Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Cemetery Photographs of Ansel Adams

The joy of finding things out after the fact, is, in my opinion, more fun than finding things out ahead of time. For instance, if you know about the Grand Canyon beforehand, and then you go to see it, you will probably go, “Wow ... “(while emitting a heavy sigh). On the other hand, if you never knew of its existence, and you stumbled upon it, you would be absolutely stunned.

On a smaller scale, this happens to me a lot. I visit many cemeteries. While I may look up their location beforehand, I generally do no research as to the interesting things inside, so to speak. I prefer to discover them myself.

In certain cases, I get upset when I find that I've missed things, like all the mobsters’ graves at St. John Cemetery in Queens, NY. On the other hand, I was quite tickled when I happened upon, all by my lonesome, U.S. President Grover Cleveland‘s grave marker in New Jersey’s Princeton Cemetery.

I had visited a few small cemeteries in Long Beach, California, in 2013. Sunnyside Cemetery on Signal Hill was singular in that oil derricks surrounded the neighborhood. While doing some research on the cemetery for a blog I wrote about one of its few statues (seeAngel in the House” - The Female Victorian Ideal?), an angel, I happened upon some information related to the only other life-sized statue in the small cemetery – a non-angel. While I found the latter to be less interesting than the former, I did make a few photos of it – some with the derricks in the background, some without. I prefer the photos without the derricks (one of mine is at the beginning of this blog).

"Angel of Sorrows," sunnyside Cemetery, Long Beach, California

It seems that master photographer Ansel Adams preferred the derricks. That is, he made photographs of this statue in 1939 with the derricks in the scene. Well, I cannot say for sure that he did not photograph the statue without the derricks, but this is the one he printed and is part of his vast portfolio. When Adams made these and other photographs in the Los Angeles area in 1939-40, the oil derricks were taller and the trees were shorter.

"Cemetery Statue & Oil Derricks, Long Beach, Calif." - Ansel Adams, 1939

Modern oil derricks near Sunnyside Cemetery
While not exactly kismet, it is interesting to me that Adams and I photographed the same statue, seventy-four years apart. Reportedly (ref.), the statue is called "Angel of Sorrows." What I wonder about is why I preferred to photograph just the statue? For me, the relic of someone’s existence should stand alone. For Adams, perhaps the same relic is shown in the context of the bigger picture, amidst the needs and wants of the larger human family,. As a conservationist, perhaps photographing the oil derricks so close to a consecrated burial ground was social commentary. Certainly, this other image (below) that he made for Fortune magazine in 1940 draws even greater attention to that.

"Sunnyside Cemetery in Long Beach," Ansel Adams, c. 1940 (Ref.)

Adams’ other famous cemetery photograph, by the way, "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941" is more pictorial than documentary. The photograph (shown below) is arguably "the best known and most sought after photograph in the field of fine-art photography" (ref.). You may be surprised that other master photographers have also made photographs in cemeteries. Walker Evans photographed St. Michael’s Cemetery in Bethlehem, PA (1935), Paul Strand photographed headstones in Vermont (1944), and even Edward Weston photographed graveyards and funerary chapels in New Orleans (1941).

Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, 1941 - Ansel Adams (ref.)

Other than Adams’ “Moonrise” photo, none of these other internationally famous photographers became internationally famous for their cemetery photographs. Perhaps they were still cutting their teeth to find their niche. They have since become widely known and have achieved great acclaim for photographing other subjects – landscapes, people, still-lifes. Perhaps their studies of form and shape related to cemetery architecture was part of their formative process of seeing the world. Perhaps it is mine, as well.

I'd like to conclude this post with an explanation of Ansel Adams' Long Beach photographs, which I quote from the Los Angeles Public Library website. You may find this amusing!

"Around 1939, Ansel Adams was commissioned by Fortune magazine to photograph a series of images for an article covering the aviation history of the Los Angeles area. For the project, Adams took 217 photographs showing everyday life, businesses, street scenes, aerospace employees, and a variety of other subjects, but when the article, "City of Angels," appeared in the March 1941 issue, only a few of the images were included. In the early 1960s, approximately 20 years later, Adams rediscovered all of the photographs among papers at his home in Carmel, and sent a letter of inquiry to the Los Angeles Public Library, asking if the institution would be interested in receiving the collection as a donation. In his letter, Adams expressed that, "the weather was bad over a rather long period and none of the pictures were very good" and "if they have no value whatsoever, please dispose of them in the incenerator [sic]." He went on to write that "I would imagine that they represent about $100.00 minimum value." In response, the Los Angeles Public Library gladly accepted the gift of 135 contact prints and 217 negatives, and the staff concluded that a fair value for the collection would be $150.00"

References and Further Reading:

Los Angeles Was Once a Forest of Oil Derricks (Some pretty amazing 1940s-era photographs of Long Beach, CA in this article!)
Christmas in Bethlehem (a Cemetery Traveler blog I wrote which includes information about Walker Evans' cemetery photography)