rest in Peace?):  

"Kodak stops producing slide film due to lack of demand" (March 3, 2012)

Purchase Ed's book,  “Digital Photography for the Impatient,” from

Friday, March 16, 2012

Beachcombing in Hell – The Gravestones of Monument Cemetery

Well this is a new experience for me – I just uploaded twenty-five names and dates to the website "" for Philadelphia’s defunct Monument Cemetery. I’ll add photos of the headstones this week. 

I recently found myself in a strange situation - well, stranger than usual. After publishing two blogs last year about the remains of Philadelphia’s aforementioned (demolished) 28,000-grave Victorian-era cemetery, I received an overwhelming number of comments and questions. These ranged from anger and indignation at the very idea of paving over a cemetery, to pleas from readers looking for traces of lost ancestors. 

I’m not going to dwell on the how’s and why’s of that situation for this blog - you can read about all that in my previous postings (The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery [April  2011] and How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed [May 2011]). The short story is that in 1956, Monument Cemetery was condemned and leveled by the City of Philadelphia so that Temple University could build a parking lot. Thousands of monuments, tombstones, and other grave markers were dumped into the Delaware River, later used as part of the foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge. The human remains were re-interred in mass graves at Lawnview Cemetery, in the northeast section of the city.

Comments on my postings ranged from intense moral outrage to defense of the project by Temple sympathizers. There were questions about how to access the cemetery records (as I had done) at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and there were people wondering if I photographed any of their ancestors’ headstones. Regardless of your position or interest level, this heap of marble and granite at the river’s edge tells a very human story.

From a memorial at Lawnview Cemetery, Rockledge, PA
When I received the following comment from a reader, I realized that people might be interested in the names and dates on the stones piled under the bridge:
While their graves may never be found, their information would be of great interest to family, historians, and genealogists.
Betsy Ross Bridge
At one point during the year, a Facebook friend of mine posted three of my photographs on the “Find A Grave” website (which boasts records of 77 million grave records worldwide). To my surprise, someone had already taken the time to log in 747 names of those buried in Monument Cemetery, but unlike those of most other entries, none of these included a photograph of the gravestone.

Frankford Creek enters Delaware River
Therefore, I decided to make another trip, for the sole purpose of recording names and dates, and uploading them to “Find A Grave.” Names and photographs are important to people, they are tangible links to the past. So at the beginning of March, 2012, I trekked out to the Bridesburg section of Philadelphia near the Tioga Marine Terminal on the Delaware River.

To be honest, my first visit to the water’s edge was to gawk at the piles of tombstones like they were some sideshow attraction. Many people have. I even received one email from people who had “reached it via jetski rather than by land” - an adventure outing.  For a good idea of what you must go through to reach this remote and squalid area of riverfront, check out this YouTube video: The Local Frontier: The Lost Cemetery. I’m sure you’ll agree with the narrator, that “Death remains the final frontier.

So armed with some cameras, a weapon, and my friend Bob, I parked outside the gate labeled “Private Property” and cut into the woods through a break in the fence. It’s about a fifteen minute walk through the thicket along the muddy Frankford Creek, opposite the abandoned PECO power plant.  The homeless have set up an encampment here. About six tarp-tents lay in our path, with a few people sitting in front of them. “What do you want?” asked one of them as we walked through their midst. “Just passing through,” was Bob’s reply, and to me, it seemed as though we would indeed be passing through a number of peoples’ lives.

It’s a chancy undertaking, this short journey to the water. You never know what, or who, you may run into. But as author Neil Gaiman says in his novel, The Graveyard Book, "If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained. When you get to the Delaware River, you must negotiate your way down the twelve-foot embankment, which is literally a jumble of granite monuments sticking out of the ground. You throw yourself against the big tree whose roots have grown around Dr. Charles Ayer’s headstone. You step on the bluish granite Lunney family grave marker as you maneuver yourself down to the water’s edge.

Monuments in foreground
It’s low tide, so you can see more of the Witham monument that is typically underwater. As you walk along the shore, you can easily lose your footing on pieces of wet marble monuments, bricks, iron fencing, and glass. Climbing around the five-hundred pound granite monument chunks, you catch glimpses of names on stones sticking out of the mire. Bob called it “beachcombing in Hell” as he picked up fragments of tombstones and bits of old funerary ceramic.

