Sunday, August 12, 2012

Cemetery Photography Gone Mainstream?

I was rather surprised to find an article in the August 2012 issue of Popular Photography entitled "Plot Shots  – Cemeteries, where heavenly photos await." Written by Jeff Wignall, the article is interesting for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it reinforces what many of us have known for years – that cemeteries provide a “rich mix of interesting photo subjects.” In addition, it’s written to appeal to the “travel photographer.” One of the best ways to stimulate photographic creativity is to put yourself in a fresh new setting – different things just look more interesting than familiar things.

August 2012 issue
Accompanying the single-page article (on page 40) is an image of the famous “weeping angel” statue, photographed by Laura McElroy. I assume the statue was located at the Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans (Chapman H. Hyams Tomb), since that’s where the article says McElroy shoots extensively. The Atlanta-based photographer describes angels as her favorite subject, though she finds there to be many other types of cemetery statuary that allow her to  evoke the emotions of “mystery, sadness, curiosity, or hope.”

I checked McElroy’s ATL Flickr site and found the published image (which you can see here with several other fine examples of her work). 

As a travel article, the piece mentions several of the “most photographed” cemeteries in the United States. These include: Forest Lawn in Glendale, CA, Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Green-Wood in Brooklyn, NY, Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, MA, and St. Louis No. 1 in New Orleans. Having been to all but Graceland, I would concur that these are certainly top choices.

"Weeping Angel"
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t live close to any of these places. You might be surprised to find that most any cemetery can provide, as the article says, “a very calm, creative, and serene experience.” (In addition, you can find replicas of the weeping angel just about anywhere, including Conshohocken, PA, of all places, where I made the photo at left!). The author states that “Wherever people live (and die), you will find cemeteries.” True enough, but for my money, the most interesting cemeteries in the United States are in Baltimore, Maryland! They’re not as flashy as the ones listed in this article, but they have their own personality and would provide any cemetery photographer with YEARS of photographic stimulation! 

McElroy makes two interesting comments, providing us with some photographic ideas:
  1. On All Saints Day (November 1) in New Orleans, “family members practice the tradition of whitewashing tombs and, at nightfall, lighting candles on them. 
  2. When photographing in a cemetery, “keep working until you have taken six distinctly different shots of your subject.

    Fine suggestions, both of these. I like the idea of forcing yourself to take six different shots; this seems like it would help you to concentrate on good composition. Many of us get swept up in the moment when we find a cool sculpture or monument. We just fire away and end up with a mundane snapshot or a typical postcard photo. So, are all kinds of amateur photographers going to be running out to our favorite graveyards and getting in our way? Will they crowd New Orleans "cities of the dead" to capture images like EcElroy's wonderful photo of the candlelit graveyard? I doubt it. While Freud famously said that sex and death are our greatest drives, death remains much more taboo in Western society. Unlike with sex, most people prefer to marvel at death from afar.

    The Weeping Angel statue photographed by McElroy and reproduced in the Popular Photography article is one of many replicas of the original “Angel of Grief” sculpture by William Wetmore Story. The original was sculpted an 1894 and serves as the grave stone of the artist and his wife at the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, Italy. I, myself have photographed several versions of this amazing statue, including this one at Cypress Lawn Cemetery in Colma, CA. Check this Wikipedia link to see where the many replicas reside!

    Further Reading and References:

    Read more about the Hyams Angel of Grief and the New Orleans mausoleum in which it resides.

    My adventure tracking down the Cypress Lawn "Angel of Grief" in my Cemetery Traveler blog posting, "Colma Cemeteries and Points Beyond."