Friday, July 31, 2015

Shooting Old Graveyards with Old Cameras

What better way to test out a new camera than in a cemetery? And by “new,” I mean new to me. A good friend sold me an old Mamiya 645 Super, a medium format (meaning 120mm film, wider film than 35mm) camera with a 45mm Mamiya lens.

Why Film?
"Snyder bought another film camera?!"
Well, until prices plummet, I still cannot afford a full-frame DSLR. As of this writing, they are still at the $5,000 altitude. This is why, a few years ago, I purchased a Nikon F3 film SLR – an absolutely beautiful thirty-year-old camera! And yes, you can still buy most size and speeds of film, and yes, you can still get it processed. (The smart thing to do is to get hi-res scans done of each frame at time of processing – this may double the processing price, but its worth it. Most services will otherwise charge five dollars per frame to scan your images!)

(Philadelphia Photographics is the company I use, by the way, for film processing. They also do mail order and digital uploads.)

So recently, I purchased this five-pound dinosaur of a Mamiya medium format film camera. Why, you ask. Well, to get the resolution of a full-frame DIGITAL medium format camera, you would have to part with quite a few dead presidents. The digital version of the Mamiya 645 is – ready for this? TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS!! While I could soften the blow and just buy a digital back for my Mamiya at a mere $12,000, I think I shall be content with the wonderful film images this machine produces.

Even though my scanned images in this article may look good, bear in mind that they are only 4MB scans – the original 40 x 56 mm negatives offer infinite resolution. So when you think in terms of a full-frame 50 MP medium format digital camera FOR $25,000 – well, 50 MP is still a far cry from infinite resolution!

Why did I shoot my first photos in a cemetery?

A bit fuzzy, a bit overexposed
To paraphrase artist Georgia O’Keefe, tombstones don’t move and you don’t have to pay the statues modelling fees. Plus, I’ll use any excuse to visit and make photographs in a cemetery! The images you see here are from the first roll of Ilford FP4 Plus, ISO 125 black and white film that I shot in the Mamiya 645. I got fifteen frames to the roll – the images are rectangular versus square, as 120 film produces when used in a Holga. Most images came out well-exposed, though a few are out of focus. I’m thinking the fuzzy ones were more a result of my not holding the camera steady during exposure. I may have to use a slightly faster shutter speed in future. This one at right is also overexposed.

At about five pounds, this camera almost requires a tripod. Even with the handy side grip (which is part of the auto-winder), it’s a bit challenging to keep the camera steady while holding the prism viewfinder up to your eye. There is an optional top-view finder available for the Mamiya 645, but honestly, with my bad back and less-than-stellar eyesight, I think that may not work for me. I’ll just have to make the eye-level finder work. The prism focus aid works pretty well, but split-screens are easier to see.

Mamiya 645 with Canon DSLR (Rebel model)

Here are a couple photos I took to show the relative size of this behemoth – one with the Mamiya 645 next to my Canon Rebel DSLR (above) and one with it next to my Canon G11 DPS* camera. Funny how the G11 is about the size of the Mamiya’s auto-winder handle!

Mamiya 645 with Canon G11

*I call digital point-and-shoots “DPS” cameras in my book, Digital Photography for the Impatient.

When I was making these initial photographs at Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia, I purposely shot with as wide an aperture as possible on this bright sunny day. I wanted to make the most of shallow depth of field. Shallow depth of field is very difficult to attain with a digital system, unless you have a very expensive (fast) lens. The 45mm Mamiya lens on my camera opens to f2.8, which is the setting at which I made most of the black and white images you see here.

I also wanted to check internal light meter, to see if it was in the ballpark, and it was. I metered off the stone areas that I wanted to be properly exposed. Next time, I’ll meter off the middle gray card my friend gave me with the camera, to see how that changes things.

If, upon reading this, you feel that I adduce a tropism to film in this digital age, you are correct. However, it is not because I am analog-hearted. As I said earlier, film has Infinite resolution, whereas digital JPEGs and RAW files do not. When you produce a print from one of these 120mm negatives, you see the difference. So most of my serious photography is done with film, even in this late year of 2015. Digital, for me, is simply a convenience.

