Friday, April 26, 2024

A Last Visit with Old Friends - Perhaps

Heading into a weekend at the beginning of February, 2024, snow was forecast for Friday night into Saturday morning. I had such a rough week at work that I was looking forward to sleeping late Saturday and Sunday. Cemeteries in the snow is an adventure I normally look forward to; however, I was pooped.

I woke up at 8 a.m. Saturday (slept over two hours later than usual!), looked outside, and saw that about three inches of snow had fallen. It was still snowing. Do I venture out? Adventure calls. What the hey. I felt up to it. My wife and daughter wouldn’t even be awake for hours, so I decided to head out. Cemetery of choice? Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, PA. This is about ten miles west of where I live in Philadelphia, just outside its border where Delaware County begins. Holy Cross is the first cemetery I every photographed in, back in the late 1990s. I used to live nearby. It’s a good choice in the snow for a few reasons:

  • Many, many sculptures, statues, and other structures low to the ground. Interesting to photograph normally, even more interesting covered in snow.
  • The terrain is FLAT! However, even with a front- or four-wheel drive vehicle, icy hills are not your friend!
  • The cemetery is very large, with many trees. Plenty of areas for wildlife, e.g. deer and fox. (Other than geese, most of the wildlife was hidden during my visit).

Once I got to Holy Cross, it was still snowing lightly, with a six-inch layer of the fluffy stuff on everything. I drove to a few of my usual favorite spots, alternating between my iPhone, Holga (120 mm film), and DSLR to capture certain images. While it is true what they say – the right kind of camera is the one you have with you, I do prefer the flexibility. For instance, there's no way I could simulate a tintype image like the one at right without the Hipstamatic tintype ap on my iPhone.

I drove around the icy roads in my old RAV4 – stopping often to step out into the snow to photograph something or other. Since I fell on the ice this winter and hurt my shoulder, and my left hip is shot (surgery scheduled for April 29, 2024), I have become rather adroit when it comes to safety in the snow and ice. Which of course means that currently, I am rather limited in my hiking and trudging abilities. After the hip replacement (well, after the oxycontin wears off), I have already planned two cemetery adventures with friends. I may even take up parkour in the more densely-monumented cemeteries. (Not.)

It dawned on me during my peregrinations that I was visiting some old friends, statues I had photographed many times throughout the past twenty years. After photographing a few new scenes and some old ones, I turned around and saw this pillared angel, one that I had photographed countless times. In fact, it was the first cemetery angel that caught my eye, ever, back in the film photography days of the late 1990s. It looks uncannily the same, down to the missing arm and weird horizontal lash marks.

Which is more than I can say for the other statues I subsequently photographed. Weathering has caused loss of detail, lichens have darkened faces. Cemetery statues age just as humans do, but show their age more slowly. Even this Victorian-era marble statue of a young girl has deteriorated under her protective metal and glass. Or maybe, because of the metal and glass.

The veiled face of this soul emerging from its coffin has lost what little detail its winding sheet suggested. The diaphanous, sensual angel below has become darkened with interminable age and grime. The pure snow, which can give a squalid scene a fresh, clean, heavenly appearance, simply accentuates her age, these many years later. Or maybe to me, it just gives her a Dorian Gray-like appearance.

But these are old friends. I shouldn’t be critical. The hooded bronze figure above and the green patina Virgin Mary are ageless, and the snow allows them to be photographed with less distraction in the background. I didn’t want to turn my head on the bronze BVM below while she was holding that snowball. After shooting three statues in various areas, I intentionally drove to a few more of my past haunts. None ever disappoints. Statues erode and change with time, yet are always interesting. A blanket of fresh snow brings out new personalities in the sculpture and statuary.

As I was writing this, I realized I had neglected one of my oldest friends. Such is the plethora of artwork here at Holy Cross, that it is easy to miss a few. choice beings The image below of the mourning woman is from a few winters ago. She's always interesting, as is the entire monument. But you'll just have to visit to see it. I added a bit red to the snow, just because.

My cold winter trek only lasted an hour or so, and oddly took on the purpose of visiting these statues almost for the sake of just VISITING them, rather than looking for artistic, photographic opportunities. It was snowing lightly as I left my old haunt, my old friends, in Holy Cross. I remember thinking the snow would soon be gone, as would I. Not forever, though, hopefully. This is the last blog I’ll post before going under anesthesia and the knife, to have my hip replaced. I’m assuming I’ll wake up and write again, but if not, I promise to come back and haunt you all. Peace out.

