Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Easter Bunny and Other Grave Matters

When I was a kid, my parents sent me to a dentist who used ether to knock his patients out. That was the anesthetic of choice in the 1960s, before nitrous oxide replaced it. Dr. P. would have the gas hose attached to a little stuffed toy rabbit that he called the “Ether Bunny.” Ether was flammable, which is one reason it is no longer used. Dr. P., I remember vividly, used to smoke a pipe while he worked on my teeth. Imagine that. (Not all of what I just wrote is factual; you have to sort it out. Alright, here’s a hint – it’s all true except for one thing!)

So let’s talk a bit more about Easter, that grand holiday in which we Catholics celebrate Christ rising from the dead (if you expect me to say he saw his shadow as he left the tomb and thereby forecasted six more weeks of winter, you’d be sorely mistaken). Secretly, I think we all want to rise from the dead. Catholics believe that how we spend our eternal life is determined on Judgment Day. This is when we all discover our fate, whether it be Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Oh wait, they got rid of Purgatory. Or maybe it never existed, like an annulment, the Catholic version of divorce.

But that all takes me back to the sixties, when the Ether Bunny ran rampant in Dr. P.’s office, and his red lava lamp blooged in the waiting room. I remember thinking how weird it was that he chose red, as it looked like blood.

"Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?
I'm a human corkscrew and all my wine is blood
They're gonna kill me mama, they don't like me bud.
–    From John Prine’s song, “Jesus, the Missing Years

"Maybe there are some Easter eggs down here!!!"
Watch Prine’s video here, its really not sacrilegious. He put’s Christ’s life and death in better perspective than most religious teachers with their holy mysteries. Personally, I believe I’ll be spending eternity in the warmer of the two climates. Heaven for atmosphere, hell for company – isn’t that what Mark Twain said? Doing eternity with my peeps doesn’t sound so bad – better than floating around with a harp trying to keep a halo on your head. And speaking of peeps, the day after Easter is the traditional marshmallow peep-eating contest at the Dawson Street Pub, in Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood. So do stop by Monday evening if you want to see yellow.

To sum up my Easter holiday, I’ll just mention that we had a pleasant dinner at the slots parlor buffet in Wilkes-Barre, PA, with my Mom. She loves it there, so it’s become somewhat of a tradition with us. I was driving there with my three-year-old daughter, Olivia, when she asked when we would get to Grandma’s house. I told her we were meeting her at the casino. She asked, “What’s a casino?” Tough to explain to a youngster, but I began with, “Well, it’s a place where people gamble … ” She cut me off asking, “What does gamble mean?” Clutching for something she would understand, I attempted, “When people wager their money …” Cut off again with, “Daddy, what’s wager?” Hmmm. “That’s when people try to win …“ Olivia jumps in with, “Like when you try to win a game?” I said, “Exactly. They try to win a game.” It’s all a game, really, isn’t it? If we could just treat life as such a simple thing, it might be more fun.

Friday, March 29, 2013

"Remembering Gettysburg" at Mount Moriah Cemetery, Park Day 2013

Last year (2012), I believe I blogged about Park Day at Mount Moriah Cemetery after the fact. This year, I’m giving you fair warning. Saturday April 6, 2013 will be the big day, so please plan to help out at the cemetery if you can! No pain, no gain! (And hopefully, no rain; if there is, the date will move to April 13.)

The Civil War Trust (a non-profit organization), The History Channel, and the National Park Service together sponsor this annual, nationwide event. Its purpose is to provide a hands-on volunteer opportunity to help preserve Civil War battlefields and related historic sites. Mount Moriah falls into the latter category in that many Civil War veterans are buried here, in the Civil War Soldiers’ Plot and the Naval Asylum Plot. (The term ‘asylum,’ by the way, is an old term for ‘hospital.’)

Purchase a "Gatehouse T-shirt" here!

Registration for the event begins at 8:00 a.m. Saturday, April 6, 2013, at the cemetery main gate, 6201 Kingsessing Avenue (Click link for map). This is just down the block from the old brownstone, incredibly photogenic gatehouse (shown above). (The gatehouse, by the way, was designed in 1855 by Stephen Decatur Button, the architect who designed the gatehouse of Gettysburg's Evergreen Cemetery. Evergreen’s gatehouse had direct involvement in the Civil War, having served as a Union Army headquarters during the battle.)

