Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Artistry Above Ground

As opposed to artistry below ground? Hmm. Maybe that would refer to gemstones, gold and silver, etc. The artistry above ground we are talking about are gems of a sort - the creative arts produced by the people who were expected to participate in the tent-and-table, physical outdoor art exhibition, “Artistry Above Ground,” sponsored by West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA (a Philadelphia suburb). This was to be the inaugural spring arts and artisans event held by the cemetery, similar in concept to the wildly popular “Market of the Macabre,” which has been a regular fall event for the past several years at West Laurel’s sister cemetery, Historic Laurel Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.

I’ve participated in the Market of the Macabre and it has been a wonderful outing. Death-centric folks selling everything from serial killer T-shirts to dead things in jars. Of course, my graveyard photographs, cards, and books fit right in. My friend Sarah Amendola and I have consistently set up next to each other, she of Mockingbird Lane Artistries with her jewelry, glass coffins (not full size), and crazy crystal vending machine! Alas, a physical outing is not to be, as the COVID Hounds of Hell are nipping at all of our heels.

This being the case, West Laurel Hill decided to go ahead with the event, only as a “virtual market.” For many of us artists and organizers, this is, in fact, our first rodeo. Wish us luck! The idea is that West Laurel Hill will host on its website (“Artistry Above Ground”) links to as many vendors as have an on-line store, so that the public can visit and potentially buy such things as steampunk clothing, coffin-nail necklaces, and dead things in jars. (Not joking about the coffin-nail necklaces, Mockingbird Lane Artistries has them!)

Link to "Artistry Above Ground:"

When the page is updated on May 28, 2020, links will be available for all the vendors, including me. You'll see a link to my “Stone Angels” ETSY shop. Or, if you'd like, you can click here to be teleported directly to my shop.

I’ve put up some new items just for the “Artistry Above Ground Virtual Market” (like the masked and dangerous statuary image above, made in Laurel Hill Cemetery last week). You’ll see some surprises there. Typically, my two books, “Stone Angels” (Blurb) and “The Cemetery Traveler” (Amazon) are only available (unsigned) from the publisher or (signed) at shows. For this 3-day-event, I am offering signed copies of the books if you purchase them from the ETSY shop. 

Also, my photographic prints are typically unsigned, but I will sign those as well, and include an extra special surprise photo with your purchase. There are some gruesome things lurking in there, so be prepared – death is not always pretty.

“Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater”

In addition, “Artistry Above Ground” will feature a ticketed event for Saturday, May 30, 2020, at 5 p.m. – an on-line presentation by me, entitled “Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater.” Hmmm. Now what could THAT be about? If you’ve read my blog or purchased a copy of my book by the same name, “The Cemetery Traveler,” you might guess it will be about the 1956 destruction of the Victorian-era Monument Cemetery in Philadelphia. And you would be correct.

In the 1950s, Temple University wanted the land across Broad Street to build a parking lot for its commuter students. Unfortunately, the land was occupied by Monument Cemetery, the second Victorian Garden Cemetery established in Philadelphia (in 1837, right after Laurel Hill). As the owners wouldn’t sell, Temple managed to have the city of Philadelphia condemn the property, remove the graves, and sell the land to Temple. In 1956, many of the 28,000 graves were removed and the headstones and monuments dumped into the Delaware River – where they remain to this day. Hence the title, “Secrets from a Cemetery Underwater.”

I do hope you will join me for the this Zoom presentation (my in-house IT consultant, a.k.a. my ten-year-old daughter Olivia, taught me how to use Zoom). There will be a Q&A session afterword (chat your questions and I’ll answer them live for all to hear). 

Links to Sarah Amendola’s Mockingbird Lane Artistries:

Ed Snyder’s Stone Angels ETSY Shop:

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Cemetery Photography of Vince Payavis

"I take photos, it's what I love to do. I will photograph anything, but cemeteries are one of my favorites. It's like having a beautiful art museum all to myself. It may be cliche' to say it, but I love the serenity. I feel I'm passing on unseen and unknown art to anyone who cares enough about these photos to take a look." - Vince Payavis

Vince Payavis has quite the photo album on Flicker – his photographs of people, vehicles, landscapes, and abandoned sites are all very interesting. Crisp quality, wonderful composition. He does, in addition, have an album of cemetery photography. I thought you might be interested in seeing his work. Vince and I knew each other in high school – the last time we’d seen or spoken to each other was 1976!

In April of 2020, I was on Facebook and noticed that a friend of mine who I attended high school with, happened to be friends with Vince. That, as they say, was a blast from the past. So I dropped him a line. It was good to see he was still alive. Once he vetted me and realized that I had all this cemetery photography stuff on my page, he invited me to view his Flickr album of same.

