Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A “Stranger’s Guide” to Philadelphia’s Woodlands Cemetery

This winter in Philadelphia we’ve had an unusually high number of “snow events,” as the weathernauts have come to call them. Luckily, none of them dropped more than a few inches of snow. I’ve long been a proponent of photographing cemeteries under duress (mine, as well as theirs), so when weather hits, it becomes a “graveyard event” for me. One weekend in late January was a prime example. A small amount of snow was predicted for Friday night, and although it was expected to be colder than a well-digger’s butt on Saturday morning, I planned to head out to West Philly’s Woodlands Cemetery.

On the morning in question as I was getting ready to leave my house in South Philly, I checked the conditions and saw that about an inch had fallen and it was not actively snowing. There would be a light coating on the tombstones and I didn’t have to shoot through falling snow. Decent conditions - light dry snow, not enough to shovel or even sweep from around my house. I threw some chemical hand warmers in with my camera gear and got ready to make the twenty-minute drive to the Woodlands.

Looking out my back door, I was reminded of my stolen snow shovel from a few years back.  One wintery Friday evening it was snowing like a mother, so our friend Tom asked to stay the night. As we sat inside holed up and ordering Chinese food, Tom thought he saw someone through the glass at our back door. I figured since there really wasn’t anything worth stealing back there I didn’t even get up to look. Next morning, I was chagrined to find my snow shovel gone – with fourteen inches of snow to shovel! I closely scrutinized the hardware toted by the vagrants who came to my front door over the next few hours asking for twenty dollars to shovel my walks. Could anyone possibly have the nerve to steal my shovel and then try to charge me to shovel my walk with it? I ended up paying two neighbor kids to do the work.
Headstone, Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

But to the subject at hand: I have not spent a lot of time at the Woodlands in recent years, but I figured I should reacquaint myself with its charms as it will be one of three subjects this fall in a photography exhibit in which I will be a participant. In September and October of 2013, I along with two photographer friends will be exhibiting work at the Philadelphia Free Library (Benjamin Franklin Parkway) on “Historic Cemeteries of Philadelphia.” The exhibit will feature predominantly Laurel Hill, Woodlands, and Mount Moriah cemeteries.

As it happens, each of us had long ago and for various reasons chosen one of these cemeteries on which to concentrate, so we each have many images of these institutions spanning a ten-year period. Frank Rausch (who literally lives in Laurel Hill Cemetery), Robert Reinhardt (who has done extensive photography and research in the cemeteries of Scotland), and Ed Snyder (starring as himself), will be presenting their photography of Laurel Hill, Woodlands, and Mount Moriah, respectively.

From the photos I’ve sprinkled throughout this article, you can see that I was rather taken with the light covering of snow on everything. Rather than cover up, it seemed to accentuate small details, which I have in the past, missed. Of course, the last two times I was here it was actively snowing, so I didn’t walk around as much. From the lettering on headstones to small carvings such as the boat propeller above, the eye is drawn more to the shapes of things than their intended meaning. The geometric lines of crosses and crypt covers jump out at you, begging to be photographed. A dusting of snow on the cold shoulders of these Victorian mourning statues make them appear far more alone in their grief.

Runners at the Woodlands
It’s odd that the first things you see at the Woodlands after passing through its ornate hourglass gates are joggers, runners, dog walkers, dog runners, and track teams working out. It’s a good thing there are so many well-kept paved roads here, otherwise paths would be worn into the grass! Of the three cemeteries I mentioned, Woodlands is by far the most visited for the purpose of maintaining people's health! Due to its location in Philadelphia’s University City district, and the fact that it is very safe and well-maintained, people treat it as a getaway from the city - a park, a place to play. Oddly, this was exactly the intent of the designers and architects of the Victorian rural or “garden” cemetery, that it be a bucolic getaway from the noisy city, a place for people to enjoy themselves.
The trees that adorn the cemetery are some of them of majestic growth, leading to the scenery and the grounds the most impressive effect.  The vistas beneath the foliage, or between the separated groves, conduct the eye to distant prospects, varied on every hand, and by every change of position,; there, the spires and public buildings of the city are beheld; here, the windings of the Schuylkill [River]; and more distant, the bright surface of the Delaware [River] and the blue hills of New Jersey skirt the horizon; while flowers and shrubs are scattered plenteously around, shedding a cheery influence in shaded lawns, or among the tombs. All that taste can suggest or science demand, consistently with the solemn purpose of the place, has been added to the superior advantages already possessed.
– From "The Stranger’s Guide in Philadelphia …," 1852.