Someday, digital may totally replace film, as soon as high quality image sensors come down in price and are therefore available to the common man. Next up, this common man plans to shoot a roll of 120mm color film in the Mamiya 645 Super as he continues his regression into the dim, dark, and distant past of film photography!

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Pet Cemetery

The grave markers all had engraved names like, Twinkie, Muffie, and Simba. A few people were milling about, not sure if they were mourners or just tourists like me. The cemetery is not off the beaten path, but rather right on a main thoroughfare, at a traffic light, so it's relatively easy for curious motorists to wheel in. It's gigantic billboard-sized sign is not easy to miss, either. Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery is at the intersection of Beach Boulevard and Yorktown Avenue, merely a mile from the sea, and the Pacific Coast Highway.

Office entrance, Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery, Huntington Beach, California

The vicinity is about an hour south of Los Angeles. It is beautiful – Southern California at its finest. To say that Newport Beach, where I was actually staying, is an affluent area is like saying the Pope is an okay guy. In Newport Beach, even the pizza delivery guy drives a Porsche! (I swear I saw this during my visit.) Wealth, it seems, allows you to grieve any way you like. As I walked through the front half of this several-acre cemetery past the life-sized statue of “Old Sarge,” the U.S. Marine dog, I got a better idea of just how large the place is. The office entrance, shown above, is about a third of the way into the cemetery, which comprises several acres in total. 

There was an article published by the University of Pittsburgh in May, 2015, called, “Deathscapes in Metropolitan Colombia,” (written by Christien Klaufus) which was basically about how the affluent dead are memorialized (because they can afford it) and the non-affluent are forgotten (and sometimes obliterated). I thought about this as I visited the Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery in the next town over, Huntington Beach.

Animals, it seems, can enjoy a “defined social order of society” by virtue of their wealthy keepers. The Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery and Crematorium is the final resting place of thousands of animals which their owners have laid to rest. Each grave has its own regulation-sized bronze or marble engraved memorial plaque (same kind as are found in human cemeteries) to mark the burial spot. Statues of Saint Francis of Assisi abound (patron saint, and protector of, animals).

“Pet” is a rather outdated name for the animal companions that people choose to surround themselves with. And certainly, “pet” is not an accurate or fair moniker for “Old Sarge,” whose statue commands the central place in the cemetery, near the office entrance. From the “Roadside America” website:

"Old Sarge"
“Old Sarge, fighting Marine Corps "Devil Dog" of World War II, was a brave German shepherd who saved 9 marines and was awarded a purple heart. When he died at age 20, Old Sarge was seen off with a full military funeral and 15 gun salute." - Roadside America

Other star-quality animals buried here, according to Roadside America:  "Rumored to be the last resting place of John Wayne's German Shepherd and a few pets belonging to Karen Carpenter." John Wayne apparently lived in the area - the local Orange County airport into which I flew is called the John Wayne Airport. A statue of him sculpted in his famous cowboy swagger pose holds a prominent place in the lobby.

For the most part, the animals buried here are day-to-day common companions which residents felt very strongly about, and therefore went to the expense of cremating, burying, and memorializing here at Sea Breeze. And they have been doing this since 1961, according to The Sea Breeze Pet Cemetery website. 

"He knew he was human?" - Cat grave, Sea Breeze Cemetery

Hearkening oddly to the segregation burial practices in Columbia described in the University of Pittsburgh article, dogs are buried away from cats, cats away from birds, and so on. There is even a separate Jewish section, as we commonly find in human cemeteries! Though the South American practices of burying the rich away from the poor is not quite the same thing, these separate sections do make one wonder.

Like many human cemeteries, there is a defined section in which the graves are decorated with spinning things, photos of the deceased, plastic flowers, and other adornments. I wondered if the prior owners/human companions of these animals actually visited the graves. 

The crematory, with its requisite chimney, sits behind the office building. As it was late in the day, the place was closed. There were no employees about. This was unfortunate for me, as I had many questions. The fast food joint next door was open for business, however. Mercifully, there was a high brick wall separating it from the cemetery. One may not want to idly survey such a deathscape while munching on one’s tacos.