I spent about two hours photographing the faces of as many whole tombstones and monuments as I could find. The list below consists of 25 names that appear on 17 separate stones:

Ayers, Charles A. , M.D. (1851 – 1913)
Classey, Robert (Died Jan. 16, 1855) and Jane Classey (Died Dec. 12, 1888)(“Father and Mother”); James W. Classey (Died Aug. 5, 1891) (“Son of the Above, Brother”)
Cousley, Andrew (Born April 15, 1861 – Died Dec. 28, 1895) “Husband” and Cousley, Margaret (1856 – 1934) “Wife”
Eppelscheimer, Amanda, Died 1918 and Eppelscheimer, (Name obscured) Died 1924
Green, Bartholomew (1853 – 1906)
Heilman, William Henry (1846 – 1909) (“Late Captain 15th U.S. Infantry, Born Philadelphia, Pennsylvania”)
Heilman, Magdalena (1818 – 1906)
Irons, Mary H. (1823 – 1917) (“Wife of Capt. Babel H. Irons”)
Leeman, Adelia Harriet (1854 - 1901)
Leeman, Mary Ann (1829 - 1894)
Lunney, James, “Died 1883, Aged 67 Years” (1816 – 1883) and Mary, “Wife of James Lunney, Died 1892”
Mortimoore, Charles (July 17, 1817 – May 2, 1873) and Catharine (Feb. 9, 1818 – Jan. 11, 1889); Phoebe  “Born Dec. 26, 1789, Died Jan. 19, 1861.”
Platt, Mary Leeman (1857 – 1893) and Charles C. (1853 – 1929)
Sagee, Mary F. (1853 - 1931) (“Daughter of Francis and Anne J. Sagee” )
Stark, James, “Departed This Life March 9, 1890, Aged 42 Years” (1848 - 1890)
Witham, (Name obscured) (1840 – 1909)
Wright, Harrison G. “Husband, Died May 3, 1881, Aged 36 Years, Rest in Peace” (1845 - 1881)

Alas, I found none of the names that descendants had asked me to look for. The odds, of course, were not in my favor – 25 names out of the original 28,000 people buried at Monument is a drop in the bucket. But hey, these 25 names may be beneficial to someone someday, since I’ve just added them to the list of people in the Monument Cemetery section of the “Find A Grave” site (see link at end of article), which now totals  772 entries. Doing so also gave me an appreciation for the tremendous amount of work other people have exerted inputting all this data.

Author on Tombstones
Low tide was at noon that day, and a couple hours later, Bob was surprised to see the tide obviously coming in. And when I say “tide,” I mean the filthy, oil-slicked sluice of this River Styx.  He'd thought I was joking when I told him that we needed to be here at noon. Rivulets of dark water snaked in over the twenty feet of muck that temporarily separated land from sea.  It was like watching time leak through from the past. Soon the broken bottles, rusting bits of metal, and low-lying headstones would be covered. All these people have had their lives - these people whose names appear in chiseled stone. The names would be obscured until the next low tide, but because of current public interest in what happened to Monument Cemetery, their memory lives on in ways they never could have expected.

References and Further Reading:

Ed Snyder's blogs on Monument Cemetery:
The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery [April  2011]
How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed [May 2011]

The Local Frontier: The Lost Cemetery (YouTube video)
Find A Grave website:  Listings for burials at Monument Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"The Lonely Bones" (A Film)

Last week a good friend sent me the following one-line email: “Since you like cemeteries … a brother of a friend did this.” Attached was a press release announcing the world premier of a film called, The Lonely Bones. Apparently Dave knew the film maker’s brother, and although Dave didn't realize it, I knew the film maker.

Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ
A year or so ago I drove into the pseudo-abandoned Evergreen Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey, only to find a man and a teenage boy (turned out to be his son) near the entrance working a video camera on a tall tripod. Given the fact that during recent visits to Evergreen, I’ve either avoided drug dealers or have been propositioned by prostitutes, this was a welcome change. 

Johnson Cemetery "Park"
Curious, I introduced myself and briefly asked what they were up to. The man, Kevin Walker, explained that he was making a documentary about another abandoned Camden cemetery – Johnson Cemetery on the other side of town – and he needed some background footage. I wished him luck and was quite appreciative that he told me about Johnson, which he referred to as “Needle Park.” Subsequently, I made two visits to the Johnson Cemetery which you can read about in my two blog postings: Abandoned Cemetery ... or just Repurposed?  and Lost Civil War Graves of the Johnson Cemetery

Jacob Johnson marker
After seeing Johnson, I realized why Mr. Walker needed background footage – Johnson no longer looks like a cemetery. This former burial ground for African-American Civil War veterans had fallen into such a sad state of disrepair that Camden, um, turned it into a park in the early 1980s. Graves were supposedly moved to other area cemeteries and the land planted with grass and park benches. The thing that really weirded me out was the fact that the old headstones were lying flat in the grass face up, like so many paving stones in a garden walkway. The only upright stone was this rectangular marble hunk with "Jacob Johnson, Died 1890" engraved on it.