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Do You See Faces in the Cemetery?

Faces – besides having been a great rock and roll band in the 70s, what do we know about OUR human faces? I wrote a blog on The Cemetery Traveler in 2015 called “Tombstone Faces” where I posted images like the ones you see here. I didn’t delve very deeply into the subject. Then in April, 2024, my fourteen-year-old daughter said something quite profound, which has prompted me to write this new piece on faces in the cemetery.

We were sitting on the sofa watching her favorite serial killer series on television when she said, “You know how people sometimes see faces in inanimate objects?” I said yes. She proceeded to relate to me a theory she read about recently that suggests that this is a common occurrence and relates to our survival instinct!

"Face pareidolia is the phenomenon in which people see faces or other patterns in ambiguous images, such as Jesus on toast or the man in the moon."

According to what she read, seeing faces in inanimate objects is a survival technique, an evolutionary advantage, according to the UNSW (University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia):

“There is an evolutionary advantage to being really good or really efficient at detecting faces, it's important to us socially. It's also important in detecting predators. So if you’ve evolved to be very good at detecting faces, this might then lead to false positives, where you sometimes see faces that aren't really there. Another way of putting this is that it’s better to have a system that's overly sensitive to detecting faces, than one that is not sensitive enough.” 

The graphic design site, Grapheine adds, “this ability may derive from an evolutionary advantage that has led to a hypersensitivity to detecting presence, which favors survival but not necessarily accuracy.” 

Click link to purchase
Better safe than sorry, right? I’d rather see false faces in an abandoned cemetery to keep me alert to the possibility of actual ne'er-do-wells who might be lurking about. Or are there more supernatural reasons for seeing faces here? I always thought that if I didn’t believe in them, they wouldn’t try to get me. This generally works – it has only been on the rarest occasion that I’ve experienced the unexplainable. I’ve been rattled, yes, but never when it had anything to do with a face that wasn’t there. I’ve written about these experiences, by the way, in my book, The Cemetery Traveleravailable from Amazon.

There are many examples I know of in local cemeteries where such faces exist. They appear on the old marble posts used to fence off Victorian-era family plots. If the tubular metal cross members are still in place, you don’t see the face, because the tubes fit into the metal channels in the side of the post. Pipe fencing, or gas pipe fencing this was called. The pipes were about two inches in diameter. The channels may have rusted and fallen off, leaving circular “eyes.” With one eye in place, you might see a man with a monocle, or the man in the moon with a rocket in his eye. The fixity of their stare can be unnerving.

Decorative angel, joining two pieces of pipe fencing

The images you see here are from various old cemeteries. In many cases the piping may have rusted off, fallen, and been discarded. Or stolen, if they were of a decorative design. The purpose of the fence is not security, but rather to mark the boundaries of a particular plot. The fence itself is not high, maybe two feet. If the cross members were still there, they would be at just the right height to trip you, as Sharon Pajka says on her website post,
Cemetery Pipe Fencing:  

“I always think of pipe fencing as just the right height to trip you if you’re not paying attention. They are nice reminders to stay off the grass and the flowers.” 

Marble post showing green patina bronze channels, which hold pipe

“The phenomenon of pareidolia can be very disturbing for some people, who may consider it a sign of a deceased person, for example.” - 

Easy to do in a graveyard, right? Scary, perhaps, for the superstitious person who upon visiting a cemetery sees not only faces, but the emotional states in those faces! Angry, shouting, moaning faces. And what's with the nose and mouth on these posts? Or is it just me that sees that? I honestly don't know what purpose those carved gouges in the marble serve. Other than to give me the willies, I suppose.

Lachlan Gilbert tells us, “What this means, say the researchers, is if you feel like a pareidolia object is looking at you, or conveys some sort of emotion, “it may be because the features of the object are activating mechanisms in your brain that are designed to read that kind of information from human faces.” -

So if you really want to catch a fright, I suppose, you can watch some horror movies then go check out these faces in your local graveyard. But since I do not relish the thought of leaving you fearful, face pareidolia has other, more constructive, evolutionary advantages. Jesse Thompson, in the article, Pareidolia: seeing faces in random, inanimate objects could be survival technique, tells us:

"The infant that recognizes the face and smiles back at it, and hence bonds with its parents or caregivers, is more likely to be nurtured and survive.”



Thursday, April 4, 2024

Cemeteries in the Rain

I am so wet. Just returned home after shooting cemeteries in the rain on this gloomy Saturday morning. I thought I dressed appropriately. Forty degrees, layers, rain parka. Umbrella to keep the rain off the cameras. 

