MT AUBURN CEMETERY, CAMBRIDGE
For the Spring Light Workshop, Photographing Cemeteries
The air and the earth interpenetrated in the warm gusts of spring; the soil was full of sunlight, and the sunlight full of red dust. The air one breathed was saturated with earthy smells, and the grass under foot had a reflection of the blue sky in it.
Not exactly a description of our first photo workshop field trip to Mt Auburn Cemetery in early April.
For a change I read the weather correctly. After several days of rain, with a forecast that suggested rain abating, maybe ending, by noon, I delayed the start time of our workshop for 2 hours until 11 am. No rain, clouds were breaking as we ended our romp at about 3 pm. Sun emerged. And as expected, the next morning was again drizzly.
Spring light is variable—are all seasons’ lights variable? Is light itself never permanent, never constant? Is it, as Buddhism teaches about life itself, impermanent, not to be attached to or trusted?
Spring light weaves winter light and summer light together. Spring marks the turning of seasons, one of two big yearly swings, from a pattern that funnels frigid dry air into our region to a new atmospheric pattern that sucks in hot moist air from the south. One day to the next in spring: a sky crystalline, sharply defined, one can imagine stars nearly visible during the day. To hazy puffy indistinct clouds leaning toward the voluminous anvil-headed thunder clouds of summer. With this, the light shifting from blue to warmish red, from perfectly articulated shadows to fuzzy blots.
Tomb of Mary Baker Eddy, found of the Christian Science Church
Or is this only an approximation of pinpointing spring light? What would forever define it—is it definable?
—Journal of April 6, 2008
What is to give light must endure burning.
THREE OLD BOSTON BURIAL YARDS
The cemetery journey yesterday to Copp’s Hill, Kings Chapel, and Old Granary burial grounds, beginning at 6 am, went well enough, not spectacularly, too much the same. Same style of stone, same style of layout, same dour appearance. I quipped that maybe the garden cemetery movement sprang from a desire to abandon the colonial approach with its dull gray demeanor. That speculation raises a question: are there periods in USA cemeteries, fashions, styles, approaches, goals, consistencies, as there are in most any art and culture form? One new style might be using the cemetery as a site of events, pagents, outdoor art fairs, picnics, nature walks, as Forest Hills cemetery seems to excel in.
Copp’s Hill burial yard
I arrived about 5:45 am, just as the sun was rising, the moon had set about one hour earlier, it was not quite full. Climbing the fence I tried to show the tranquil quality of the place, the serenity, the age, the enormous trees, the bland stones, the outlook on the harbor, while imagining the tumult, the despair and sense of loss that was also present there. Unlike Mt Auburn cemetery I had few memories anchored in this place, just one—when making my Boston harbor series, coming here to include it since it was adjacent to the harbor. I wonder what I did then, around 1987. Would I surprise myself if I ever found that photo? Have I progressed in any way as a photographer?
Gradually all the others except for Miriam appeared, some shocked they’d have to climb a fence to enter. After free time, each getting a sense of the place, doing our own independent mindfulness, I called them together. We did an elongated version of the four directions awareness exercise, looking in each of the cardinal directions, gazing from the ground up, marking the differences in light, shadow, color, etc as we swiveled. A reminder of the steps for making a decent photos—aware, light, position, etc—and the main exercise was look around again, choose something, strategize, make just one photo (ala One Shot Harris, who, working with a 4 by 5 Speed Graphic, could encapsulate a complex scene in one shot) and surprise yourself. I chose a last year’s dead plant poking thru a walkway.
Copp’s Hill burial yard
A long walk thru the North End, past a bakery Kara told us was good (I left my bike at Copps, returned for it, stopped in the bakery for a Congo bar, fig bar, another fruit bar), discovered the newly opened Big Dig park connecting Haymarket with the North End (returning here also to try to photograph it, failing), and thru Government Center on our way to Kings Chapel. Here the exercise was juxtaposition, this with that, and immediately I noticed that the shape of many stones resembled the shape of windows in an adjoining building. Which in turn reminded me of Arabic architecture, the arches. The light was dull, especially compared with Copps where light had begun streaming in, yet from time to time light bounced off windows in tall buildings and streaked across Kings Chapel burial yard. I emphasized the theme of over and under, the history under, the reality over. How to deal with this photographically is a perplexing problem.
