Monday, June 24, 2013

Angel Skies

In a prior lifetime, I lived near a cemetery. Whenever I was home and the sky grew dark with an approaching storm, I would always check to see if the setting sun was also throwing bright horizontal light on the buildings in my neighborhood. If the conditions were such, I called this an “Angel Sky,” perfect (for me) lighting conditions for photographing cemetery angel statues. It was my personal, yet skewed version of "Rembrandt lighting," portrait lighting in which part of the figure is directly lit while a portion of it is in shadow.

Statue in Holy Cross Cemetery
I would jump in the car with my camera gear (always loaded with the right film!) and drive the two miles to Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, Pennsylvania (a southwestern suburb of Philadelphia), to photograph the statues. This didn’t happen as often as I would have liked, but still, I made some great photographs over the years. Here's an example (at right) of one of those early images.

Fast forward a dozen years and I’m living in South Philly, eleven miles from Laurel Hill Cemetery. Laurel Hill is the closest cemetery to my house now - that is, the closest cemetery that has statues placed high enough off the ground that will allow me to take full advantage of an angel sky. Through city traffic, that’s a minimum of a half hour drive. So now when the atmospheric conditions are right, it is more difficult for me to make the most of it. Therefore, in most cases, I just curse my ill luck and go back to doing whatever I was doing, ignoring the sky.

This past Friday evening (in June), I looked out my window and the sky to the east was almost black! Not only that, but the late spring sun was blazing brightly low on the horizon (it was around seven p.m.). Assuming I’d never make it to Laurel Hill in time, I called my friend Frank who lives there (!) and asked him go out into the cemetery and make great photographs. I would enjoy the conditions vicariously through his work. He said, “Well, come on up.” It’s very convenient having friends who will unlock the gates for you at a moment’s notice! (Most cemeteries around Philadelphia are locked up at night.)

William F. Hughes, Philadelphia Hay King
I told him I couldn’t possibly get there in time and hung up. My wife said, “Go.” Was the long trip through ridiculous traffic worth ten minutes of actual shooting time? Arghh! Decisions! I dropped off my wife and our 3.8 year-old daughter at the neighbors’ for pizza, jumped in the turbo Saab and tore up the parkway. I called Frank and told him that I was on my way. Like William Hughes (statue at right) might have said, best to make hay while the sun shines (Hughes made a fortune as a hay marketer in mid-1800s Philadelphia). Frank said he’d put beers in the freezer and added, “There’s a rainbow over the cemetery.” Blast him. I dodged all the slow-moving traffic where I could and made it to Laurel Hill in about twenty minutes.

I arrived to find the lighting conditions still good! Score! I’m golden, literally and figuratively. The white marble statues were painted yellow by the sun. If only the darned things would have the common decency to be facing the right direction! Ah, well, one takes what one can get. I shot mostly in color, whereas in the past, I would have done all black and white. The intense golden saturated colors were too good to pass up!

The rainbow was gone, but there were about twenty minutes of sunlight left and the eastern sky was still dark! We jumped into Frank’s truck and sped off to the best part of the cemetery for front-lit statues. We utilized those last twenty minutes of sunlight quite efficiently, shooting a half dozen or so angels and other monuments in their gorgeous contrasty golden splendor. Soon after, the light grew dim and the sun lowered itself behind the trees across the western shore of the Schuylkill River. We retired to his patio for beers as we watched the azure sky grow darker over the hillside graves behind Laurel Hill’s gatehouse.