Why photograph cemeteries in the rain? I noticed some new images my friend Rachel posted on Instagram (@photosofcemeteries) – darkly brooding, slick and wet images of gravestones and monuments. Treacherous sky, the whole nine yards. I was a bit envious! I needed to get out there in some rain and see if I could produce something half as good! The work of other artists can stimulate you to push yourself.

Years ago, I started a public Facebook page called “Cemeteries in the Rain,” (link) and many people post images on it. I like the whole idea, but had kind of gotten out of practice. I mean, it can be a rather grim experience to be out there slogging around in the mud. And sometimes it doesn’t pay off.

"I wanted the rain to come," says Greg Jackson in his novel, The Dimensions of a Cave, "- for the way it closed and narrowed the scope of a world gone too large, dissolving dreams like crusts of dirt that settle on the streets." So when I heard the Saturday weather forecast, I planned to get out there. And so I did, the day before Palm Sunday. Hit the highway at 8 a.m. and hit the first cemetery in the pouring rain at 8:30, Westminster Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd, PA. Turns out my rain parka was not waterproof. Why even make such a thing? Reminds me of the time, years ago, with my first family, I bought a large tent and we went camping in Cape May, NJ, for a week. Three little kids. Third night, and as the 1970s band Atlanta Rhythm Section sang, “It was an all night rain….” Why they would make a tent that is not waterproof will forever puzzle historians. Needless to say, I got camping out of my system at a relatively early age.

I spent an hour at Westminster shooting the slick bronze angels, capturing the reflections, the water pooling on granite, and then drove out to West Philly to shoot in Cathedral Cemetery. I chose these two locations because I thought each would have a number of flat, horizontal monuments that would slick up or collect water that would artistically reflect the surroundings (as Rachel has done). Shooting such things, bent over, umbrella over the camera, exposed my backside to the elements. I began to get wetter. It was also kind of painful jumping in and out of the car, as my left hip has been giving me problems. Having it replaced on April 29. No cartilage left – bone on bone. Not only does great art come from great pain, but mediocre art does as well.

I was also familiar with the layout of these cemeteries, so I mainly drove around to the various spots I thought would look good in the rain. I wanted to shoot the iron angels on the gate to this family plot in Cathedral, but to my surprise, the gate was gone. Stolen, maybe. I had been here a couple years ago and the gate was still there. One of the uniquely interesting details in this graveyard, or, it was. Victorian decorative art now in someone's private collection. Sad. The patina stain in the photo of the crypt cover below suggests a missing bronze cross. Stolen as well, I assume.

I have photographed cemeteries in the snow much more frequently, and you may not be too surprised to learn that I also started a public Facebook page called, you guessed it – “Cemeteries in the Snow” (link). Even though the weather and accumulated snow make this type of shooting quite challenging, I think shooting in the rain is even more so. So total credit to Rachel for creating such wonderful images under these conditions! And thank you for igniting that spark of creativity for me – which is one thing artists provide for each other, right? Also, you can better appreciate any art form, any media, after trying to do it yourself. 

And speaking of water, I knew my shoes would get wet and muddy, but I hadn’t planned on getting soaked through to bare skin, despite three layers of clothing! Even my belt was wet. After about three hours of slogging around these two cemeteries, I headed home. Gave up on the third stop, which was going to be West Laurel Hill Cemetery. Drove back to my neighborhood, parked a block from my house, unloaded the car and stomped down the little street. My neighbor, jumping into his car, probably wondering what in the world I was up to now. This is the fellow who during Covid, knocked on my front door (I wasn’t home) and handed a large shopping bag to my wife, saying, “I’m returning Ed’s skulls.”

Got inside the house, turned up the heat, took off all the layers and hung them to dry. Jeans, socks, even my underwear was wet. Dry clothes, hot coffee, toasted bagel and crème cheese from the little Jewish bakery on Passyunk, Essen. Looking at my images, I got some decent ones. One compositional element I had no control over was the sky. Dark clouds would have been preferable, though for most of the images, all I had was white, a nitid sky. Not terribly interesting. But, this is just another detail to pay attention to in the future. I used to call a dark cloudy sky front-lit by a setting sun an “angel sky,” because I would wait for such conditions to present themselves, then I would run out to a cemetery to photograph white marble angel statues against the black sky. Next time.

And for that next time, I shall dress more appropriately. It’s supposed to rain on Tuesday.  I do have a parka that actually is waterproof. Now I’m sneezing. Great.