Kings Chapel burial yard
I discovered the tombs around the side of the church, that this also made a good pee stop for me. (If I were totally honest in my highs and lows, I’d mention as a low my continual need to pee, a need seemingly unshared by others, unless they, like me, find secret spots to relieve themselves at.) And the fire escape stairs provided elevation. I also found a tomb buried deep down, after sliding my camera with flash up to photograph wild mindedly down the shaft, unsure what I’d reveal.
The last stop, at the Granary burial yard, next to Park St Church, was slowly filing with people, tourists. So here I asked them to include people, outlining the various ways to photograph people in the streets, and then asked them to work with time, holding one frame and making multi exposures.
—Journal of April 20, 2008 Sunday, Cambridge, Passover and Earth Day
Old Granary burial yard
FOREST HILLS CEMETERY, BOSTON
Every arrival foretells a leave-taking, every birth a death. Yet each death and departure comes to us as a surprise, a sorrow never anticipated. Life is a long series of farewells; only the circumstances should surprise us.
So our Spring Light outing to Forest Hills was damp. It rained, lightly, more a mist, just enough to prompt me to use my umbrella and most of the others to put on rain gear and protect their equipment. We noticed that the weather had not changed significantly since the first trip to Mt Auburn—one month earlier.
In discussing themes before we set out I mentioned the rain itself, its effects: rain drops, puddles, shiny surfaces, the rain falling, and the spirit rain creates in the photograph, even if this cannot be immediately shown.
The rain stopped about half way thru. In the rain we first stopped at the big mausoleum or “receiving tomb” to the left of the main gate (that gate registers strongly in my memory: it’s where I photoed Ben Tousley for his CD jacket). The activity here was to photograph interior and exterior, from under the roof to the building in its context. I discovered, as did Chuck, the turrets behind and on top of the gothic granite structure. They contained broken windowpanes, rusted frames, chipped bricks, and the roof, we could see from the backside, had some of its slate tiles replaced by cheaper asphalt shingles.
Second stop was a magnificent huge spreading weeping beech, some of its gargantuan branches rooting in the soil. Same exercise: interior and exterior. The third stop was much the same, this time on or about 3 metal and fabric pylons, part of the outdoor sculpture exhibit.
Then awareness exercises, two of them—walk backwards, noticing how different the world appears when seen from this unusual vantage point, and the blind faith walk, forming a single file line, me leading with eyes open, all others blind, each with a hand on the shoulder of the person in front. Later people spoke of how sensitive their feet felt, how they could sense changes in the terrain by the way the person in front held shoulders, and the acute awareness of sound.
We headed for the pond, called Lake Hibiscus, in the center of the cemetery. Folks were on their own for this leg, searching for synecdoche, the part standing for the whole, meeting at the southern shore. I was enthralled by the tiny droplets on the water, and here tried my polarizer. It was useless. Up to this point I’d used only my wide-angle lens, but shifted to the normal so I could fit the filter on.
At the pond I strongly recalled the several times I’d been here for the lantern ceremonies, sometimes with Boston Light groups [former students of the seasonal Light series], sometimes with Louise, sometimes alone. Each occasion was momentous, gathering with others who were grieving, some from losses long ago, like mine, mother and father, others nearer. On one of these occasions, coming thru another portion of the cemetery, I happened on a woman weeping at a gravestone, what looked like a new gravestone. Did she later join the lantern ceremony and float a boat to remember her loved one?
People like Julie and Jay and others are a huge part of what keeps me interested in teaching. Am I at all useful to them in my attempts to teach?
From Hibiscus Lake to the crematory, we investigated metaphor, one thing visualizable for another thing not. Examples: tree of life, water of purity, bird of spring, mud of despair, and the crematory. What does that word evoke of you? I asked.