I was quite taken by his images, and decided to share some with you - with Vince’s approval, of course. I always find it interesting to see other photographers’ visions of the same scenes that I’ve photographed. While I’m not sure that I know the locations of all his cemetery scenes, I did recognize two in particular – Hollenback Cemetery in Wilkes-Barre, PA and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York.

Hollenback I’ve been to many times, as Wilkes-Barre is the general vicinity in which I grew up. I think Vince lives in the area now; I’m in Philadelphia, about a hundred miles south. I still have relatives around Wilkes-Barre so I visit often. Maybe when COVID-19 allows for social interaction, we’ll actually meet up sometime.

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery – near Tarrytown, New York, is a place I only visited once, about a year ago, so Vince’s images are as vivid to me as a freshly dug grave. Especially this one of Washington Irving’s headstone. It's kind of a spooky place. You really expect the Headless Horseman to come galloping over its hills!

I rather like the effects Vince uses to create his unique visions of what he sees. The images are masterful, and not overpowering. When I try to do this sort of thing with photo-editing software, the result looks like I banged on the image with a hammer. So I can appreciate his subtle use of the ghostly swirls in the sky. Nicely done.

Vince and I shared quite a few common interests in high school – friends, avant garde music, etc. So, forty-five years later, it was a bit startling to find that we'd both developed this additional common interest. An odd interest, as you'll aggree. He and I have not communicated a great deal about his photography. I don’t know what kind of camera he uses or his photo editing software. Maybe I don’t want to know, they're just tools, right? It’s sometimes enough to just look at and enjoy the art, without knowing how it was created. The art and architecture in Victorian-era graveyards has its own singular beauty. What makes it even more enjoyable is when someone uses it as a springboard to realize a new artistic vision.

Click here to see Vince Payavis' Flickr album.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Cemetery Photography and the “Stay at Home” Order

I have a post-Coronavirus graveyard bucket list (what, don’t you?). My friend Loren Rhodes published a wonderful book in 2017 called, “199 Cemeteries to See Before You Die” which has been on my mind recently. I have been reading and writing more since the “Stay-at-Home” order was issued across the United States in March of 2020. Here it is, the beginning of May, and we’re still at home. Things are s-l-o-w-l-y starting to reopen, albeit very tentatively. Other than explore your local cemetery (hopefully you have one) by walking or biking to it, there’s not much else to do outside your domicile. Everything is closed. Cemeteries are open - just not for funerals (see my previous blog post on that).

“The future is no more uncertain than the present.” – Walt Whitman

Photo by Olivia Snyder
My bucket list right now is not so much comprised of specific cemeteries as it is of specific people. I miss you guys. While its true that cemetery photography is typically a solo sport (like skiing, surfing, or skateboarding), I do miss the interaction with other photographers. There are people I’ve become closer to, virtually, during Corona-times, and I look forward to meeting up with them in person. Also, there are many others to whom I’ve said in the past, “Let’s go do a shoot together!” – and it never happened. I want to hang out with those people too, once this is over. I miss you all.

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.” – Walt Whitman

I have been tentatively invited to give a few virtual cemetery lectures in place of my cancelled events, and I don’t know if those will happen. Not really sure how my sparkling personality and natural prolixity will come across in a Zoom session (although I have figured out how to use the “mute” feature better than most). We’re all coping the best we can. “OODA” loops, however, don’t necessarily come to your aid when you have zero control over a situation. OODA, by the way, stands for “Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action.

“Be curious, not judgmental.” – Walt Whitman

As Derek Thompson explains in his book, Hit Makers (2017, a wonderfully insightful treatise on marketing given to me by my son, Chris Snyder), OODA is “a strategic approach in which information was constantly funneled back to the decision maker to construct a new theory of attack.” This was devised by air force pilot John Boyd, to provide fighter pilots with “a facility for learning and changing strategy quickly … the speed of adaptation was the key factor in whether you could win or lose in a dogfight.” As of this writing, 76,000 U.S. citizens have died in this COVID dogfight (and 265,000 worldwide).

Rainy spring day at the Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

While instant feedback has helped me navigate the “mute” feature on Skype, I’m not sure its that helpful in combating Coronavirus. Think about how difficult it is trying to correct a skateboard position error in mid-air just as you drop into the bowl. At least in that case, you may KNOW how to correct it, but you just don’t have the ability or the time. With the pandemic, we don’t have any IDEA what we need to do to correct our course – but we know enough now that we must avoid dropping into the bowl until we know more about our situation. This is a dogfight in slow motion – after two months in the “Observation” stage, we’re now just trying to attempt “Orientation.” Years from now, maybe we'll be able to put this all in perspective, but it will probably end up like Calvin says below in Bill Watterson's comic strip. (This is why its important to document what's REALLY happening now.)