I didn’t have a lot of time to examine many gravestone inscriptions, but I was taken with a few. I was rather puzzled by the memorial to Corky the cat who "Knew he was human." Also interesting is the "Boo Boo" stone directly above on which they left a space for the next pet - just like in people cemeteries. Not sure if the iron pig with wings below was supposed to signify an angelic messenger, a celestial guide to heaven -  or just a deceased pig.

St. Francis of Assisi, between dog and cat sections
"Hear our humble prayer, O God,
for our friends the animals,
especially for animals who are suffering;
for animals that are overworked,
underfed and cruelly treated;
for all wistful creatures in captivity
that beat their wings against bars;
for any that are hunted or lost or deserted
or frightened or hungry;
for all that must be put death.
We entreat for them all Thy mercy and pity,
and for those who deal with them
we ask a heart of compassion
and gentle hands and kindly words.
Make us, ourselves, to be true friends to animals,
and so to share the blessings of the merciful."

Friday, July 17, 2015

Chattanooga and Forest Hills Cemetery

Strange that I recently got back from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and now its all over the news. Not for a good thing. A gunman opened fire on July 16, 2015, at a military recruitment center and killed four U.S. Marines (see link at end for more information). 

When I was there, I visited a few cemeteries, including the Chattanooga National Cemetery, which may be the final resting place of the four marines killed in the recent shooting. One of the other cemeteries I visited was Forest Hills, on the south side of the city, closer to Lookout Mountain (arguable the city’s main tourist draw).

Forest Hills Cemetery, Chattanooga, Tennessee

If you like Victorian-era cemeteries, Forest Hills is worth a visit. It’s got the marble statues, the angels, the bronze busts. It has many uniquely-styled mausoleums on its main road, with monuments galore populating its many hills and dales. The odd thing about Forest Hills, for me, is that I didn’t know any of this before I went to Chattanooga. The Forest Hills Cemetery website itself didn't give me a very clear picture of the beauty within (literally, there are no very clear pictures on the site!). I did find out, however, that the cemetery was established in 1880 and is actually in a Chattanooga suburb called St. Elmo.

D.C. Trewhitt, Civil War veteran
I had done some Internet research before my trip and only came up with two major cemeteries within the city proper - Chattanooga National Cemetery and the Confederate Cemetery (both of which I visited). Usually, you can find photographs on the Internet that people have taken in cemeteries, so you have some idea of whether a particular cemetery has a lot of Victorian mourning sculpture – which is generally what I find most interesting. However, I came up with nothing on Forest Hills ahead of time, save the name, and a few facts from its website. Certainly I knew nothing about D.C.Trewhitt, whose likeness is carved in stone at left. (Daniel C. Trewhitt, by the way, was a Chattanooga judge and resident, who enlisted in the Union Army's 2nd Regiment of the Tennessee Infantry during the Civil War.)

Marble statue detail with anatomically correct toes!

So how did I end up in Forest Hills? Purely by chance! I had actually planned to drive about two miles south across the Tennessee border into Georgia to visit the small family Dixon Cemetery, in Catoosa County. The only reason being so I could quote these directions from the FindAGrave website:
“It is reached by crossing the Tennessee-Georgia state line, Hwy 41 North, turn left at Scruggs Road, proceed one and a half miles and go under the bridge over I-75. Turn right through the gate to the Brainerd Optimist Club Drag Strip. The cemetery is on top of the hill adjacent to the interstate and to the right of a house.”
Since I was nowhere near Colbert County, Alabama, and it’s Coon Dog Cemetery could not be on my agenda (click link if you think I’m making this up), the five-gravestone Dixon Cemetery near the dragstrip would have to do. But that was before I found the brochure, “On the Glory Land Road – The Religious Heritage Sites of Southeast Tennessee,” published by the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. I think I picked this up near my hotel somewhere.

Paging through the brochure, I came upon a photo of a mausoleum next to a paragraph describing Forest Hills Cemetery. It said:

Magnolia, Forest Hills Cemetery
“Of particular interest to us is Forest Hills Cemetery (4016 Tennessee Avenue). Forest Hills is noted for its vast collection of stones, mausoleums and memorials carved in styles and depicting themes ranging from neo-classical to gothic to Victorian. At over 100 acres, the cemetery is also maintained as a botanical garden, containing a wide variety of fruit trees and other flowering plants.”

