Sunday, August 31, 2014

Sunrise in the Atlantic City Cemetery

What can I say about the Atlantic City Cemetery that I haven’t already said? A lot, probably, since I really don’t know anything about it. I’ve visited a few times, but I’ve never done any actual research. I just like going there when I’m in the area. I was in Ventnor (next to AC) with my family a couple weekends ago (mid August, 2014) so I got up early and drove inland to the cemetery.

I’m in the habit of heading out at sunrise before my wife and daughter are awake. I jumped in the car and drove the approximate five miles to Pleasantville, NJ, the town in which the cemetery actually resides. Not much going on at the shore at that time of day, though it did look a bit like rain. That was the actual prediction, and I was kind of hoping it would. I started the Facebook page “Cemeteries in the Rain” this past year (2014) so I’ve actually been trying to capture some images of, well, that.

Mausoleum glass in Greenwood
The rain threatened all morning, and there was some odd lighting. I photographed a few statues in the cemetery against the partly cloudy, but bright sunrise. I suppose statues and monuments all face one direction for a reason (the Victorian version of feng shui?), but it seems like that is never the direction I want them to be facing! You would also assume that mausoleum stained glass faces east or west, so the glass gets as much sunrise and sunset light as possible. Wrong! Over the course of the two hours I spent here and in the neighboring Greenwood Cemetery, it got headlight-dark a couple times, but then brightened up.

Mausoleum, Atlantic City Cemetery
Actually, my feng shui comment was not really a joke. Feng shui, the Chinese philosophical system of harmonizing things with the surrounding environment has actually been around since 4000 B.C. The practice originated with the ancient Chinese Book of Burial's principles relating the flow of qi (pronounced “chi”), an invisible life force, to the appropriateness of a tomb's location (ref.). So feng shui, the practice of positioning your lawn furniture in a certain way, actually originated with burial practice! According to Wikipedia, “Historically, feng shui was widely used to orient buildings—often spiritually significant structures such as tombs, but also dwellings and other structures—in a manner meant to … bind the universe, earth, and humanity together.

Memorial sculpture in the Atlantic City Cemetery, sunrise

Death certainly binds humanity together, and the western world Victorians were as serious about death as the ancient Chinese and Egyptians. One look at the grand monuments and mausoleums will tell you that. Maybe "serious" is not exactly the right word, perhaps "accepting" is a better choice. And accepting is what I needed to be this morning, when the early rays of the sun were dramatic and golden. I experimented with this angel statue (below) - shooting her frontally into the sunrise (with fill flash) and from the rear illuminated by the sun, her white marble wings temporarily gilded, auriferous.

Mangled grating
You can enter both of these Victorian-era Pleasantville cemeteries any time of day or night as most of the gates are either broken or missing. That said, the grounds and monuments are in surprisingly fine condition. I suppose there is little vandalism here, though I did see some mangled bronze window grating on the largest mausoleum in Greenwood. The grating was there to protect the stained glass window, but it appeared that someone tried to remove the grating, probably to sell it for scrap. But generally, no one seems to venture into either cemetery to cause much mischief. None of the other (albeit less valuable) metal decorative objects have been stolen, the mausoleum stained glass is all intact, the statues are not broken. Even these forlorn and loosely-placed baby blocks (below) remain in their (I assume) original positions.

Child's grave, Atlantic City Cemetery, NJ
If you saw these cemeteries from the air, they would appear as three large rectangles. Atlantic City Cemetery makes up the two left rectangles (separated by an old set of railroad tracks) and the right rectangle, Greenwood, is separated from the AC Cemetery by West Washington Avenue. (Click link for aerial view.) The center portion of the trinity looks like the older original AC Cemetery, which began in 1865. While they may have originally been two distinct cemetery companies, they are now listed on the Internet as the “Atlantic City Cemetery and Greenwood Cemetery Associations.”