“Re-examine all that you have been told… dismiss that which insults your soul.” – Walt Whitman

But more to the subject of death and dying - Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages of grieving and loss may be more useful in our current situation than OODA loops. COVID-19 is all about loss, isn’t it? Some have lost more than others. Some have lost a paycheck, some have lost a loved one. Beginning with denial, we proceed through anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I’ll hazard a guess that we’re between anger and bargaining right now, as the world contemplates reopening businesses and relaxing the social distance rules. So keep calm, and explore a cemetery, as my Facebook friend Mark Morton suggests.

Springtime in a graveyard near my house, Old Swedes' Church, Philadelphia

“Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?” – Walt Whitman

So is the Cemetery Traveler traveling to cemeteries during the Coronavirus global pandemic? Well, yes, he says sheepishly. Local ones. I have traveled a good deal around Philly, to paraphrase Henry David Thoreau.

There is a stay-at-home order and while my wife and ten-year-old daughter are in fact staying home, I have been deemed an essential healthcare worker (my car is placarded a South Jersey “ESF - #8 Healthcare Worker/Essential Employee Vehicle”). So what this allows me to do every few days, is stop on the way home (to Philadelphia) from work (in New Jersey) to visit a cemetery or two. A far cry from my original spring plan, which was to visit the magnificent cemeteries of New Orleans while there for a conference (which has been cancelled). I am luckier than most cemetery photographers, who don’t even have the option of using public transit (which has been scaled back to bare bones scheduling). On the road, I even get to eat free greasy McDonald's healthcare worker meals - just kidding - I drink the coffee that comes with it and discard the food (do they really expect healthcare workers to eat that food? LOL!)

Turns out you don't have to travel far to find beauty and wonder - its everywhere (though maybe not in homeschooling – now that’s gotten to be downright ugly). On my way home from work last week I stopped in Harleigh Cemetery, in Camden, New Jersey. Harleigh is home to America’s greatest poet – Walt Whitman. Its a quiet, serene place, and it can be very contemplative to be standing in front of Walt’s family mausoleum, peering at his burial vault. A lot of his writing came back to me as I walked under the nearby blooming pink dogwood trees. I’ve sprinkled some Whitman quotes throughout this essay. This one I think is especially apropos of our Corona-times:

“I like the scientific spirit—the holding off, the being sure but not too sure, the willingness to surrender ideas when the evidence is against them: this is ultimately fine—it always keeps the way beyond open—always gives life, thought, affection, the whole man, a chance to try over again after a mistake—after a wrong guess.” – Walt Whitman

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Cemeteries and Funerals in the Time of Coronavirus

While it is true the dead cannot get coronavirus, their world is not spared the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re lucky, you haven’t experienced anything related to death in these dark times. But you’ve probably heard bits and pieces related to things like pickup truckloads of bodies unceremoniously removed from nursing homes (click link to read), relatives mortally passing the virus on to their kin, or bodies being cremated along with all their identifying information (wallets, insurance cards, etc.). Graveyards and cemeteries have not been closed to visitors as most other public spaces have, but the kind of activity present in them has radically changed in the spring of 2020.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, NY
On a positive note, many more people are enjoying these green spaces in ways for which they were intended. They were designed in the Victorian era as serene getaways from the noisy cities, arboreal sculpture gardens to be strolled and picnicked in. The purpose was to help people accept death in a kinder, gentler fashion – enter all the angel statues. And people are strolling through cemeteries once again, being one of the few spaces open at this time when parks and museums, galleries and playgrounds are all closed.

Springtime in the Cemetery
As much beauty as I find in such places, I do sometimes lose sight of the grief inherent in their midst. Some years ago I was in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA (outside Philadelphia), and saw to my amazement, a wonderful black Victorian funeral carriage – complete with a pair of harnessed white horses! It was parked alongside the funeral home. I asked the gentleman who was tending the horses if I could photograph him and he graciously said yes. We chatted as I made photographs and I must have assumed the setup was there for show. Finally he said something that stopped me in my tracks – “The parents will be arriving shortly for the funeral.” (You can read more about this in my original blog post.)

Victorian funeral carriage, West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, PA

I was similarly stopped in my tracks this past week when I read my friend Alexandra Mosca’s article, “A Funeral Home Director’s View of the Pandemic." Alexandra is a funeral director in New York City and writes of the current difficulties faced by families of the recently deceased, where the funeral director must turn the grieving away from the grave. Imagine watching your mother’s casket being lowered into her grave, while your family watches from their car windows. Worse yet, imagine all the funeral homes in your vicinity so busy with the dead that they cannot accommodate your family’s needs.  Read the article here for a part of life that is being tremendously affected by the health crisis.

So while I explore cemeteries as much as I can, I never lose sight of the fact that others may be there for altogether more serious reasons. Please be respectful.

For further reading (links thanks to my friend Bill McDowell):