An additional registration area will be set up at the Cobbs Creek Parkway side of the cemetery. Lunch will be served at 11:30 a.m. to registered volunteers, with the clean-up event wrapping up at 1 pm. Free Park Day T-shirts and patches will be provided. Please come prepared to do dirty work! No matter how nice the day might turn out to be, wear long pants, heavy shoes, and long sleeved shirts. Bring work gloves and any garden tools (such as weed clippers) you’d like to use (some rakes and long-handled clippers will be provided). Small and large maintenance projects will be taken on.

Volunteers raking cut weeds from Mount Moriah hillside

A pair of tours is planned as well, each being held twice during the day (10:30 a.m. and 1 pm). One tour will focus on Civil War medicine, and the types of medical problems seen among the soldiers and sailors. Various graves will be visited during the tours, including that of the first recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor (1863), John Williams, Captain of the Main Top, US Navy. Williams’ grave was missing (“lost to history”) for a century, having recently been rediscovered at Mount Moriah.

Mount Moriah Cemetery contains the graves of over 5,000 veterans dating from the French and Indian/Revolutionary Wars to the current conflicts. The cemetery’s Naval Asylum and Civil War Soldiers Plots, owned by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, are part of the National Park Service’s Civil War Era National Cemeteries Shared Heritage Trail. On Park Day, we will have mini-tours for our volunteers led by experienced tour guides through each of these historic plots.

Guided tour of Mount Moriah Cemetery

From the Civil War Trust website:
“Our Mission: The Civil War Trust is America's largest non-profit organization (501-C3) devoted to the preservation of our nation's endangered Civil War battlefields. The Trust also promotes educational programs and heritage tourism initiatives to inform the public of the war's history and the fundamental conflicts that sparked it.

Park Day 2013 is scheduled for April 6. Since 1996, the Civil War Trust has sponsored Park Day, an annual hands-on preservation event to help Civil War battlefields and historic sites take on maintenance projects large and small. Activities are chosen by each participating site to meet their own particular needs and can range from raking leaves and hauling trash to painting signs and trail buildings.

This annual event sponsored by the Civil War Trust and History™ is an excellent opportunity to bring Civil War enthusiasts together in an effort to help keep our nation’s Civil War heritage not only preserved, but pristine."

The Civil War Trust website has a link for Park Day 2013, which shows, by state, all the areas which are scheduled as official volunteer clean-up destinations. Pennsylvania only has three: Gettysburg National Park, Mount Moriah Cemetery, and Highland Cemetery in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. My friend Dave Wallace is the President of the Highland Cemetery Board of Directors and would certainly welcome any volunteers, if you happen to favor the central Pennsylvania region. (He can be reached at 570-748-5080, or

To pre-register for the Mount Moriah Cemetery “Remembering Gettysburg” Park Day event, please email the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery at

References and Further Information:
Surprising facts about the congressional Medal of Honor
The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery website
Mount Moriah Cemetery Section map

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Symptoms of Cemetery Photography – Exhibit at Red Hook

"And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts And I looked and behold, a pale horse And his name that sat on it was Death And Hell followed with him ..."
- Johnny Cash, from "The Man Comes Around" (2002)

I haven’t put up a solo show of my cemetery photography in a while – been busy with other things. However, on March 22, 2013, I’ll be having an Opening Reception for a solo show at Red Hook Coffee and Tea, a lovely establishment in my neighborhood. (This is the Queen Village section of Philadelphia, near Penn’s Landing. The venue is a few blocks south of South Street on Fourth.) The exhibit will run until about April 22.

I’m showing all new work, about a dozen framed images that I’d never printed before - disturbing work, things that have scared gallery owners off in the past. Luckily, the open-minded proprietors of Red Hook appreciate a wide variety of art and self-expression. The printing of the images themselves was a new experiment for me, they’re not just regular photo paper prints. I had these professionally made on various Canson archival fibre rag papers of different weights and surfaces -  some even on watercolor paper. It is amazing how different papers can bring out the unique characteristics of an image.