Woodlands' entrance gate
The above description of the Woodlands is excerpted from an odd 1852 travel guide of sorts, “The Stranger’s Guide in Philadelphia and its Environs: Including Laurel Hill, Woodlands, Monument, Odd Fellows, and GlenwoodCemeteries: with Illustrations.” I say odd because it’s  author is “anonymous” and various cemeteries are actually named in the title. Truly, in Victorian times, a city’s garden cemeteries were gems worth boasting about. While you really can’t see the rivers anymore due to the train tracks and power plants, nor the distant “blue hills of New Jersey,” the passage above makes you wonder what lovely Woodlands Cemetery looked like in 1854. No doubt the grounds themselves were at least as beautiful as they are today.

References and Further Investigation:
The Woodlands Cemetery website
Buy from

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Resting in Pieces Along the Delaware River

"When my earthly trials are over, cast my body in the deep blue sea;
Save all the undertaker bills, let the mermaids flirt with me."
- Mississippi John Hurt, 1966

With all this mid-winter rain we’re having, I think from time to time about Captain Babel Irons and his wife, Mary. Mary’s tombstone lies cast down at the waterline of the Delaware River in Philadelphia, under the Betsy Ross Bridge. How it got there is a long story, to which the reader is invited to relive through my past blogs on the subject (i.e. the destruction of Monument Cemetery, listed at the end of this article). No one knows the whereabouts of Captain Irons’ stone, or why Mary had a separate one.

Curiously, Captain Babel H. Irons does not swim with the fishes, even though his namesake schooner broke apart during a storm and sunk in the Delaware Bay. He died in 1872, Mary in 1917, and both were buried at Monument Cemetery. Mary ironically died of pneumonia – a disease that can produce fluid in the lungs – causing a person to effectively drown from the inside.

I entered the photograph you see above in an art competition and when the curator looked at it he said, “Perpetual Care?” Monument Cemetery, the initial resting place of Captain and Mrs. Irons, was condemned and bulldozed by the city of Philadelphia in 1956, to make room for a parking lot. Monument was the city’s second Victorian garden cemetery (after Laurel Hill in 1836), established in 1839. Its 28,000 bodies, including those of the Ironses, were supposedly relocated to Lawnview Cemetery in the Rockledge section of northeast Philadelphia. The monuments, headstones, and other grave markers were dumped into the river. So much for resting in peace.

The tide comes in and goes out twice a day on the shores of the Delaware, like twin slaps in society’s face for having so disrespectfully demolished a consecrated burial ground. This dumping ground is hardly as exotic as the “Neptune Memorial Reef,” the underwater cemetery off the coast of Miami, Florida. Philadelphia’s ragtag industrial Bridesburg section (where the tombstones reside), is a far cry from Miami Beach.

Tombstones at river's edge, lying against embankment
I used to joke with people that “Monument Cemetery is the only cemetery that demands you to consult the tide tables before you can visit.”  After publishing the blogs listed below, I received scores of emails and comments from descendants of those originally interred at Monument. What we’ve done to their memories is hardly a laughing matter. Many people need a burial spot, a headstone, some sort of tangible link to their past. Without that, they are rudderless, having nothing but ghost memories with no anchor to reality.

At high tide, the grimy water of the Delaware River is six feet above its low tide level. In the photo directly above, the water rises up to the tree roots. The dozens of headstones lying on the shore are covered at this time. Mary H. Irons’ stone is very close to the river’s edge at low tide, and is therefore one of the first to be covered when the tide comes in. It is as if the sea wants to touch her first.