Trash, dirt, leaves, and empty liquor bottles covered most of the flush headstones I found during my first visit. When I returned a couple weeks later, I met two women who were uncovering and cleaning off the stones. They actually dug them out of the ground, scraping an inch or so of soil and debris off each one. All they had was a plastic windshield ice scraper, and their camera battery had died. They asked me if I would photograph the names on the stones and send them the images, which I did. They were doing genealogical research, looking for links in their ancestral tree.

Civil War Veteran Headstone at Johnson Cemetery Park
As we cleaned off the stones, we noticed a dual arc pattern in which the stones had been laid, which made it easier to predict where to unearth the next stone. In all, I think we found about thirty. I was extremely curious about the cemetery and why it was turned into a "park," but information on the Internet is rather sketchy. This is why I so look forward to seeing Kevin Walker's film. When I contacted him, he was quite gracious and provided me with certain information you'll read in this article. Have a look at his movie trailer on YouTube, “The Lonely Bones: The Official Trailer.” I think you'll agree the movie needs to be seen.

The Lonely Bones will have its world premier at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on March 25, 2012. Here's a bit of Kevin's promotional information:

"The Lonely Bones ... focuses on tiny Johnson Cemetery in East Camden.  Johnson holds the remains of over 120 members of the United States Colored Troops, the African American soldiers who fought valiantly for the Union during the Civil War.  Instead of being an object of veneration, however, the long-neglected cemetery has become a needle park -- a site strewn with bottles, debris and the discards of the drug trade.  'Unfortunately,' says Walker, 'what has happened to Johnson Cemetery is symptomatic of the broader problems facing Camden and urban America in general. I have tried to use the cemetery as a kind of trope to examine those issues.

Camden Radio and Film Works
“The Lonely Bones”

... A struggling city tries to reclaim its past …

When the nation called, they answered. Nearly 200,000 of them -- freemen and emancipated slaves -- flocked to the Union cause. Known as the United States Colored Troops, they fought valiantly during the Civil War.  They dispelled racial stereotypes and, in the view of many historians, helped propel passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, conferring civil rights on black citizens.
But today, the memory of scores of black Civil War veterans from New Jersey -- their legacy -- lies buried on another battlefield.

                                The Lonely Bones, Kevin Walker’s 30-minute documentary, focuses on tiny Johnson Cemetery in East Camden.  Johnson holds the remains of over 120 members of the United States Colored Troops.  Instead of being an object of veneration, however, the long-neglected cemetery has become a needle park -- a site strewn with bottles, debris and the detritus of the drug trade. A small group of activists and historians want to change that.  They see in Johnson’s salvation, the salvation of an entire city.

I look forward to seeing Kevin’s film. Personally, it might provide insight as to why I am drawn to abandoned cemeteries.

Further Reading:

Purchase tickets to see The Lonely Bones at the Garden State Film Festival
YouTube link to: “The Lonely Bones: The Official Trailer.”

Johnson Cemetery blog postings by Ed Snyder on The Cemetery Traveler:
Abandoned Cemetery ... or just Repurposed?
Lost Civil War Graves of the Johnson Cemetery

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Witch's Heads in the Holy Rood Cemetery

"Holy Rood Cemetery has all the looks of a haunted graveyard. Perched at the crest of a hill and held above Wisconsin Avenue by a stone wall, the cemetery looks from the street like the setting of an Edgar Allen Poe thriller." - Holy Rood: A Cemetery With a Tell-Tale Heart

One of the very first cemetery angel photographs I ever made was this one, possibly around 1998. I was tramping around the cemeteries in the Georgetown area of Washington, D.C., and came across the “Holy Rood Cemetery” on Wisconsin Avenue. Having not a clue what a “Rood” was (Holy or otherwise), I went inside. I remember walking around the hilly place, most of it knee-high with weeds, and finding this solitary angel. The grounds were in deplorable condition and the angel seemed frozen in the act of beseeching the Heavens for help.

