Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Finding art in unexpected places

Ever since college, I've been interested in cemeteries.

Not in some morbid "Ooo, I wish I could live there" way. The art and architecture of the cemetery has captured my attention on more than one occasion. Particularly the way people mark the graves of their loved ones.

Attending the University of Iowa in Iowa City (that's in Iowa, by the way), I visited my first historic cemetery. It was in the Amana Colonies, a grouping of small villages and towns where original German settlers put down roots many years ago.

The area is filled with the graves of those original settlers and their families. The area has since turned in to something of a tourist attraction. (Just a hint: If you really like good food, and you're traveling through eastern Iowa, the Colonies are a good place to stop.)

My fascination with cemetery architecture started there. I classmates in college photo courses were constantly asking me which cemetery I'd visited over the weekend or if I had any new grave photos. Some of the images I took back then weren't too bad, I thought.

As I started getting out and about, living in different parts of the country, I'd find differences in the way people honored their dead. I had a college sociology professor once who said you could tell a lot about a civilization by the way they decorated their graves.

I've photographed the graves of people who died and were buried along the Oregon Trail in western Nebraska and monuments dating back to the 1700s in church yards in New Jersey. The differences — and the similarities — in the grave markers told me something about how those people lived.

This particular image was made using a modified Holga camera in a large cemetery in Tyler, Texas. If you don't know about the Holga, do a web search. It's a simple, plastic camera, with no bells and whistles, that shoots medium format film. The Holga is — to me, at least — the very essence of camera. It's a light-tight box, sort of, with a way to let the light enter in specific, somewhat controlled way.

I'm still not sure, several years later, what it is about this particular marker that attracted my attention. Sure, the light and the big, fluffy clouds definitely played a part. I'm not sure I'd have shot it if those elements hadn't been there. But the monument itself played a big part in my decision to make an image.

Here's another:

This one I found in a small, rural cemetery near West Mineral, Kansas, last fall. Again, the mid-afternoon light and the way it played off the fine carving of the statuary interested me. I've found myself turning more toward this type of cemetery art lately as I continue working on this ongoing project.

People have told me they think this is a somewhat morbid fascination with death. Really, nothing could be further from the truth.

I appreciate the workmanship of the monuments, from the plain wooden crosses or field-stone markers that indicated graves of settlers heading west to the simple stone stones in those Amana Colonies cemeteries set years ago, to the detailed carvings that can sometimes be found in modern cemeteries.

In each, I see the care taken by someone to remark the passing of and say goodbye to someone they knew. Someone they loved. Someone they missed.

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