Friday, April 11, 2014

Why do you photograph cemeteries?

Back in mid-winter (oh, maybe January 2014), I started a Facebook Group Page called “Snow in Cemeteries.” The 2013-14 winter saw snow in 49 of the 50 United States – Florida being the only state in which it did not snow! Due mainly to the exuberant response (there were postings from all over the world – Germany, Canada, Brasil, Great Britain, Poland, even Texas!), it occurred to me to make this post:

“Ok, here's a question for everyone: Why do you photograph cemeteries? (People would ask me this, and for years, I did not have an answer.)”
Let’s take a look at why some people make photographs in cemeteries. I believe I had about 75 responses, almost immediately. I wanted to share some with my Cemetery Traveler readers. You may be surprised by some, amazed at others. In all, they are quite inspiring! (I’ve added my own photographs to break up the text.)

Denise MacL. – “As a child, I loved listening to the elderly people telling stories of days gone past...and then I liked to see where these people were buried. After a while, I started visiting cemeteries to read the stones and piece together the history. Then I began to notice the art within and photography became a way for me to capture the beauty found. As well, it fills my 'cup of happiness' to spend a day in such a tranquil place filled with heartwarming 'stories', sentiments and beauty. It is my form of meditation and oddly, I find it exhilarating. I feel more alive after spending the day there.”

Kim P-S: “I began visiting cemeteries with my grandmother when I was a teenager. We mainly went because she shared so much of our family history and visited their graves because these are what remains (seriously no pun intended) of their lives. Their existence is literally written in stone. In the ensuing years as I got older and began soul-searching, I needed to feel as though I belonged in this world, and would visit my ancestors' graves on a regular basis to help me feel grounded. I am not trying to sound cliché by using these words. I mean it very literally. So when digital photography became popular and mainstream, it was just a natural and amazing way for me to carry these images with me. And then I began just visiting cemeteries I encountered wherever I went for the simple peace and beauty of them. I love discovering all the people that have come before me. And I take photos regularly for Find A Grave, and have been able to fill photo requests for people researching their family who do not live near where their ancestors are buried. I derive great joy from "reuniting" family members. It is free and brings me joy and knowledge. I could go on and on, but in a nutshell, that's why I love photographing cemeteries.”

Denise M. – “ It is a passion and an obsession...”
Alexandra M. -  “My interest in photographing --and writing about--cemeteries developed from my career as a funeral director. I must say that I far prefer spending time in cemeteries in an artistic capacity.”

Dave W. -  “For me it began as a genealogical quest. Placing me in cemeteries, recording the information on tombstones. Then taking photos (35mm) for the addition to my charts. All this bringing me to a large cemetery in the town I grew up in. Thus taking me back to redo the photos with my first Polaroid digital camera. Seeing one of my family plots with the grass over grown, I began to take my mower with me to do these plots. In this process I met the board president of the cemetery, he thanked me, told me the struggles of a non-profit cemetery and since having family in the cemetery I could participate at the board meetings so I went. I continued to take photos of family members in cemeteries, but while in this one I began to see carvings, unique t/stones and began taking more. Sometimes just sitting in the peaceful area and reflecting. Then names of others became interesting. So I starting writing down their histories, which led to a Historical Tour held in October each year, which led to a fundraiser. Placing me in cemeteries more and more, particularly in this one. … So due to the peace of the cemetery, the excitement of a new find, to the beauty of nature and the artistic tombstones, I became, a cemetery junkie! … You did show me the art in it. I like the art, and often place my mind into the chipping and cutting to create. However in my mind it is impossible, lol... Peeling was a local carver here, his forte' was lambs, I just cannot imagine creating such art from stone. Now that is what I look for...... Oh a name once in a while too, but never as before!”

John O'B. -  “History written in stone.”
Tina DeM. – “It’s a unique canvas of interesting photos and stories waiting to be told.”

Cheryl F. – “My dad would take me to his family cemeteries in VA when I was a child. He was a photographer and had a darkroom in our basement so I became fascinated with the process. He was more into documentation/genealogy, I was more into the art/landscape in the cemeteries. I began photographing cemetery art when I was in high school and picked it up again when I started teaching pinhole camera design to my sophomore chem students. Now I've published a coffee table book of my cemetery photos so I've really gone over to the darkside LOL.”
Julie E. - “I started doing it back in the 80's when I was taking photography classes. The teacher was horrified by it. But --- it made good black and whites and if I did something I didn't like or didn't get what I wanted I could always go back because those folks -------- weren't going anywhere. They would always be in the same place --- so I could redo till I got what I needed. Unfortunately, I never could have imagined that my life would go the road it did -- and I did not save those photos or negatives. I think maybe only two or three photos survive out of hundreds. Imagine ----- the photographic record I would have had for myself in that cemetery. When it came time for me to show Megan how to work the manual camera - that's where I took her ----- the cemetery.”

Denise J. - “Because they have a beauty, all their own. Time stands still there.”
Andrea W. - “Because I love it.”

