Saturday, February 10, 2024

Falling Snow in the Cemetery

Okay, no more ChatGPT tricks. This is really me writing this. Really. No, wait, how would you know? Hopefully, my personality will suffuse the text to the degree that you’ll be able to tell its really me. I’m interested in my readers’ take on how I compare to AI, so please comment!

I should have named this post, “Falling In the Snow in the Cemetery,” since that’s one of the things that occurred during the recent January snow week while I was shooting cemeteries. But more on that as we slide along. I’ve photographed cemeteries in the snow many times, and recounted those experiences on this blog. Between January, 2022 and January, 2024, I really had no new experiences to recount.

Why is that? Well, it hadn’t snowed in the Philadelphia area in two solid years. We were due, I suppose. Can’t say I missed it all that much – go global warming! But we did recently get dumped on twice in one week – about three inches initially, then about six a few days later. I had a few opportunities to get out there with the cameras, so, Bob’s your chipmunk, as they say.

Old Swedes Church monument, Philadelphia
Early in the week, it snowed all day and I was able to get out to a few South Jersey cemeteries for some shooting before sunset. Actually, I began my snow shooting in the small Old Swede’s Church graveyard near my house in the Queen Village neighborhood of Philadelphia. The church sexton allows people to walk their dogs on the large open area next to the graveyard, and there were about ten dogs frolicking in the snow that morning. One woman had just entered the property and her large dog was pulling her along. She said something like “Slow down, Petey, I know you want to see your friends!”

Ben Franklin's grave, Christ Church Burial Ground (Pennies ...get it?)

Since I work in south Jersey, it was easy enough to visit nearby Harleigh, Old Camden, and Evergreen cemeteries after work. A few days later we had an all-day snow, so I was able to get out into an active snowstorm in Calvary Cemetery, in Cherry Hill. It remained cold for a week so I made the most of the weather by catching lingering snow in Philly’s Christ Church Burial Ground (Old City) as well as the Old Pine Church graveyard (Society Hill) on my way to and from work.

Selfie with friend in Calvary Cemetery, Hill of Cherries, New Jersey

But back to the beginning. The selfie you see of me (above) was made when I first arrived at Calvary. It was colder than a witty analogy. The photo below is me an hour later, after shooting in the piercing wind and trudging through six inches of fresh snow. Photographing cemeteries in a snowstorm can be quite an amazing experience – until its not. It is exhilarating to be out there alone with the elements, knowing full well no one else in their right mind is doing the same. Well, alone except for the groundskeepers plowing the cemetery roads. Probably wondering how unhinged this guy must be in the snow with all those cameras dangling from his neck. 

Jesus, it was cold out there!

As I repeatedly jammed additional “HotHands” chemical hand warmer pouches into my gloves, I kept thinking how I didn’t want to end up like Jack Nicholson in the final scene of “The Shining.” Its one thing to reach the point of self-actualization by getting that one-in-a-million shot, but the need for the safety of a warm vehicle in the dead of winter can knock you down a few pegs on Maslow’s pyramid, where you’re all of a sudden more concerned with basic survival needs. And losing digits.

Ansel Adams, eat your heart out. (Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ)

Granted, this is nothing compared to what Ansel Adams went through to capture those gorgeous images of the snow-covered Rockies in Jellystone Park, or climbing onto his car roof with a tripod and a view camera to shoot, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico,” but it was challenging enough. Everything’s relative. Adams probably didn’t have a fourteen-year-old daughter at home who needed dinner made when she got home from school. 

Sunset, Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ

Anyhow, that weekend it stayed cold (below freezing), so I spent a few hours trudging through Woodlands Cemetery in west Philly. Mainly I shot with the iPhone and Holga loaded with 120mm black and white film. It was so cold I couldn’t wind the film for the next exposure! (Remember winding film? …. Remember film? …)

Yours truly, with the Holga (Woodlands Cemetery)
The Holga. Yes, just another pain point in my photographic arsenal. A Holga is essentially a cheap plastic toy camera that uses 120mm film. As I write this, I’m waiting for the film processing place to develop my film, scan the negatives, and send them to Dropbox for me. I have no idea whether there will be anything good on that film. Actually I shot two rolls of 12 exposures (120 mm BW). I will wait until I get the results before I post this, so you can all witness either my ineptitude or my genius, whichever the case may be.

Turns out I was rewarded with two reasonable images – out of 24. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut twice a day. Here they are.

Holga images (L: Calvary Cemetery; R: Woodlands Cemetery)

Falling For You

At one point, in a cemetery I won’t name, I slipped on the ice. Wasn’t climbing on a monument. (Honestly, I don’t do that. Having seen a monument fall on a person, pin them to the ground and break their leg, I do avoid such near occasions). I was simply walking along the unplowed road, and my feet flew out from under me! My mind's eye was blind to the ice under the snow. I’d been looking out at the gravestones, eyes peeled for a good composition, instead of looking where I was walking. Obviously, I had not done the proper risk assessment. Hit my right shoulder on the ground with tremendous force:

According to Microsoft’s new AI powered Bing search engine:

"The gravitational force acting on a 200 lb mass is about 889 Newtons. A person who weighs about 200 pounds and falls just 6 feet will hit the ground with almost 10,000 pounds of force."

