Thursday, March 10, 2016

Headstones – My Favorite Non-paved Surfaces

The weather mavens said on the radio the other day that snow was being forecast for the following morning, with a one to two-inch accumulation expected on non-paved surfaces. It continues to baffle me how the snow itself can actually discern a paved surface (roadway, parking lot, etc.) from a non-paved surface, and adjust its accumulation characteristics accordingly. One of MY favorite non-paved surfaces, by the way, happens to be grave markers.

Conditions were perfect on the morning in question – lightly snowing, about half an inch of heavy, wet snow covering my car, 39 degrees, no wind. With any luck, the monuments and tombstones at Philadelphia’s Laurel Hill Cemetery were also lightly covered, and would stay that way for a while. Being two weeks before Easter, this was probably the last snow of winter. I wanted to take advantage of it and make some photographs to post on my ”Cemeteries in the Snow” Facebook group page.

My friend Frank, who works at Laurel Hill, called me saying “It’s a winter wonderland up here!” This confirmed my suspicions that I was making a worthwhile run. The cemetery is about eight miles from where I live, and takes about forty minutes to drive there.

I arrived at the cemetery about 9:30 a.m., and shot for about two hours. The paved surfaces – the roadways – were clear of snow, which is key to me getting good photographs. My Saab convertible is about as effective in snow as a hoverboard. Someday I’ll get an SUV so I can plow through the snow and get all those great photos I’ve been missing.

What kind of photographs can you get in graveyards in the snow that you can't get when there is no snow? For one thing, snow allows you to create temporary graffiti on headstones (do clean them off after you are done so as not to irk other visitors).

Snow also adds contrast to the degree that it forces your eye in directions it may not have taken without the snow. For example, as many times as I’ve been to Laurel Hill Cemetery, I had never noticed this moth carving. I’ve only ever seen the moth on rare occasions on cemetery statuary. Consider this interesting passage from the Recoleta Cemetery (Buenos Aires) website:

"Moths are perfect symbols for cemeteries… Just think about it. As a caterpillar wraps itself in a cocoon, it appears to be dead. But after metamorphosis takes place, it is reborn as a winged creature that is attracted to light. The life cycle of a moth is therefore a wonderful allegory for a loved one who passes away, is transformed & later reborn… heading to the light."

"Heading to the light" - I like that description.You typically only see moths at twilight, flitting around a light of some sort. Death - in Western cultures - is typically seen as a nighttime thing, after which we eventually hope to see the heavenly light. Below is another depiction of spiritual release - the soul of the departed with wings, leaving the coffin and floating heavenward.

My buddy Frank, who had been busy working all morning, phoned me in the early afternoon to see if I had been there. When I told him I had been there and gone, he said, “You’re lucky you came early, there’s nothing left on any of the statues!” It had warmed up and most of the snow had melted away. Not all my photographic endeavors have been this successful!

Temporary graffiti, and a comment on mortality

Zinc monument, Laurel Hill Cemetery
Photographically, I made images that day with an assortment of cameras. For this blog post, I purposely used only those I made with my Apple iPhone 6. I get slightly different perspectives with the camera phone (phone camera?). The image at right came out rather well - a very unusual zinc (or "white bronze" - see my previous blog post about this) grave marker. This is about eight feet high and is inscribed on all four sides with information about the husband and wife who are buried beneath it. The snow makes the metal stand out more than it would against a grassy background.  

I posted several of the iPhone photographs I made during my visit on Instagram, having just opened one of these photo-based social media accounts. (Find me, Ed Snyder, as "mourningarts" on Instagram:

As a photographer, it’s good to have destination sites in mind for when the weather decides to cooperate with your artistic tendencies. It's also good to be familiar with the site. It gives you the opportunity to use clever captions like this one for your photos:

March certainly came in like a lion this year!

If I had a handy cemetery lamb photo I would post that here. However, I don't, so that’s probably a wrap for my snowy cemetery excursions this year. Here in Philadelphia, we probably won't get any more snow on my favorite non-paved surfaces until next winter. Time to adjust my photographic endeavors accordingly. Next up - spring! Make hay while the sun shines, as they say!