So what are the “symptoms” of cemetery photography? Basically, you see death everywhere – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You want to photograph dead things. It helps you to accept your own mortality. People today don’t want to think about death, don’t want to know anything about it. We’re obsessed with living. Which is fine, I’m kind of partial to it myself. Typically if you become obsessed with a certain thing, you miss it greatly when its gone. Not so with life: You don’t miss it when its gone. Life allows you to be obsessed with it, and when you finally lose it, guess what? You’re dead! Or maybe I shouldn’t assume that you don’t miss it? How would any of us still among the living know that for sure? Gosh knows I’ve experienced enough weird stuff in cemeteries to believe there’s something out there we can’t understand. Not while we’re alive, anyhow.

Symptoms of Cemetery Photography
by Ed Snyder, author of "The Cemetery Traveler" blog
In my print ad for the show, I made note that the artist, Ed Snyder, is the “author of The Cemetery Traveler blog.” I wanted to impress upon interested and/or prospective viewers that I’ve been around, a practitioner of dark tourism, and that these photographs were culled from years of experience, some even painstakingly researched. A friend of mine jokingly asked, when he read the title for the show, “What are the symptoms?  Abrasions on your legs from climbing through briars on the way to the abandoned cemetery?” Well, yes, but those are corporal symptoms. Certainly cemetery photography is all about seeing shapes and capturing moods, but I was referring mainly to psychological symptoms. I am proud to say that these images look like the result of some fevered dream.

"I Am Alive"
You cannot spend a decade photographing cemeteries without it affecting your art in some profound way. I say this in retrospect, after being chronically affected by them. I don’t see things the same way anymore - for instance, I no longer see our existence as having a definite beginning and end. Hopefully, the photographs in the show will offer some evidence of that. An example would be “I Am Alive," the title for the white bronze memorial plaque at left. I toyed with various titles for this as well as all the other images. Poring over the poetry of Baudelaire and Edward Young, while pouring Angel’s Envy bourbon over ice offered me a plethora of disingenuous titles like “The Black Hearses of My Dreams.” I decided to stick with simple titles, like "I Am Alive," and for the image below, “Cherub Red.

"Cherub Red"
Sometimes you find a scene or subject that you just don’t want to leave. In the words of singer Neil Young, you think in your mind, “I’ll look for you if I’m ever back this way.” But everything changes - you know you’ll never see the same scene the same way again. This might be the most profound symptom of my doing cemetery photography – realizing that even seemingly staid things like cemeteries do in fact change. They change with the seasons, with age, with weather, with living people sometimes ruining them for the rest of us.

I often have no idea why I made a particular photograph until years after the fact. Some of the images in the show are ten years old, some just weeks old. I chose them not only for shock value, but also for aesthetics. Dark images would not look good in a dark room against a brick wall! So there’s a challenge – bright, yet grim images! Hmmm. Well, we’ll see how it works. Stark black and white looks good in these surroundings, but only a few of mine are monochrome. Most are muted color images. Some are digitally enhanced photographs, or graphic art. Hopefully, the photographs themselves will transport the viewer to another place.

That said, this blog posting could very well be the longest "Artist's Statement" ever written! Am I looking to make an actual, discernible “Statement” with this show? Not really. I could be all pompous and say something like “Time is the avenger, death the great equalizer,” but I simply present the work for your consideration. Draw parallels if you will. Some of the images are very personal, some a bit embarrassing, some frightening, but together they make a statement I suppose, of where my head is at right now. I apologize in advance if anyone becomes offended by the images. God will forgive me. It's his m├ętier.

Other “symptoms” of cemetery photography:
  • The experience trains you to compose photographs in such a way that the result cannot look like a snapshot (or “snapshoddy,” as I like to call it).
  • It makes me wish that many cemeteries weren’t in such a sad state of disrepair, that we as a people would, should, show more respect for our ancestors, our history.
  • The endeavor made me want to write about my experiences roaming around in graveyards, hence, “The Cemetery Traveler” blog, entering its third year (!) of weekly posts.
  • Have I become better able to accept my own mortality? Am I afraid to die? Not at all, though I don’t want to be around when it happens.
  • You eventually learn that if you make connections with people who know where the bodies are buried, the quality of your cemetery photography is sure to improve. The more you understand about your subject, the better you can capture its essence.