James V. – “For some strange reason I've always been attracted to Cemeteries regardless of where I've been. From my hometown in Wisconsin to the one across from my grandmother’s house in Colorado. San Diego to Hollywood to Alexandria Virginia. Always respectful always curious. From the statues and artwork to the names and lives they've lived. I personally found photography late in life. Wish I had then. When I finally came up to Philadelphia from VA, the Forest Hills/Shalom was down the street which I ventured. It wasn't until I moved in Mayfair where I found a person who had similar interests in Cemeteries. I found out she was into photography and would photograph cemeteries and certain stones of interest. She showed me Laurel Hill East and West and we would go there taking photos, she with her camera me with my phone, that is until my wonderful wife bought me the best Christmas gift EVER! A D5100 Nikon with 2 lenses. Now I had a real camera, but a lot to learn. As you know, Ed, when we first met at Laurel Hill on photography night was my first night shoots. I've taught myself much since then yet Cemeteries and Tombstones are still my favorite and always will be!”
“I was up in Easton with a friend, we had spare time and I saw the Easton Cemetery and wanted to stop in and check it out. He was driving and he gave me a look like I was insanely joking and kept driving. I will get up there again one day. … have not had the opportunity to truly investigate it because I'm usually with my family and when I mention stopping in I get the usual uninterested sigh of, ‘Omg, no, please don't make us dad.’ From my family. Lol”

Jacqueline T. - "I've been there [Vandegrift Cemetery] and shot as much as I could because a lot of the stones are unreadable. It's very small and the people at the fire house across the street were looking at me funny lol...they just wouldn't understand lol..."

Patricia K. – “Because there is nobody around to look at me strange when I take 3000 photos of the same object.”

Debra H. - “I Don't Photograph At All. I Don't Even Own A Camera, Unless You Count The One In My IPad, Or My Old Polaroid- I Don't Even Know Where That Is. Anyway - I Really Am Captivated By This Genre. Even The Post-Mortem Photography Is Interesting To Me. I Very Much Enjoy All Of Your Contributions. Thank You For What You Do!”

Tammy G. - “When I was a kid I used to go with my parents to two cemeteries to care for graves of our loved ones. While my parents were busy cutting grass and such my brother and I would wander around the cemetery. I loved doing it, looking at the stones, being careful not to walk on any graves. Later on as a teen we would drive to various cemeteries and talk about local legends. (Every town has them.) (Which inspired me to write my book.) So now, I love the peace, the art and history. I wonder about those buried. I love being able to share and to see what others have to share. That's some of the reasons. … I think my parents did a fine job but what I didn't mention is when we went to cemeteries as teens, we were partying. Even still...we were always respectful.”

Dee M. – “I started photographing cemeteries as an off-shoot of my genealogy. The more time I spent in cemeteries checking out the graves of my ancestors, the more I noticed how peaceful and beautiful they are. I don't think there is anywhere else in this world that you can find such heartfelt, artistic beauty as in a cemetery.”

Joe G. - “Good question, Ed, it made me think.
    1) Most cemeteries are beautiful places, by design, and the landscapes, the architecture, the sculptures all make such wonderful subjects, photographically.
    2) I'm intrigued by the iconography of funereal sculpture and architecture.
    3) The sense of history can be so strong, from the micro level of individual and inter-family relationships and life stories written on the headstones, up to the macro level of our own national history as you visit the graves of historical figures.
    4) Cemeteries are such peaceful places to walk, meditate, see nature, and think about the human condition.”

Susan S. – “I can remember always being afraid of cemeteries as a young girl. I don't know why, but I would hold my breath whenever we drove past a grave yard. Now I find myself drawn to them, finding peace and solace as I walk through those hollowed grounds. As many of you have stated, I too find myself thinking about the lives that once were, and are no more on this earth. Thus bringing to the forefront of my being, my own mortality. The difference between my childhood fears of death and all things related to it, and my peace and serenity of the same, is due to the eventuality of an acceptance of my own mortality. The knowing, in my own soul, that all is not finished when our lives on earth are done. There is more, much more ahead, just over yonder.....”

Anthony S. – “I photograph cemeteries as a form of Memento Mori.”
Teresa R. - “There’s so much peace there, and the beauty of them I feel calm when I’m there and a closeness to my family.”

John O'B. – “In 2005 I went to England. I went to many places including the British museum. To save weight I brought many memory cards instead of a computer. I toured the entire museum and took over 300 pictures. When I finally got home and looked at what I took I found. Gravestones, mummies, tombs and lot of funeral related stuff. So my tastes have been predetermined. I like graveyards and photograph them. Because I like it!”

Johanna C. – “As a kid (Youngest of 8) Cemeteries were my secret hiding spot from my family. Became fascinated by the statuary and the fact that someone took the time to handcarve/etch each one. I'd bring a drawing pad and a thermos of juice with me each day as I rode my bike to the nearest one. As an adult, I still visited the families stones that seemed abandoned and would tidy them up/plant flowers. Many years later I found out about and jumped right into it. They still are my favorite secret solitude away from home.”

Katie K. – “ Simple answer? Even at a young age I appreciated architecture and sculpture, but there is SO much of it. When I opened my eyes, as a teenager, to the sculpture in cemeteries, I discovered a way to narrow the field down and focus on a small subset examples, which represented so many styles. Upon first learning about funerary symbolism, I knew I had found my niche. So, in essence, it was a matter of simply paring down my interests to what interested me the most. That, and, well, cemeteries are reflective of the communities they serve so it's a great way to get a quick local history lesson. … I didn't realize that was my process, Ed, until you asked the question and I really thought long and hard about it. So.... thanks for posing the question!”

Dawn H. – “Visiting a cemetery is like therapy to calm me. I have been doing it since I was a child. Photography came later after I discovered all the treasures that are held within them. I have never been to a cemetery that I didn't find something that was beautiful.”