I like exploring these places when no one else is awake. Their little mysteries are usually solved in my mind by conjecture. For instance, why is this lone monument shrouded by tall weeds when everything else in the Atlantic City Cemetery is meticulously maintained? How incongruous it seemed to have a freshly-dug grave marked with a simple wooden cross right next to the elaborate mausoleum below. I drove to various parts of the cemeteries when it looked like rain, so as not to be caught in it. Did I want it to rain or didn’t I? I suppose I felt strongly both ways. I was prepared to get some good photographs either way.

It never did rain during my walk through the cemeteries, although it did drizzle later in the day as I lay on the beach. A strange feeling, lying there in the hot sun, waves lapping at your feet, while the cool rain sprinkles down on you. Like dreaming too close to the surface. One thing’s for sure – the dead don’t care whether it rains or shines. They also don't care if their graves are desecrated - but we should.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Lunar Stroll in a Cemetery

On a beautifully clear and mild night in mid-August, I volunteered to help lead a group of photographers through Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery. Several times each year, the cemetery organizes a “Lunar Stroll,” geared toward photographers who want to do night work by the light of the moon. So I joined three other guides and we split forty people between us for a few hours of night photography, conversation, and instruction.

Ambient light image (Canon Rebel XT)
First off, the moon doesn’t throw much light (as seen at left), so if you plan to use just ambient light, your exposures will be long (half a minute or more, depending on aperture size); tripods are therefore necessary. Also, as I pointed out to one person, contrary to expectations, you cannot actually get a bright moon in the same shot as dimly-lit foreground objects (e.g. headstones) and have everything properly exposed. This requires digital manipulation with a photo-editing program. The differences in brightness of these objects is too great. To expose for the headstones properly, the moon will just be a bright dot. To expose for the moon, your dark foreground objects will be too dark. HDR can provide you with usable results, but they tend to look too cartoony for my tastes. All that said, most people brought flashlights to “paint” the stone monuments with light during the exposure. Here is an example of one of my light painting experiments:

Crypt cover "painted" with light

Blurry Angel
More so than lighting your subject (though this has to do with lighting, indirectly) is the issue of focusing in the dark. Your camera's ability to autofocus depends on its ability to "see" the subject in question. As most digital cameras depend on a well-lit subject on which to focus, focusing in the dark can make night photography quite challenging. It seems that many digitals that people brought with them did not "throw" a quick burst flash out to aid their autofocus systems. Many cameras, like my Canon Rebel XT DSLR, will just "hunt" for a bright spot in the scene on which to lock focus. Mine seldom finds one, so I end up with images like the one at right. The key? Shine a flashlight on the subject and either manually focus or let the camera autofocus, then turn the autofocus off. With the focus locked, the camera will not try to refocus when you make the exposure!

Also, image quality varies with different digital cameras. My Rebel XT  takes very poor night images (even if I use a low ISO like 400). My Olympus Pen micro four-thirds camera, on the other hand, records much better images (an example of which you see below).

Statue "painted" with flashlight
People assume (as did one photographer this evening) that for night photography, you must use the highest ISO (light sensitivity) setting of which your camera is capable. Wrong! An ISO greater than 400 only guarantees that your image will be noisy. Here's another tip: One fellow told me that his photography instructor in school always told his students that you should only shoot in full manual mode so you understand what you're doing. I gently suggested that this is fine for making photographs outdoors on a clear sunny day, but not when you're just learning to shoot at night. Start in "auto" mode just to get an idea of how your camera responds to shooting in the dark.

"Silent Sentry" statue
Folks came from all over the geographic region to attend the Lunar Stroll, to my surprise. Many were from Philadelphia, but others drove from Baltimore, Jersey, and York, PA. Many had been to Laurel Hill before, so it helped that they knew their way around. Some were not even there to make photographs – two people were there ghost-hunting! While most of the crowd was made up of either beginner or experienced photographers, everyone was there to have fun. Plus there is that thrill of being in a graveyard at night – who HASN’T fantasized about this at one time or another? For fifteen dollars, you can do it at Laurel Hill cemetery in the relative safety of a crowd of people (zombies only prey on loners).

So let’s dwell on cemetery safety for a moment. During the pre-tour orientation, our host Emma Stern (Volunteer and Administrative Coordinator for the Friends of Laurel Hill Cemetery) asked everyone to be careful, stay with their group, and don’t wander off. There are sunken graves to fall into, there are unstable monuments to avoid. Though everyone signed a waiver against holding Laurel Hill responsible for any injury, I felt obligated to announce this to the crowd: “I’ve seen a thousand-pound grave stone fall on a woman. Believe me, you don’t want this to happen to you. Don’t lean on them, don’t climb on them.

Over the two hours we spent guiding people around the cemetery, I helped a few beginners get basic results with their gear (again, start in “auto” mode to see what your camera will produce, then go from there). As an aside, a woman emailed me prior to the Lunar Stroll evening to ask what ISO film she should bring. I said that unless you are an experienced night photographer, film would not be a good choice. With digital, you can immediately see your mistakes and correct for them. With film, not so much.

Self-portrait by author
I managed to make a few photographs myself between tutorials. The image you see above was lit with a standard flashlight during a sixty-second exposure (at f16). I released the shutter, walked in front of the camera, sat on the crypt cover and illuminated my face with the flashlight. I got up, walked behind the camera (which was on a tripod), and bathed the monuments in light, moving the flashlight  all over the objects during the long exposure. The light is relatively dim, so it does not illuminate the distant, dark background to any great extent.The sky looks orange due to ambient light from the city lights and the moon.

L.E.D. light panel (ref.)

I had actually purchased a 4x6 inch L.E.D. light panel for use in night photography (like the one you see at right), but I could not find it in my house when I needed it! My friend Veronika brought one, and I stumbled upon her setup in front of the mausoleum shown above. She had placed her L.E.D. light panel on a step, facing up toward the entrance. The effect was perfect, and I stopped to simply snap a picture! These L.E.D. light panels are great, by the way – relatively inexpensive, with bright, even lighting and incredibly low battery drain.

Image by Connie Snyder
One woman on the tour was looking for experience with night photography in preparation for a planned trip to Norway to photograph the Northern Lights! Having never actually witnessed them myself, I gave her as many pointers as I could. I also brought some props, an idea that I got from seeing people with these on a previous Lunar Stroll (Laurel Hill has been doing these officially since 2012): glow-in-the-dark pendants on a string. Folks were twirling these in a circular motion in front of their cameras during long exposures. However, the ones I purchased at the local Dollar Store all leaked their fluid out before I even opened the packages! I managed to get one necklace that stayed intact so I wore it around my neck so people could find me easily (you can see it around my neck in the photo above with me sitting on the crypt cover). One woman brought another type of prop, a three-foot long plastic skeleton! I like this “selfie” she did with the bony being!

All in all, it was a fun experience, and one that I would highly recommend for all the reasons I’ve pointed out. Check Laurel Hill cemetery's website for upcoming events and other workshops.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Brooklyn and Queens Cemetery Tour

Sometime in 2013, I walked into a used book store near my home in Philadelphia. It was a small place, and I was too lazy to look around so I asked the owner if he had any books about cemeteries. His reply surprised me. He said, “Whenever I get a book about cemeteries, I put it in the front window, because I know it will be sold within a week. Books about cemeteries are very popular - for all the right and wrong reasons.

Well, a purchase I made recently was for the right reason – I didn’t have it! There’s a great, quirky used book store in Philly where I’ve found a number of death-related books – it is a music and book store at 2027 Sansom Street, called Long in the Tooth. (I’ve actually thanked the owners for putting all the death books in one place for me – I believe they were amused.) About six months ago, I purchased from them a copy of Silent Cities (by Kenneth T. Jackson and Camilo Jose’ Vergara, 1989, Princeton Architectural Press), a wonderfully written and printed large-format color photographic cemetery book. Until I found it on their shelf, I never knew it existed.

Silent Cities (whose full name is Silent Cities – The Evolution of the American Cemetery) now occupies a prominent spot among the many cemetery books on my own book shelf. One thing I hadn’t expected to find inside were color images of some very elusive monuments I had photographed a decade ago! It solved a puzzle for me that I’d been wrestling with for quite some time.

Image by Krista Baker, cemetery unknown

Back in 2003, my friend Krista Baker and I made a mad, one-day road trip through as many Brooklyn and Queens (New York) cemeteries as we could. We covered about twenty miles of territory from Flatbush to Flushing, basically following Route 278 (the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway) west. We didn’t spend much time on the highway, though, using paper road maps (remember them?) to navigate from one cemetery to the next through the densely populated commercial and residential neighborhoods. It was a whirlwind tour, and I was shooting film, basically looking for angel statues with which to create artistic, high-contrast black and white images. Luckily, Krista was shooting digital, and more competently documented our tour with her many wonderful color photographs (the photos in this article are hers, with exceptions noted).

Image by Krista Baker, cemetery unknown
I don’t remember much of the trip, and we did not actually write down the names of our stops. In retrospect, this was unfortunate because after I began posting cemetery images on Facebook, I had to ignore most of the images we made on that day as I had no locations with which to identify the statues and monuments! (This was before the advent of digital cameras that could GPS-tag your images!) At the time, I did not even own a digital camera; Krista’s various digitals were my initial foray into that world.

Image by Ed Snyder
After driving from Philadelphia to Staten Island, we began shooting in Brooklyn’s massive Green-Wood Cemetery (478 acres!) and ended at Flushing Cemetery, in Queens, hitting no less than twenty Victorian graveyards along the way. Now these were not small places – several were over a hundred acres! Needless to say, we did not spent much more than an hour at any one stop. The locations of some of the monuments and statues I photographed stuck in my mind, so I have remembered their cemeteries through the years. Most of the locations in which our hundreds of photographs were made, however, have faded from Krista’s and my own memory.

Green-Wood's Gothic Entrance Arch
For whatever reason, I recall the angel on the pedestal (above) being at the entrance to The Evergreens Cemetery, at the border between Brooklyn and Queens. The images of Green-Wood's Gothic arched entrance way were obvious, though our photos of the statuary inside the cemetery are not so easily identified (which is good, I suppose, since photography was not allowed inside in 2003!). I’ve been able to pin down a few more of the image locations such as this view of Manhattan (below) taken from Calvary Cemetery (Woodside section of Queens), the location used in the film, The Godfather, for the funeral of Don Corleone.

Calvary Cemetery, Queens, NY (Manhattan skyline in background)

By Ed Snyder
I remember spending quite a bit of time photographing the statue of this crying woman, whose hands hold a bouquet of artificial flowers. I posted it once on Facebook and someone commented that its location is in St. John Cemetery (Middle Village, Queens), permanent home of more actual real mobsters than you can shake a blackjack at, e.g. Lucky Luciano and John Gotti (click link for full list of names).

When Krista and I visited all these places, we were mainly looking for interesting statues and architecture. I don’t think it occurred to either of us that there would be famous, or even infamous people buried in them. In retrospect, it would have been interesting to see Dizzy Gillespie’s grave in Flushing Cemetery or Charles Atlas’ grave at St. John in Queens. Even where the presence of notables was obvious, I don’t recall us being drawn to them. Brooklyn’s massive Green-Wood Cemetery, for instance, where framed photographs of all the famous interred hang on the wall of the office (including Leonard Bernstein and Basquiat, for instance), did not seem to rouse our interest much. We were just enthralled with the sculptures in these magnificent Victorian garden cemeteries.

Image by Krista Baker
Certain things stick out in my memory, like the mile-and-a-half stretch of cemetery clusters as you entered Queens near the Broadway transit junction on Fulton Street. We hit most of these hillside cemeteries, at one point watching a motorcycle funeral in Mt. Hope Cemetery while we were on the other side of the Jackie Robinson Parkway in Mount Lebanon Cemetery. We stopped for dinner in a Cuban sandwich shop somewhere in Glendale.

Image by Krista Baker
There were two monuments that Krista and I spent quite a bit of time photographing - apparently we both found them fascinating. One is this marble sculpture (above) with life-sized figures of Father Time and a female human mourner; the other was this granite monument (at right) to a person who seemed to be a hunter. Truly, two of the most unusual and intricate memorials I have ever seen. The first, heavily adorned with Victorian mourning symbolism, the latter, unusually personal and a tad bizarre. I wanted to know more about them, but the problem was, we had no idea where we had found them! Over the past few years, I posted photos of them on Facebook with requests for info about their cemetery homes, but no one ever responded.

Then, as luck would have it, in 2013 I found the book, Silent Cities. Many of the photographs in the book, oddly, were of the same monuments Krista and I photographed in the New York boroughs! Even more oddly, the two we found most fascinating were in there too! Turns out they are in the SAME cemetery, Lutheran Cemetery in Queens. Finally, I had locations and names of this and some of the other marvelous cemeteries we visited.

From the book, Silent Cities – The Evolution of the American Cemetery

The authors of Silent Cities, Jackson and Vergara, tell us, “The overwhelming emphasis in American cemeteries is on hopeful images which exclude death and decay.” On page 84, in the chapter, “American Images of Death,” we find a photograph of the very same white marble monument with Father Time with which Krista and I were so enthralled. It incorporates pretty much every bit of mourning art symbolism of the Victorian era – Father Time (or is it the Grim Reaper?), a designated female mourner with palm frond, broken column, the funerary urn, the open book, and the “time flies” winged-hourglass! (Did I miss anything?!) The book tells us it rests on the grave of a Mason in the Lutheran Cemetery in Queens. I remember this place having lots of shade trees and being in a sort of small-town residential location. Perhaps the trees have provided some shelter from the acid rain - there appears to be very little weathering of the marble sculptures. The monument may have also avoided vandals because of its high pedestal.

From the book, Silent Cities
On page 52 of Silent Cities, in the chapter, “German Americans,” we find the image at left. It is easily one of the most remarkable cemetery memorials I’ve yet seen. David Koebler (1848 – 1898) was a hunter, I assume. The monument is large – a magnificently sculpted granite tree trunk with an anchor and lilies (typical Victorian death symbolism), yet highly personalized with the addition of the hunting symbolism. I’d love to know more about Koebler's story, the significance of the rabbit sitting on crossed shotguns, with marble hunting dogs above.  One may assume that Mr. Koebler has indeed gone on to that Happy Hunting Ground.

As I look through the Silent Cities book, I realize that I did not pay attention to most of the amazing non-angelic statues and architecture in these wonderful cemeteries. How did we miss them? As I said earlier, I was at the time shooting mainly angels, and unfortunately bypassed many of these other wonderful cemetery statues and monuments – a mistake I don’t plan to make again.

Please visit some of the cemeteries about which I’ve written. Here are their websites:

Monday, August 4, 2014

Vandals Strike in Wilmington Cemetery

Around mid-summer 2014, I was getting my car fixed at the Saab dealer in Wilmington, Delaware. After the sizable extraction of money from my wallet, I grabbed a burger and a Coke from a nearby fast food emporium. What better place to eat lunch than the nearby cemetery (its not just postal workers and cops who do this, you know). So I drove to Riverview Cemetery about half a mile down the road.

"Abiding faith and hope in a glorious reunion"
On entering the north side off Market Street (which is the newer half of the 1872 cemetery), I was a bit distracted by all the headstones that appeared to be knocked over, off their bases. I drove around to find some shade in which to park, and noted many more knocked-over headstones and small obelisks. Odd. I’d been in here many times before and would have definitely noticed this. Was it because the grass was cut so low that I’m seeing this? I’d been here before where the grass had grown kind of tall. Maybe I just never noticed them?