So if I haven’t totally scared you off, please stop by the Red Hook for a beer! Meet some like-minded people at the Opening Reception; several of my friends, relatives, and fellow photographers will be there Friday night (6 to 9 pm, March 22, 2013). If you’ve read my blog, I’d love to meet you in person, so you can tell me what you think of my writings and photography. If you’re unfamiliar with my fine art photography, here’s an opportunity to fall down my rabbit hole. The show will be on display for a limited time only (until about April 22, 2013).

Opening Reception: Friday night 
6 to 9 pm, March 22, 2013
Directions to Red Hook in Philadelphia
Red Hook on Facebook

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Falling into a Sunken Grave

So I fell into my first sunken grave today. Photographers have some great opening lines, don’t they? Here are two of my favorites (uttered by two separate photographer friends of mine at different times): “Well, we got most of the bodies out of the ground” and “I’ve broken into some new places recently.” (I should clarify - the former was uttered by a fellow who works in a cemetery, and the latter by someone who photographs abandoned buildings, and was not referring to cemeteries!)

Anyway, about the sunken grave. I was out at Mount Moriah Cemetery this weekend past (early Saturday in March), walking through the military plots with Sam, a Civil War historian. Sam and I are both on the Board of Directors of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, and we were preparing some tour stops for the April 6, 2013 “Park Day,” which is sponsored by the Civil War Trust. We needed to identify the graves of certain Civil War veterans who died from various battle-induced injuries. This would be part of a tour discussion on Civil War medicine.

Documenting grave locations in Mount Moriah Cemetery's Naval Asylum Plot
On this same day, Drexel University had sent a busload of freshmen students to spend the day cleaning up the cemetery as part of a “Civic Engagement” course. We had two students assisting us in the search for the graves, documenting the GPS coordinates, etc. I was taking pictures. At one point Sam walked away with the students and stopped before the giant iron ship’s anchor mounted to a pedestal in the corner of the Naval Asylum plot. I noticed a giant hawk feeding between the headstones a few rows away so I was trying to get a decent photograph of it. As I turned to walk toward Sam and the students, I snapped the photo of them you see below. Note the hole in the ground at their feet. I fell into this.

Hole in foreground, to right
The hole was about two feet deep and about two feet square. My camera flew out of my hand and I went down on my left ankle. Felt like a total nimrod as I landed at the feet of my companions! The ankle’s starting to smart now, several hours later. It’s so ironic that after years of climbing through the underbrush and forests of this wildly overgrown cemetery in West Philly, that I would hurt myself on a flat grassy surface that is (and always has been) well-maintained by the Veterans’ Administration! Bright sunny day, should’ve been watching where I was going. So as I contemplate my injury as atonement for writing such uncomplimentary things about Mount Moriah in the past, a Reiki attunement may be in order. I wonder if they still shoot horses when they break a leg?

Concrete burial vaults (unused)
In closing, sunken graves are definitely a hazard in old cemeteries.I suppose it was inevitable that I finally fell into one after exploring them for fifteen years. If a stone or concrete burial vault (shown at right) is not used to house the coffin, the ground will collapse around the coffin as it deteriorates. This forms a sunken grave, a miniature sink hole or depression of varying size. A bear trap, if you will, awaiting the unwary.

That said, sinkholes are much more dangerous than mere sunken graves. There are actual sinkhole seasons in some areas of the United States, coinciding with the beginning of the state's rainy season and usually lasts until the end of summer. Currently (March 2013), people and their possessions are falling into sinkholes in Florida and Texas! You’ll notice that the sink hole into which the Florida woman fell (link immediately below) appears to be no larger than the sunken grave with which I became intimately involved! 

New York Daily News article: Fla. woman afraid for her life after backyard sinkholes nearly bury her alive:”

Hers was deeper, however, truly giving her the feeling she would be “buried alive.” My own experience was mainly just embarrassing – you know, that feeling you get when you do something really stupid and other people witness it?

Related Sink Hole News:
NBC News broadcast: When the earth opens up: Why it's'sinkhole season' in Florida (San Antonio, Texas) broadcast:"Texas woman relives her sinkhole nightmare"

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Eddie Lang - Jazz Guitar Great

I’d seen this monument in Holy Cross Cemetery (Yeadon, Pennsylvania) off and on for the fifteen years I’ve been making photographs in cemeteries (I live near Yeadon, which is just outside Philadelphia). I never paid much attention to it, which is odd, because I play guitar. I often see the likenesses of musical instruments engraved on the headstones of the musicians buried beneath, but since from a distance, the name “Massaro” did not jump out at me as being anyone famous, I paid little attention.