For Jay, an early experience coming upon some burning object that might have been flesh. For Julie a trip to Germany she made with her father when she was a child, visiting a Nazi crematorium. Me also, the word is potent. I mentioned my trip to Auschwitz. Also Pearl, my mother, her cremation. How close could we come to the crematory? Could we see the actual fire?
It was closed, this was Saturday. The main gate was locked. But a nearby gate, with a sign saying, “Don’t use this gate, use the other one,” was open. Chuck persuaded us to try walking thru. We were not stopped as we wandered the crematory grounds, the building indeed closed but we could spy thru windows, photograph statutes outside. I discovered an eerie pinkish light coming thru a window hitting a carpet that I could photograph thru a glass windowed door. With my wide angle this might be the most powerful photo I made in the entire 4 hr session.
By now the rain had stopped. We lost Ellie who had to leave early. Then Chuck whose stomach hurt, leaving only Miriam the butcher, Kara the government agent, Julie the Air Force Lt Colonel, Jay, and me. Sandra has apparently dropped, saying nothing to me. There is always one such.
With one hour remaining, many of us tired and wet, we had free time. Jay told us about Fern Hill, I accompanied him, we discovered a sort of repository for cremated remains, a columbarium (the word derives from the Latin term for “pigeon house”—faux antiquity columns, cubicles for remains, pink granite doors, many of them off their hinges, trees with memorial plaques, sunken walkways, gravel. It reminded me of a good idea gone wrong, tried but abandoned. Many of the inscriptions were illegible, Jay thought because of vandalism.
Our closing highs and lows concentrated on weather, cold and wet, and light, whether a high or low, and the opposite to be so long in one place, stones, statutes, etc.
I biked home along the SW Corridor Park, looking forward to this all day, arriving at the closing of a street fair with Puerto Rican dancing, food, political persuasions, etc. Arriving home, I was exhausted, happy. Writing this, not yet viewing my photos, I see how rich the experience was.
—May 4, 2008 Sunday, Cambridge
SLEEPY HOLLOW CEMETERY, CONCORD MA
You have delighted us long enough.
A long arduous fatiguing romp thru Sleepy Hollow cemetery in Concord yesterday with the Spring Light group—and the first definitively spring-like day of our 4 sessions. No rain. Much sun. Myriad birds. Rich vivid greens. Many flowers. Clouding later as the sun was setting around 8 pm, our end time for the 4-hour trip. A delightful day, heightened when we found the grave of Henry David Thoreau amid his family plot and near the large plot of the Emerson’s. For some reason in all my years in Boston—43—this was my first visit to the graves.
His stone is small and simple, only about 10 inches high, no graphics of any sort, just the word “Henry.” This befits the man, humble, unassuming, plain—in outward appearance. Inwardly a brilliant courageous astute determined soul who apparently by many was thought of as eccentric, the mild term, if not nutty.
We began at the western gate, headed east then north into the wilds nearest the Concord River (which probably is only a short hike from the cemetery along a path that is bordered by two concrete pillars), easterly to Authors’ Ridge and the Thoreau family site, then free time, me heading south and then west, nearly lost if not for my map.
Exercises included the usual walk meditatively, the four cardinal directions’ observations followed by selecting something to photograph and thinking about how to do it (I chose the massive tree). Then a review of meta photography including symbol (lots of American flags), synecdoche, and metaphor, along with suggestions thru resemblances like phallic and vulvic designs. A mention with illustrations from the Aperture periodical Beyond Wilderness of “the new topographics,” i.e., beyond pretty earth pictures of picturesque scenes with an exhortation to find examples of human presence and impact. I photographed people observing gravesites, plus one runner and his dog.
We reviewed the principles I’ve been suggesting for making decent photo: aware, light, position, time, design, multiple exposures changing something. I suggested they think about something they learned form the photos of others in the workshop and try it themselves. I continue to be inspired by Jay’s concentration on grave stone designs close up. Some of us exchanged cameras to try another piece of equipment; I borrowed Chuck’s fish eye macro on a Nikon d200, a very appealing camera body.
—May 18, 2008 Sunday, Cambridge
It is dry, hazy June weather. We are more of the earth, farther from heaven these days.
—Henry David Thoreau