On my last visit, I stood above the stone watching as the waves lapped around it, foaming the edges. The water rises surprisingly fast, if you have a marker like this by which to gauge its rise (one vertical foot per hour over a six-hour period). Reminding one of Captain Irons’ ship that sunk during a fierce storm in 1874, Mary’s stone stares at you like the final flare from a shipwreck.

Babel Irons may have been one of those sea captains who spent months at sea, but one thing is certain – he came home at least nine times while his wife was in her child-bearing years. They indeed had nine children! This, and the fact that Babel’s full name was Zorobabel (what a great name!), I learned from reading psychic Valerie Morrison’s website. Morrison and her staff have done considerable research into the lives of those people whose exposed headstones form the beach under the Betsy Ross Bridge. Her point is to show that all these people led actual lives, and should therefore be shown more respect. While Captain Irons fathered his youngest child, Sallie, at age 66, the more amazing thing is that Mary Irons gave birth to Sallie at age 45 – way past 40, considered even today (2013) as being advanced maternal age (meaning that women have difficulty becoming pregnant, and if they do, the pregnancy is more prone to complications).

Betsy Ross Bridge over Delaware River
Valerie Morrison, a Philadelphia area psychic, has taken on the task of raising public awareness to the plight of the headstones, and the memories, dumped under the Betsy Ross Bridge. She currently campaigns to have the exposed stones (of which there are about fifty) moved to a more respectful place. But the subject of her involvement (which was prompted by my photographs and research), will be covered in a future blog.

References and further Reading:

Ed Snyder's Monument Cemetery blog postings:

The Watery Remains of Monument Cemetery 

How Monument Cemetery was Destroyed

 Beachcombing in Hell – The Gravestones of Monument Cemetery

Valerie Morrison, Psychic Counselor and Medium website
CBS News: Final resting place - Cemeteries lack oversight It's R.I.P. Tide Along the Delaware River

Monday, February 11, 2013

Love and Death

This would be quite a short blog if I were to just say, “Hey, one of my photographs was used on a magazine cover, and here it is.” But you know me better than that! First let’s talk about the magazine, or more accurately, the [British] Journal of the Center for Freudian Analysis and Research. One of the editors of the JCFAR had seen my photograph, “Cupid and Psyche,” on my StoneAngels website (, and emailed me asking if the organization could use it as the cover image for their next issue of its professional journal. The issue would be published in February 2013 (the month in which I am writing this blog, the month of love, as it were), its overall theme being, “On Love.”

I of course said yes, as this would be an interesting topic of conversation between my wife and I, she being, in fact, a psychotherapist. Our worlds again collide – art and mental health (but they are closely related, right?).

Journal of the Center for Freudian Analysis and Research
Issue No.23 “On Love”  (Table of Contents):

Lucia Corti   Love Masks....
Julia Borossa   Narratives of Love
Anne Worthington   The Inequalities in Love
Werner Prall   Transference: Seduction and Transcendence
David Henderson   Where is Love?
Astrid Gessert   What Does The Woman Want? - Revisited
Alireza Taheri   Love and the Sexual Non-Rapport
Conditions of Philosophy

From the book, Stone Angels, by Ed Snyder

My own interest in the sculpture of Cupid and Psyche began with research I did in preparation for writing my Stone Angels book, which features my photograph of the statue. When I made the image back in the early 2000s, I was unaware of its mythological and historical significance – I only recognized it as a quite moving piece of sculpture, one of many examples of sensuality and death comingled in the cemetery.

 (Available from
“Sex and death. Eros and Thanatos. [The psychiatrist Sigmund] Freud believed them to be our inner drives, forces that both coincide and conflict. As humans we seem to be simultaneously sexually driven and death phobic. Death and desire seem to conjugate in some fashion in our minds, a philosophy of opposites.”