Where Dead Voices Gather
After recently reading the appropriately titled book, Where Dead Voices Gather, by Nick Tosches, I learned that Salvatore Massaro was the real name of jazz guitar legend Eddie Lang. Now, I realize that Eddie Lang is not a familiar name to most people, but please bear with. Lang was predominantly a session musician and frequently played in orchestras back in the 1920s when the music recording industry was still in its infancy. He played on the records of Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, and other well-known artists. (Crosby, by the way, after having worked with Lang in 1931, insisted that Lang accompany him on all his recordings and performances. He would have no other guitarist.)

We think of guitar players as flamboyant front-and-center rock stars who typically share the stage with an even more flamboyant lead singer in a rock band. Wasn’t always that way, in fact the idea of a specific band of musicians writing and performing its own music in public didn’t exist until Buddy Holly created it in 1955. The protypical three-piece rock band with voice, guitar, bass, and drums was created by Holly. Prior to that, musicians were interchangeable, just part of the band, or the orchestra. The “stars” of the performance were the band leaders, for instance Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, etc. The majority of people who actually played the music were faceless, essentially anonymous to the music-listening public. Even the lead singers were just part of the band. Eddie Lang spent most of his short career as was one of these ‘background’ musicians.

Along with Lonnie Johnson, Eddie Lang was a true pioneer of the guitar, playing mostly studio jazz sessions for other people in the early days of recorded music (1920s onward). In fact, his recorded duets with Johnson are considered to be the first important interracial partnership in jazz. Possibly due to the expected adverse reaction by the public to a black man and a white man working as equals, Lang’s – or rather, Massaro’s name appeared as “Blind Willie Dunn” on the recordings with Lonnie Johnson! (Listen to one of their duet here, "Guitar Blues.")

Detail from Eddie Lang's memorial in Yeadon, PA's Holy Cross Cemetery
Eddie Lang, a South Philly native, played an acoustic archtop guitar, which you can see in the plaque on his grave marker (he’s holding a Gibson L-5 model). This type guitar had a bigger sound for live playing – a regular acoustic guitar could easily be drowned out by other instruments. Electrical amplification of the guitar was not to be invented until 1934, a year after Lang’s death. Charlie Christian was a later guitar pioneer from the jazz era, who played such an electrically-amplified guitar. However, neither Christian nor Lang achieved anywhere near the guitar god status as their disciple, Django Reinhardt. Reinhardt is much more widely known, having achieved worldwide fame a bit later, in the 1940s, as part of the Parisian musical jazz combo know as the Quintette du Hot Club de France. At least as famous as Django’s “hot” jazz guitar playing technique was his pairing with the gypsy violin virtuoso Stephane Grappelli.  

Eddie Lang (
A lot goes on with musical recycling. Nowadays everything is derivative. One musician borrows another’s riff, while melodies and styles of playing are copied. True originals are rare. Lang was one of the rare people, the innovators. Not only was his style of playing original, but his guitar-based interpretations of popular songs helped pave the way for public acceptance of the guitar as a serious instrument. Segovia did the same for the classical guitar, in his interpretations of classical music written generations before him for other, more "serious," instruments. Segovia, coincidentally, was the only (then living) guitarist that Eddie Lang held in any esteem.

Lang altered the course of music in several ways. Remember I mentioned Django’s Quintette du Hot Club de France? The band’s main attraction was the dueling interplay between Django’s guitar and Grappelli’s wild gypsy violin (listen here). So here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Eddie Lang actually originated the idea of the jazz guitar and violin combo with his boyhood friend Joe Venuti. They recorded together as the Joe Venuti-Eddie Lang Blue Five. (Click here to listen to one of their compositions, "Four String Joe," recorded in 1927.) After Lang’s death in 1933, Venuti went on to become the first jazz master of the violin, and Django and Grappelli formed the Hot Club of France. Eddie Lang, i.e. Salvatore Massaro, died in 1933, due to bleeding complications following a routine tonsillectomy.

Purchase from
If you’re wondering  what all the fuss was about – and especially if you play guitar – listen here to Eddie Lang's 1929 recording "April Kisses" - quite amazing. His talent and originality shine most in his original instrumental compositions.