The idea of an unkempt cemetery was not a concept with which I was familiar at the time. It kind of baffled me - the broken fence, the scrappy sign, tombstones knocked over in the high weeds. I never thought to write about Holy Rood, since I only actually got one photograph from there, and it was kind of a nondescript place. However, I recently came across some interesting material on the cemetery while I was looking up other things.

The reason I only have one photograph is because I improperly exposed the entire roll of film I shot there. Back then I was shooting black and white film, Kodak Tech-Pan to be exact, an unwieldy film that rarely gave me more than a few good images. Kodak Tech-Pan was extremely unusual − you could expose it at any ISO between 25 and 320, and what varied was not so much the grain, but the CONTRAST. The lower the ISO, the finer the grain, the lower the contrast. At ISO 25, it was the world’s finest grain black and white film. The roll I shot at Holy Rood was at high contrast ISO 320 in bright sunlight. I over-exposed everything. Somehow, the angel survived (possibly because of the ability of the film to capture celestial bodies? It was in fact very popular with astronomers!).

At the time, I had no idea this cemetery had such a tumultuous history. Holy Rood is the English way of pronouncing  the Scottish haly ruid, or holy cross, and this cemetery certainly has a cross to bear. The cemetery was established by Georgetown’s Holy Trinity Church in 1832, and was predominantly Irish Catholic. Over the years Georgetown's founding fathers have been buried here, alongside German and Irish immigrants, former slaves, and Revolutionary War veterans. When the church joined the archdiocese of Washington in 1942, the cemetery was given to Georgetown University.

The land on which the cemetery was located was extremely valuable to the university, and a plan was set forth to move the bodies and develop the land. This raised the ire of plot owners and historians alike, so the idea was shelved. The university to this day has been stuck between a tombstone and a hard place - it would certainly like to use the land for expansion (like Temple University did in Philadelphia in 1953, when it condemned nearby Monument Cemetery so it could build a parking lot), but it does not want to risk another public black eye. As a result, this unenthused cemetery owner puts forth minimal effort to maintain the place. As a result, it is an overgrown, dilapidated mess. The homeless set up camp inside and deer give birth to their fawns here - thus we have contradictory life among the dead, as described by John Gillis in his 2011 article, "Holy Rood: A Cemetery with a Tell-Tale Heart." 
“The patchy, browning grass is dotted with headstones and funeral monuments, which are mostly toppled over or sinking into the ground.  Weeds break through the asphalt path that winds around the hilly graveyard.  Leaves remain unraked, and untrimmed bushes overwhelm gravestones. “ - Six Feet Under GU
 In 1931, Holy Trinity’s original cemetery was discovered during a construction project on Georgetown University’s main campus (currently the site of its Reiss Science Center). By this time the church had long ago filled it up and had been using the larger Holy Rood Cemetery, about ten blocks away. For the next twenty years, the old original graveyard went untouched.

“Just a few years after being unexpectedly uncovered, the graveyard also became an established part of campus lore. In February of 1939, The Hoya ran an article claiming that a century earlier “the burial place was a playground of strange apparitions known as ‘Witch’s Heads.’ On hot nights, ‘transparent, luminous globes’ floated over the cemetery, terrorizing students.
The Hoya’s explanation for these ‘Witch’s Heads’ was that at the time, bodies were buried unembalmed in crude coffins, so their decomposition released gases, particularly phosphorous, that seeped through the ground and would hover above the graves.” - Georgetown Voice, 10/29/2009

In 1953, the land on which the smaller cemetery was located was developed to make way for the new science center. Many of the graves were moved to Holy Rood. I imagine the Witch’s Heads disappeared after the bodies were reinterred, since they usually place the crumbling coffins and bones in a new box, or a concrete crypt. [The photo above is actually from Mt. Moriah Cemetery in West Philadelphia; when I read the piece about the hovering (yellow) phosphorus, I immediately thought of this image.]

Holy Rood Cemetery was closed to new burials in 1984. As of 2011, there are no plans to develop the land, nor is there any upkeep done to the cemetery.  It is just one of countless small graveyards (and even some very large cemeteries) in the U.S. that exist in a limbo of disrepair. A glimmer of hope exists, however, for Holy Rood - there is currently discussion among parishioners of Holy Trinity Church to negotiate with Georgetown University to have the cemetery returned so that improvements can be made.

"Holy Rood is no longer an operational cemetery. It is in very sad repair, although there has been an  improvement in grounds keeping in the past few years.Numerous gravestones are destroyed or  overturned." - Holy Rood Cemetery  Gravestone Transcriptions

References and Further Reading: