Saturday, January 18, 2014

Elysian Fields – The Second Coming

As you may recall from our last episode, I spent some time photographing an abandoned cemetery and had a bit of a challenge getting out afterwards. So when the opportunity arose to return to the same site two days later, I licked my wounds, cuts, scrapes, and bruises and jumped at the opportunity. You know what they say about lost opportunity: “a squandered gift, a wasted day, time chases life away” (at least the band Slaid Cleaves says so in their song, “Sinner’s Prayer”).

How did this come about? Well, some friends of mine expressed interest in photographing this same site, folks who like me, appreciate the beauty in entropy. It was such an amazing place, that I could not resist a second visit. I was to meet them nearby and we would all climb the fence into the graveyard. We met at the appointed hour; however, I misjudged the expected activity at the site next door. This had been staid on my last visit; now, it was now teeming with activity. Backhoes digging, pickup trucks zooming around. So we found a climbable section of the fence, out of view of the construction people. My companions, who were much younger and more limber than I, had no difficulty getting up the fence and down the vine-covered tree on the other side. I had some difficulty, the final portion of my trip culminating with a slide down yonder which scraped a few inches of skin on my forearm. But hey, no guts, no glory. 

Off we trudged into the old, gnarly graveyard. Sky was clear, weather was cold. This particular area was easy to walk through, but just ahead we could see hillocks of invasive mile-a-minute weeds engulfing monuments, headstones, and everything else in its path. Looked like a lunar landscape of dead farmland, or something. The cemetery is preserved, but not in a way that it was intended. Trees, growing at odd angles, their crooked branches strangled by vines, are so huge that they dwarf and enshroud thirty-foot tall obelisks. You wonder if old cemetery trees look as they do partly because of the arsenic and other nasty embalming chemicals in the soil.

While my prior visit to Elysian Fields (not its real name, as you may have guessed) offered a splendid opportunity for independent study, this visit would be otherwise. Shooting with others forces you to see things differently, sometimes to see things their way. It’s also safer if you’re not by yourself – who knows what you’d come upon in such a place - thieves stealing bronze doors off mausoleums, animals, or worse. I pointed out some familiar locations to my fellow photographers. At least one member of the party had never been in here, and it’s interesting to see that look of wide-eyed wonder on someone when you know they appreciate the initial experience as much as you did. Kind of like when a friend took me to the movies when Jaws was first released. He had seen the film a couple days before and knew when all the scary parts would happen. Instead of watching the movie at those times, he watched me to see my reaction!

I can describe this old graveyard to the best of my ability, but it really is not something that can be adequately expropriated by word or even image (though I am satisfied with the images I made). On a smaller scale, it would be akin to me describing or photographing the Grand Canyon and expecting you to appreciate it as if you were there. 

This was the type of day that achieves meteorological perfection, photography-wise. During my visit two days before, I must admit I was rather in a fugue state: kind of an altered state of consciousness in which you move about purposely but are not fully aware. Almost like the Stendhal Syndrome. The place has that kind of effect on you. Even with four of us moving around making photographs, reading epitaphs, little was spoken. There was little interaction as each individual took in the scene though his own filter.

Did it seem anti-climactic for me to be here a second time just days after my last visit? I might say that I wasn’t filled to the brim with a sense of purpose, though such photographic plentitude allowed me to concentrate on more detail than before. I made better and closer photographs of the monuments, I went inside the mausoleums whose doors were ajar. True, I was familiar with the terrain and locations of certain monuments, but repeatedly walking through a cemetery does not repeat the experience. You can never step into the same river twice. The weather changes, the lighting changes – even if you are there at the same time of day as I was two days before!

Though it was a sunny day, it was again cold – in the forties. Tomorrow it would rain, the next day it would turn sharply colder and snow. The angels and mourning women care not, as they commune in the shadows of giant obelisks and monuments. The famous and not so famous comingle throughout this vast sculpture garden, the tangles of foliage giving evidence of Nature trying to reclaim her territory.

As we enter beckoning mausoleums with their missing stained glass windows, it is evident that theft occurs. No one legitimately comes in here, save the very occasional descendant. I notice a couple of fresh Christmas wreaths lying at the base of two headstones, their dried-up predecessors lying outside the plot area. Weird. Aside from this, everything looks as if in suspended animation, but from what year? 1970? 1940? 1910? Difficult to say. In its present state, this place has an immense amount of character, and is one of the most photographically interesting abandoned sites in the history of history.

Typically cemeteries offer distinct boundaries between the sacred and the profane, but this place is quite the opposite. There is memory preservation here, and that’s good. But perpetual care? Not so much. The child buried beneath the statue (in the photo below) will always be a child. John Barrymore’s legend will live through the ages, but who visits and honors his grave? A cemetery is a way of preserving things. Not necessarily the past, more like the present. This forsaken old Victorian graveyard is not just who we were, it is also who we are. However, I’ve learned to keep an open mind about such abandoned sites as this – just because it is not kept up does not mean people don’t care about it. 

All the while I was at Elysian Fields I was getting texts and cell phone calls. Rather annoying and couldn’t concentrate. So I decided to leave before the others were done. I had an ulterior motive, I must confess: I was not keen on having witnesses to my expected ungraceful exit over the fence! So I made my way through the weeds, back behind the beyond where I expected to find safe passage home. 

Unfortunately, the backhoes were now digging right there! Second best, I would attempt to climb the tree where we had come in, and hop the fence at that point. I managed to get to the top of the barbed-wire fence by pulling myself up the tree like freaking George of the Jungle when – a pickup truck zoomed into view! I did not want anyone to see me, though I wasn’t at all sure they would even care, so I loosened my gloved grip and the vines gave way! The only thing that broke my six-foot fall were all the dry-rotted tree branches lying on the ground. They say our physical senses reflect our current belief system. If that is indeed the case, I believe I just fell out of a tree. But they also say that the responsibility for our pain is our own.

After checking to make sure nothing else was broken, I got pissed off and grabbed the nearest vine and pulled myself up to the top off the fence, damn the pickup trucks. I got to the top, saw no one in site and made a break for it. I dropped down the opposite side, grabbed my photography gear, and walked nonchalantly across the grounds to my car. As nonchalantly as I could with torn pants and sticks and leaves sticking out of my hair.

Creating abandoned site photographs is exhilarating. The danger is evident in every picture. This is probably why I enjoy similar work by others – I know how difficult it is to gain access to these places. I appreciate others’ work, when it is something that I myself may be too scared to attempt.

Please click here to read part one of this story:
A New Year - A New Abandoned Cemetery