“The sculpture in this photograph is a copy of Psyche Revived by Love’s Kiss, by the Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova [1757 - 1822]. The original resides in the Louvre. The one I photographed is in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California. The cemetery is cleverly described by its owners as the “final resting place of Hollywood’s immortals,“ which includes, quite appropriately, Rudolph Valentino.”
- Stone Angels (

The Journal of the Center for Freudian Analysis and Research
Victorian Valentine, "Love's Question" (

The interest taken in my photograph by the Center for Freudian Analysis and Research for use on its journal cover is easily understood at first blush  – the imagery is essentially that of a Victorian Valentine, and the journal issue is focused on love. However, I believe the sculpture likely has a much deeper meaning to the readers of the journal, the members of the Center for Freudian Analysis and Research. Cupid, or Eros, is waking his love, Psyche, with a kiss. [In Roman mythology, Cupid (Latin Cupido, for "desire") is the god of desire, affection, and erotic love. His Greek mythological counterpart is the god Eros.]

Canova's original sculpture
The sculpture epitomizes not only love, but death as well. Freud theorized that human nature emerged from two basic instincts: Eros and Thanatos, the libido and mortido - the life instinct and death instinct. “He saw in Eros the instinct for life, love and sexuality in its broadest sense, and in Thanatos, the instinct of death, aggression. Eros is the drive toward attraction and reproduction; Thanatos toward repulsion and death. One leads to the reproduction of the species, the other toward its own destruction” (ref. Michael Dunev Art Projects). 

So, then, if Cupid, or Eros, with his erotic embrace, is reviving the woman with a kiss, is she dead? Is Antonio Canova’s sculpture as much about death as it appears to be about love? The meaning behind the statue lies in Greek mythology, not far from Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. It is an allegory about love overcoming death. As a piece of sculpture in a cemetery,  It can easily symbolize life after death – immortality.

Sleeping Beauty

Cupid and Psyche’s story is the earliest recorded version of the “wakened by a lover’s kiss” fairytale. It was told by Lucius Apuleius in his 2nd century AD novel, The Golden Ass (in the novel, the protagonist is turned into a donkey).

 William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1889
Psyche is a (mortal) princess so beautiful that people treat her like a goddess. Potential suitors are reluctant to approach her, and she can therefore find no mate. The goddess Venus is jealous of this so she decides to trick Psyche into a self-imposed “Sleep of the Innermost Darkness,” or coma-like death. Through Venous’ trickery, her own son Cupid becomes Psyche’s secret lover. Psyche implores Venus to help her find her mystery lover, and Venus imposes a series of [seemingly] impossible tasks that Psyche must perform in order to “prove her worth.” One of these tasks was to deliver a jar in which was imprisoned the “treasure of divine beauty.” Psyche wanted some for herself, thinking it might lure her mystery lover to show himself. However, the jar was filled instead with a sleeping potion. In the end, Cupid rescues Psyche from her death-sleep, and she is, as depicted in the statue,“… revived by Love’s kiss.” Cupid implores Zeus to grant Psyche immortality, so that the two lovers can be together forever. Psyche received the gift of immortality so that she could be with Cupid. Together they had a daughter, Voluptas (Greek for "Pleasure"), and they all lived happily ever after. Eros + Psyche (Greek word for the human soul) = Voluptas , i.e.,  erotic desire melded with the human spirit produces pleasure – or something like that.


So we can see that, as with love itself, there is much more to the "Cupid and Psyche" statue than meets the eye. The concepts of life and death touch us all - taphophiles, psychiatrists, sculptors, Disney script writers, and certainly these young lovers locked in a sort of Cupid-and-Psyche embrace that I photographed on the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, Italy. In this month of Valentine’s Day, we can see how love is, in fact, a many-splendored thing. Namaste.

References and Further Reading:
Hollywood Forever Cemetery website
Greek Myths: Eros and Psyche

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Film Experiment Gone Bad

Shooting long-outdated film can give you some fabulously incorrect results. At left is an example of what you could end up with. While I’ve had great luck over the years with long outdated slide film (which is the origin of the image at left) and black and white negative film, I only recently shot my first roll of outdated Kodak Vericolor III color negative film. It had been freezer-kept and was outdated as of 1984. (For the record, I’m writing this in 2013, so the film was 29 years out of date!