Calvary Cemetery, Cherry Hill, NJ
And I felt every one of those fekkin 10,000 pounds. Jesus H. Christ! Despite the pain, I made it okay hiking through the cemetery and shot for an hour, but then I realized I couldn’t raise my right arm very high. The next day, I couldn’t raise it at all. I spent the next week with T. Rex arms. Really thought I tore my rotator cuff. But after a week of Motrin smoothies, the pain began to
subside, and I started to regain my range of motion. I am glad that I continued shooting after the fall – I did make some decent photographs. Great art comes from great pain. 

Mausoleums, Harleigh Cemetery, Camden, NJ

Why Photograph Cemetery Statues?

Why subject myself to all this? Is it to capture/create a unique image? To build up my catalogue raisonnĂ©? To have ‘alone’ time? Or is it just the JOURNEY that’s important, more so than the destination? I think it’s a combination of all that, but my reason can best be summarized in something the artist Andrew Wyeth said to his granddaughter, Victoria Browning Wyeth, “my goal is not to make pictures but to express my love of these things.

I do love cemeteries and graveyards, which is why I use them in my art. Unlike Georgia O’Keeffe, who is widely known for her paintings of flowers, and said “I hate flowers – I paint them because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move.” I appreciate the fact that access to cemetery statues is usually free and the statues (usually) don’t move. Cemeteries? I want to be there, and I want to create something. Paul Rudnick, in a recent New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs piece, wrote in jest about something “seemingly empty yet rife with meaning.” Describes cemeteries fairly well, don’t you think? 

Calvary Cemetery abstract, shot through glass in a snowstorm

While I certainly appreciate the beauty of a landscape or an Italian marble cemetery sculpture, I also appreciate the fact that people went out of their way to memorialize the dead. Sometimes a grave marker is the only tangible evidence that a person existed. Standing amidst these monuments can make one feel part of the human family. Like the dog, Petey, mentioned above, many of us just want to feel part of the whole.

Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist, philosopher, and critic said in 1977, “If photography is to be discussed on a serious level, it must be described in relation to death.” He added, “Its true that a photograph is a witness, but a witness of something that is no more” (Camera Lucida, 1980). So what better canvas with which to create new art than a cemetery? 

Sunset, Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ

I also appreciate the beauty of a warm motor vehicle on a frigid day. Here’s another image I like, shot out the window of my wife’s Rav 4. Right after I made this image, I couldn’t get the power window to go back up! Panic. Twenty-four degrees outside. Another snowstorm expected tomorrow. After much fumbling around and considerably more panic, I realized there was an interlock on the door – a button that disables the power window function! Found that ten minutes later - released it and we’re back in business! Always never do that. But DO drive an SUV when you’re shooting cemeteries in the snow! You don’t want to get stuck. 

What Does Snow Add to a Photograph of Cemetery Statues?

To paraphrase Reese Witherspoon, who recently said that “Snow days were made for Chococinnos,” snow days were made for shooting cemetery statues. Why? Probably for the same reason she got in trouble for telling her TikTok followers that it was okay to eat snow. It’s novel, its enjoyable, and it probably won’t hurt you (unless you slip and fall in it, that is). 

Snow angel, Calvary Cemetery

Also, as I was surrounded by all this white, it dawned on me that one of the reasons I photograph cemetery statues is because they seem to be monochrome. They’re easy to shoot in black and white, and if you choose to shoot in color, there’s no color-balancing needed. No matter the hue, the observer’s brain corrects for it because you already know the statue is white. You don’t need a “Shirley” card to shoot cemetery statues.

(A Shirley card, by the way, was a photograph of a white woman (Shirley, a Kodak employee) used since the mid-1950s by Kodak photo labs to calibrate skin tones, shadows and light during the printing process.) 

Warholized cemetery angels (Evergreen Cemetery, Camden, NJ)

Supposedly, the Farmer’s Almanac said we are in for a rough winter. So maybe I’ll have more opportunities to shoot snow angels. I mentioned the Almanac prediction to my neighbor a couple months ago, a woman who moved to Philadelphia from Spain. She did not understand what the Farmer’s Almanac was, never having heard of it. I felt like an idiot trying to explain it, because, well, I couldn’t. To quote Pee-wee Herman: “Some things you wouldn’t understand. Some things you couldn’t understand. Some things you ... shouldn’t understand.” Like the image below….

The "Late Nights" image above is a mash up of two images combined as one. Both were made in south Jersey cemeteries during the snow week. Andy Warhol said that art is what you can get away with. Is it disrespectful or sacrilegious tromping through a graveyard making such photographs? I think that any attention we give those who have gone before us is a way of paying respect. Their memory lives on.

Old Pine Street Church, Philadelphia
One of the things Victoria Browning Wyeth has said about her Uncle Andy (who died in 2009) is that when she visits his grave, she pictures him deep underground in his casket smiling up at her. I think I’m going to imagine that from now on, when I’m photographing in cemeteries – those below are smiling up at me - and laughing, probably, when I fall.

(Cue up the R.E.M. song, “Fall On Me” ….. )


  1. Wonderful seasonal capture! I enjoy your 'eye'

  2. I always enjoy reading your posts. Since childhood, I've always loved cemeteries. They are a tangible proof of our existence and history.