Monday, April 27, 2020

Cemetery Socializing

Allyson, Ed, and Owen outside Mt. Vernon Cemetery, Phila.
Back in the late fall of 2017, my friend Owen let me know that he’d be visiting the U.S. in February, and invited me to do some graveyard photography. Owen lives in France, not far from Pere Lachaise, so I always found it ironic that he could find any cemetery outside of Paris very interesting. But he does. And he has photographed and explored them the world over, with stunning results. The previous year he and I hiked through the infamous, massive, formerly-abandoned Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia.

Owen and I met as Facebook friends some years ago, and appreciate each other’s photography. Toward the end of 2017, I made the acquaintance of another cemetery photographer, Allyson Pettigrew, this time through Instagram. She is, in my opinion, a rising star in the cemetery photography genre. I introduced Allyson to Owen via Instagram, and we started following each other’s work.

Allyson photographing zinc memorial
I suggested to Owen that we ask Allyson to join us when the time came for his visit to the states. He agreed. Such an easy thing to, back in the pre-Coronavirus days. Just plan to get together and then do it. Not so easy today. With the world locked down here in April 2020, social-distancing is the norm and we’re all sheltering in place (unless you need food). No one knows how or when the COVID-19 pandemic will end. We wax nostalgic for the good old days when we could carry a social media virtual “friendship” forward into the realm of ACTUAL friendship – then follow those actual friends as they consider climbing over a fence into an abandoned graveyard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Mount Peace Cemetery angel
When February 2018 rolled around, Owen hit town. The three of us agreed to meet at Mount Peace Cemetery in Philadelphia, check out Mount Vernon (through its bars, as it has been subject to its own form of lockdown for many years, i.e., off limits to the public), and then head over to Laurel Hill Cemetery, just across Ridge Avenue. All three cemeteries are just about next to each other. Quite convenient for us cemetery travelers.

Mount Peace Cemetery monument
After introductions and handshaking (gee, how many years will it be until people do THAT anymore?), we spent some time exploring Mount Peace and gazing longingly through the bars of a rhyme – as the Dire Straits song goes – actually, through the bars into the unkempt Mount Vernon Cemetery. (That's my selfie of us at the top of this article, looking through the bars into Mount Vernon.) Owen had a monster lens, so he was able to some great shots. We chatted about our work, strolled Mount Peace’s grounds, and photographed some monuments. We appreciated each others’ company based on a mutual respect for each others’ work.

Mount Vernon Cemetery from the locked entrance gate
When I first noticed Allyson’s work on Instagram, I would linger on the images as they seemed so familiar. I realized she was from Philly, as I am, and so it was not surprising that she photographed many of the same monuments in the same cemeteries as I had over the years. The disturbing fact, however, was that her images were BETTER than mine, lol! Do check out her Instagram feed @allyson_underland.

Mount Vernon Cemetery, Philadelphia

It really is useful to me, as a photographer, to see the same scene from another photographer’s perspective. Years ago, I used to photograph with a friend who was considerably shorter than me. She would complain that I was able to get a high vantage point (being 6’2”) for my compositions while she was not able. Truth is, I enjoyed her images immensely because they were made from angles I naturally did not utilize.

Owen with his ultrazoom lens!

On the other hand, I greatly admire Owen’s work, primarily because he travels to such far-flung exotic places that I will never see. His Instagram images of the graveyards in the Atacama Desert in Chile, for instance, are nothing short of spine-chilling. Do check out his Instagram feed @owenphil333.

Ed and Allyson, with friends at Laurel Hill Cemetery

Owen, Allyson, and I headed over to Laurel Hill Cemetery afterward – did I mention that it was c-c-c-COLD that day?! I don’t recall the temperature but I’m pretty sure it was below freezing. This image of the Schuylkill River (at left) from Laurel Hill Cemetery (above Kelly Drive) epitomizes the weather that day. We walked around, photographed monuments, and generally compared notes on the art of photography.

Owen at Laurel Hill (above and below)

Owen spirited off the next day for further adventures in New Orleans, and I was glad he stopped by to spend some time with Allyson and I. His parting words were, “What kind of people would be out photographing cemeteries in the dead of winter? – the best kind!”

Photography is about sharing - sharing a bit of yourself, some of your work, and hopefully learning something in the process. In Coronavirus times, the best we can do is share online. Many galleries are putting up ad hoc galleries to share art via the internet, since we physically can’t hang things on walls for groups of people to see. Yes, I know, the internet has been moving us in this direction for some time – maybe I’m just late for the bus. Still, with all this isolation, don’t you miss just a little human interaction? Maybe COVID-19 is giving us an idea what virtual reality would REALLY be like if we all just sat in front of our computers. Man cannot live by the internet alone.