Odd. Why did I find none of this on the Internet, the source of all wisdom and knowledge? I decided to forgo the Dixon family cemetery near the dragstrip so I could check out Forest Hills. After the fact, I’m glad I did! Forest Hills is an absolute gem of a Victorian cemetery. Granted, it was hotter than Hades when I rolled through the main gates, which is not the most conducive climate for sight-seeing, but I managed to get in a solid hour there before heading for the airport. The cemetery has an office, and I wished I'd had the time to stop in, but I did not.

Mausoleum, Forest Hills Cemetery, Chattanooga, Tennessee

Forest Hills Cemetery is in a blue-collar neighborhood on the outskirts of Chattanooga. It is not in a sketchy, inner-city area where most of the best Victorian cemeteries usually are. It is populated with very large trees that provide some much-needed shade. A woman was walking her dog near this strange-looking mausoleum while I was there. Unlike the tree with the dates carved into it (photo below), the cylindrical mausoleum vault (above) totally "stumped" me.

Granite tree trunk marker, "1877 - 1887"
It was June when I was in Chattanooga, and the magnolias were in bloom. I’m not talking bushes, I’m talking the most enormous magnolia trees I have ever seen. It was quiet here, but hot. There was the singular large zinc monument among the granite and marble. There were twin, life-sized marble angels flanking a giant column. The statues of mourning women were in ample supply, as were the Woodmen of the World stones. This one, in particular, was rather interesting – it had the birth and death dates carved in granite twigs around a large stump.

Forest Hills Cemetery had many interesting details, though I had only an hour to try to see them. I liked the cobwebs on this bronze woman that was part of a mausoleum door. Although the monuments and other stones are quite old, and natural degradation is obvious, there seems to be no vandalism to speak of. Lawns are manicured and the entire place seems well cared for.

Had to get to catch my flight so I pulled out of the cemetery, drove down the road a piece, and stopped by a BBQ joint to pick up a pulled pork sandwich with coleslaw, and an iced tea. Figured I could eat this as I flew up Interstate 24 to the airport. Hadn’t expected a traffic jam, so I was able to manage the sandwich quite easily in the stop-and-go traffic. Why would anyone make a pulled pork sandwich on Texas Toast, though, I ask you? And in Tennessee, besides?

Read more about: Chattanooga shooting: 4 Marines killed, a dead suspect and questions of motive

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Independence Day

So I was wracking my brain for something to write about on this July Fourth, Independence Day. There certainly is no shortage of Revolutionary War-related cemeteries in the Philadelphia area in which I live. However, the term “Independence Day” kind of stuck in my brain as a good descriptor for this Cemetery Traveler blog that I write. Since I write it basically to please myself, I am rather independent when it comes to subject matter. That is, I can write what I want.

Flag representing the 13 original colonies, St. Peter's
Sometimes I write about topical things, but mostly, its about history and the cemeteries that call it to mind. Fortunately, this stuff never gets old, as it says on the banner in the photo below. (This was taken in 2014, by the way, at the churchyard cemetery of old St. Peter's Church at Third and Pine Streets, in Philadelphia. St. Peter's, est. in 1761, has many Revolutionary War-era graves.) The fact that I have 250 followers leads me to believe that my readers do not mind this approach. Of course, I do follow a wide path, in that everything I write is somehow cemetery-related. I do appreciate the fact that so many people read this blog, and it kind of snuck up on me this past spring that I am entering my FIFTH year of writing it!

St. Peter's Church at Third and Pine Streets, in Philadelphia
With independence, then, comes a sort of responsibility. I am responsible to you, my readers, to create something worth reading. I am also responsible to myself, to have created something which am proud to call my own.

So happy Independence Day, 2015. While we are ensconced for the weekend in backyard barbecues, parades, flag-waving, fireworks, and all manner of "rockets' red glare" stuff, think about this photo above. The peace sign. I was surprised to see it the other day in front of a rowhome down the street from where I live in Philadelphia. It brought back memories of the late 1960's when I would see this symbol all over the place because of the Vietnam War. There have been many other wars involving the United States since then. Have we learned anything from them? Our forefathers fought in the Revolutionary War for freedom. So I have the freedom, within limits, to write anything I want in this blog. What do we fight for now?