Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Winter of Our Discontent (Shakespeare, not Steinbeck)

My artistic experiences this winter (it is still technically winter here in Philadelphia – Feb. 2021 as I write this) have not been one of discontent. Rather, reckless winter has allowed me the opportunity to photograph cemeteries and their statues under a blanket of snow. Standing in a blizzard with an umbrella and camera may seem ridiculous, but I assure you, it is anything but a fool’s errand. Numb fingers are simply a sign of weakness leaving the body.

Tintype Hipstamatic App image

The zeitgeist of a Victorian snowfall creates a mood of singular isolation. And freedom, of sorts - it takes one out of the literal social isolation forced on us by the current pandemic. And Paul Simon was wrong – everything does NOT look worse in black and white.

Why Shakespeare and not Steinbeck? Shakespeare’s lines from Richard III are lines of opportunity, versus Steinbeck’s, which are pure misery. Granted, the euphoria of photographing a snowfallen cemetery in below-freezing temperatures can be quickly replaced by misery if you mistakenly lock yourself out of your warm, running vehicle (which I have been known to do). However, Shakespeare is optimistic about the future. As am I. The playwright is saying that even though we may now be miserable (‘Now is the winter of our discontent’), better days are coming (’Made glorious summer by this sun …’).  (Cue the song, "Better Things" by the Kinks.)

But I digress (which is one of the qualities you find most endearing about me). My limerence with cemeteries is boosted when it snows. It just is. I have to get out there fast, while it is still snowing, if possible. Primae noctis, as it were. Not than anyone else is even considering doing the same thing, but it does give me the feeling of being first in, a unique time in a place where I can be ultimately alone with my passion. And in the middle of a pandemic, its rather liberating to not concern myself with social distancing or wearing a mask.

So would I recommend this nostrum of shooting angels in the snow? Well, it is certainly easier if you live in a polar climate zone. Its not something I can easily demonstrate to you, however. You just need to get out there in your gloves, boots, and hand warmers, and let the snow muses guide you. Helps to have an SUV, too, so you don’t get stuck. 

I photographed graveyards in the snow quite often this winter. The Snow Demons were appeased last year – they made no appearance. Apparently, COVID must have royally pissed them off, because they have been out in full force, whiting out my world since even BEFORE winter began (our first snowfall was on December 16, 2020)!

Please realize that cemeteries are places of respect - an obvious consideration when you are photographing in them. While there may be no one else around you there in the snowstorm, burial grounds and monuments mean many things to many people. Be respectful as you work. And be careful. Don’t climb on the monuments. Don’t lean on them. I’ve seen a person who had a large gravestone fall on her. She nearly lost her leg. It was crushed, but was later saved. Luckily there were several people around to lift the thousand-pound granite grave marker off her. So consider the possibility of a monument falling on you in a snowstorm. Think anyone would find you before you died of exposure or trauma?

Defunct crematorium in a snow squall

The Gear
So if I have not scared you off the topic at this point, let’s talk about the gear. Obviously, you want your equipment to be either waterproof or well-protected. I own neither. Which is why I typically carry only one camera with me, protected by a snow umbrella. I leave the rest of the photographic arsenal in the car, running back to swap them as needed. This way, I’m guaranteed to lose such things as lens caps and filters in the snow.

Cross-processed E6 image

Do I use real cameras or the camera in my cell phone? As time goes on, this distinction becomes less relevant. I do have an old iPhone 6 which I use quite a bit. Not bad images except the battery peters out in the cold. If I use it outdoors in winter, I have to keep it connected to an external battery. The apps are interesting as well, I use basic Hipstamatic and Hipstamatic Tintype in addition to straight shooting. I do drag conventional cameras out in the snow with me as well. Certainly, digitals are easiest to use. However, I’ve been shooting quite a bit lately with a 120mm (film) Holga and running outdated slide film through a Nikon F3 35mm film camera, then cross-processing the E-6 film as C-41 (which is kind of standard practice now, since E-6 chemistry is no longer widely available). I like to surprise myself. Digital can be too exacting. At right, you can see an example of a cross-processed image.

Hipstamatic Tintype App image 

It has not, historically, snowed often in the Philadelphia area (at least during the current geological epoch). So when it does, I attempt to make the most of it. It helps to have a plan. Which cemeteries are easiest to access? Are the roads plowed? Luckily for me, the graveyard at left is within walking distance of my house! I have some go-to locations and some go-to statues that I like to check in with during a snowfall – some take on the white cloak better than others...

You can see the same cemetery angel dozens of times, but there might be this one time, as you approach it in the hush of a snowfall, bootfalls crunching, that you seem to be seeing it as it had looked long ago. The more modern mass-produced gravestones mostly hidden, the bespoke, Victorian statuary gently “shrouded in white, allowing the outlines of something older to emerge.” The quote is from science fiction writer William Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition. A strange book to be reading during a pandemic, when old patterns are nowhere to be found, new ones emerging all around us.

Actual lychgate shot with Hipstamatic Tintype App

So if this seems to be a winter of discontent for you because of the new patterns that life has assumed, consider COVID-19 as a sort of lychgate, a gateway to another world. I wrote a blog for the website of New York’s Absynthe Gallery recently, entitled "Artist in Residence," which is about creating art during lockdown in a pandemic. Challenging, to make art in the Time of COVID. But as Gibson says in Pattern Recognition, "There are times when you can only take the next step. And then another.” If you’re interested in seeing how other artists are adapting, the gallery is hosting an online “Drink and Draw” Zoom meeting with many of its artists on March 6, 2021 (5 to 7 pm). I am in their corral of artists, but I don’t draw (I do drink, however, so I meet half the criteria). Demonstrating how I make photographs or how I write blogs would be about as entertaining as watching gesso dry; therefore, I will be in attendance solely drinking and learning. Here’s the link to register:

Learning, you ask? Well yes. One of the best ways for an artist to progress and improve is by expanding boundaries - watching other artists create in mediums other than your own. I leave you with an old image (all that you’ve seen so far in this blog, I created in the past ten months), the Mount Moriah Cemetery gatehouse. This is in Philadelphia. I was truly honored to have it chosen to represent February in the 2021 fund-raising calendar published by The Friends of Mount Moriah Cemetery, Inc. Being on the Board of Directors of this volunteer organization and helping to save a formerly abandoned cemetery from total ruin has also been a learning experience.