Back in the fall of 2012, I walked through Mount Moriah Cemetery in West Philadelphia with some friends who had never been there, so it was really a multi-purpose visit. I was experimenting with the Vericolor film on a wonderfully sunny Sunday morning. They quite enjoyed the scenery, and I liked playing tour guide. The cemetery is quite picturesque, with most of it still being wildly overgrown. (For the record, the cemetery is no longer abandoned, but it has no legal owner at this point in time. The situation is being hashed out in court as I write this.) One of my friends was shooting some outdated Kodak black and white slide film in her SLR. Her images came out blank, and mine were almost as bad.

Mount Moriah Cemetery gatehouse
My friend Bob at Mount Moriah
I was using an old Canon AE-1 SLR with a flea market-purchased 18 – 70mm lens (I paid a quarter for it!). I was expecting fabulous results with this super wide angle lens; however, the camera battery started dying about ten exposures into the 36-exposure roll. I’d compose a shot, set the exposure, trip the shutter, I said, trip the shut.... half the time the shutter wouldn’t release because the batteries were low. Of course I had no spares. Argh. I spent so much time getting through this roll, that I barely made any digital images. So after about four hours of traipsing through the thicket, we called it a day.

When I got my film back from the lab (Philadelphia Photographics, which handles all my quirky film needs with great skill and diligence), I found that I was the proud owner of no useable images. Pretty much all of the emulsion washed off the film substrate during development, resulting in a “thin” negative – so little emulsion was left that there was barely a ghost of an image to be printed. Seems appropriate for a cemetery, right? Well, such a result can lead to immense frustration, if you spent hours shooting the roll and exposing every frame carefully.

The reddish and purplish images you see here are scanned from my negatives – very grainy, not much contrast. Colors all wrong. Scanning the negatives and working with an image editing program could possibly salvage the images to a small degree, but don't expect a miracle. Desaturating the images (making them B/W) so that you're only working with shades of grey might yield something better, but there's a subtle technicality when it come to manipulating a scanned image, which prevents you from wreaking all the magic on it that you could otherwise wreak on an original digital image. An electronic scan of a negative holds far less digital information than if you had shot the scene with a digital camera in the first place. So for example, brightening the shadow areas to bring out detail is not as easily done with a scanned negative - there simply is no information there to manipulate! In fact, most of the photo editing capabilities in such a program as Adobe Photoshop become far more limited in their effectiveness when your original image is not digital.

My advice? Never experiment when your results really matter! Using outdated film is just that, an experiment. In my case, I went back to Mount Moriah a few weeks later and performed the same exercise over again, but this time with tried-and-true Ektachrome slide film, which always gives me great results – even if it is twenty years old and I cross-process it! An example from that roll is at the top of this article (mausoleum through the weeds) as well as the Mount Moriah gatehouse below.

Gatehouse shot later on outdated Ektachrome film
In my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient, (available from, I go nowhere near the subject of experimenting with film, alternate development processes, or experimental printing. Its a wild world out there, and not for the faint of heart. You can get wild results, but these adventurous areas can be wildly complicated - and often the results are not reproducible (which is one reason it is difficult to give step-by-step instructions in these areas of photography)! An example of that last statement relates to the age of outdated film: five year-old-film can yield drastically different results from ten-year-old film, even if it is the exact same film and both have been freezer-kept.

Ed's book, available from
Attempt to bring out shadow detail
Original image
 As I said, I've had much better luck with outdated slide film and black and white negative film than I had with color negative. Therefore, it can do no harm to note in passing that when I was recently offered about a hundred rolls of outdated film, I only took the half that were not color negative! So I’m well-stocked for further photographic adventures with 35mm Ektachrome and 120mm [BW] Plus-X.

Some readers out there are probably wondering, “Where can I get outdated film?” Your friends may be a good source. Some photographers still have rolls in their freezers from before they went digital. Some non-photographers might have film left from a college photography course they took years ago! Most are happy to give it away. Ebay is another source, and sometimes camera shops will sell outdated or near-dated film at half price. B and H Photo in New York usually does this. Outdated film - use it sparingly or use it daringly!