Doorless crypt
I stopped in the shade of some trees near a crypt which had its door removed; interesting stained glass window at the back. I ate my lunch and just got out of the car to photograph the stained glass when I realized a pickup truck was headed down the road toward me – I was blocking the road. There’s usually no activity at Riverview so it didn’t occur to me to pull off the road.

I moved my car to one side and then got out with my camera, to make it very obvious to the driver what I was doing there. Obviously the crypt had at one time lost its door to thieves so I didn't want anyone to think I was casing it out to steal the stained glass. Much thievery has occurred here over the years - you can tell by the blocked up doorways of the larger mausoleums. The truck stopped and the woman driving it looked at me and I said “Hi.” She asked if she could help me and I just told her I stopped to eat my lunch and take some pictures. I assumed she had some authority here so I wanted her to know that I was not up to no good. She probably assumed this, since I was driving a bright blue turbo Saab convertible – not the vehicle of choice for thieves and vandals.

Blocked up mausoleum
I mentioned to her that it appeared that many headstones had been knocked over. She told me this had only happened the previous week (July 15, 2014) – the work of vandals. Seventy monuments and other grave markers in all had been pushed off their bases. Given that horrible situation, I told her that it was great that she stopped me to see what I was up to. I introduced myself as a Board member of the Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. in Philadelphia, an organization of which she was well aware. She was the Secretary on the Board of the Friends of Riverview Cemetery.

Cylindrical grave markers displaced from their bases

Security is a major issue when you have limited funds to protect your space. Neither Riverview nor Mount Moriah have intact fencing, gates, or security patrols. Volunteers are left to patrol the grounds when they can. Local police sometimes cruise through, or park for a while. I myself have stopped people at Mount Moriah and asked if I could help them. Usually, they are there for a good reason, but sometimes not. You don’t want to lock the cemetery up and prevent visitors from accessing their loved ones’ graves while you’re keeping out vandals, scofflaws, and ne’er do wells. It is a challenge. After I posted the photograph below (with my blue car in it) on Facebook, someone made the comment, "One day the idiots responsible will go to visit their mother's grave and find it like this. Then they'll know the true cost of their criminality." Couldn't have said it better myself.

We struck up quite a conversation, the two of us there in Riverview, seeing many parallels between the cemeteries and our Friends groups. At some point the woman said, “What are the chances we would run into each other like this?” I replied, “Well, actually the chances are pretty good that two cemetery nerds would be in the same cemetery at the same time.” So I’ll make a few introductions and perhaps the two Friends groups can share some ideas to their mutual benefit. Like they say, everyone you meet knows something that you don’t!

Vandalized headstones at Riverview Cemetery
I had actually written about Riverview Cemetery back in 2012 (click here to read), when I noticed that the place seemed to be having a lot more attention paid to it than I was used to seeing. I’d been coming here since the early 2000s, when I first started having my previous Saabs repaired down the road at Sports Car Service. Weeds used to be waist high, but then new management took over in 2008 and things turned around. The Friends of Riverview Cemetery was actually granted legal ownership of the cemetery and through the hard work of these volunteers, Riverview Cemetery continues to be an active burial site. This is a goal for Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia/Yeadon – to once again have active burials once the ownership situation is resolved.

Riverview Cemetery chapel

It really is quite a nasty blow to Wilmington's Riverview Cemetery to have had all this damage done; the estimated repair cost is about $20,000, i.e., to reset all the stones and monuments. The owners, the Friends group, barely has enough money to cut the grass. I guess one of the useful things I did learn from this travesty is that so many grave markers, by design, merely sit on a stone base, without actually being attached to it. Perhaps modern headstone carvers should make headstones with steel dowels that fit into the base, to secure the stone. I have seen this with older marble headstones.

Anyone with information about the vandalism at Riverview Cemetery, please call the Wilmington police Confidential Tip Line at (302)576-3990.

References and Further Reading:
Riverview Cemetery website
Vandals damage 70 tombstones at cemetery
70 Headstones Toppled At Wilmington Cemetery