Sunday, May 11, 2014

Analog Interlude - Oak Grove Cemetery

For those of you who know me, I'll make no bones about it. For those of you who don't, here's a confession: I like cemeteries. Not in a morbid, grave-robber, wish-I-was-dead kind of way. I'm fascinated by the art and architecture of tombstones.

A cloudy sky over Oak Grove Cemetery on May 11, 2014, in Nacogdoches with the grave marker of John H. Ham (1872-1910) in the foreground. The marker shows the characteristic design provided by the organization Woodmen of the World for its members before 1930. (All photos: Nikon FM2/Ilford FP4 1/125 sec. @ F11.

I'm changing up the format for this weeks Analog East Texas blog post just a bit. Instead of focusing on a specific camera — or only on one camera, since all these images were made with my old workhorse, the Nikon FM2 — I'll be focusing on a location as well. And this location is the historic Oak Grove Cemetery in Nacogdoches.

This particular camera has, for the last 18 months or so, been in the hands of my now former part-time photographer, Gabrielle Rambo. I say former because Rambo has now graduated from Stephen F. Austin State University here in Nacogdoches and gone on to, hopefully, bigger and better things. (Miss you already, Kiddo!)

I was hoping to teach her more about the roots of photography through this completely mechanical camera. If, as I've claimed in past entries in this blog, a camera is really nothing more than a light-tight box holding a piece of light-sensitive material with a way of letting the light enter in a controlled manner, the FM2 is the epitome of that description in modern cameras. The only concession to modern electronic technology is a built-in light meter.

(LEFT) Stone filigree decorates the corner of a tombstone at Oak Grove Cemetery in Nacogdoches. Elaborately-carved tombstones became popular during the Victorian Era of the latter 19th Century, with decorations denoting everything from occupation and social status to religious beliefs.

Working with the FM2 is vastly different from capturing images on the advance digital cameras we use at the newspaper. The meter, for example, is very simple: A "+" indicates over-exposure, a "-" for under-exposure and a "o" symbol for when the light is 'Just Right!'

The FM2 has been a workhorse for photojournalist, nature photographers and hobbyists from 1982 until it was discontinued in 2001. The thing is virtually indestructible. (I knew a guy who dropped one about 25-30 feet down a cliff. When we retrieved it, there were a couple of small dings, but the camera continued to function perfectly for years.) You could almost pound nails with it!

(RIGHT) The dove of peace, grasping an olive branch, is another common Woodmen of the World emblem added to member's tombstones throughout history, seen here on the John H. Ham (1872-1910) stone, at Oak Grove Cemetery in Nacogdoches. Time and weather has effaced much of the fine detail of the marker but has done nothing to detract from the beauty of its design.

Oak Grove Cemetery is the final resting place of several key figures in the history of Texas, most notably Thomas Jefferson Rusk, Sam Houston's secretary of war and a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence in March 1836.

For these images, with the exception of the first image, I coupled my Nikkor 55mm F3.5 macro lens to the FM2. The opening image in this post was made using a modern, auto-focus Nikkor 17-35mm F2.8 lens with a red filter to increase the contrast and emphasize the clouds. That's the beauty of the Nikon system: With few exceptions, almost every older Nikkor lens ever made will work on modern cameras, with only the loss of some automatic functionality.

The 55-3.5 macro is arguably one of the sharpest lenses Nikon ever produced. And, matched with the FM2's bright viewfinder, focusing is a dream. It does suffer from the bane of every macro lens, and close-up photography, in general: The depth-of-field at the close focusing distances is often measured in millimeters.

(LEFT) The hammer, axe and maul are common symbols on Woodmen of the World tombstones, including the John H. Ham (1872-1910) monument at Oak Grove Cemetery in Nacogdoches. The monuments were an early benefit for membership in the fraternal organization which continued through about 1930 replaced in modern times with a WOW emblem to be attached to a member's marker.

I've always loved macro photography. I did a project several years ago, for example, I called "The Small World." I spent most of three years making digital images of everything from flower buds to fire ants. There's just something about the attention to detail and precision necessary, particularly with a manual-focus lens, that fed something deep in my soul.

My interest in cemeteries is a somewhat newer phenomenon. I've only been shooting cemeteries and graveyards for about 25 years or so, ever since I was in college. It used to be a running joke among my classmates in a course on documentary style titled Depth Photography. Whenever we'd go anywhere, to small Eastern Iowa towns around Iowa City and the University of Iowa, I'd always head first to the cemetery to scout around for interesting grave markers.

I think it relates to a Sociology course I took my sophomore year. The professor, who's name I honestly can't remember, discoursed at some length on the importance of how a society deals with its dead as a marker of the roots of that society. That got me interested in how cemetery markers and monuments have evolved over the centuries.

According to the International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association (, the earliest grave markers were simple, made of stones or wood, thought to keep the dead from rising. Burial in church yards came about in the mid-1600s, with public cemeteries finally making an appearance in the 19th Century.

(RIGHT) Lichen grown on the raised letter "M" in the family name on a tombstone in the historic Oak Grove Cemetery on May 11, 2014, in Nacogdoches, Texas. Tombstones have evolved from simple stone or wood markers to sometimes elaborately-carved monuments but are still susceptible to the passage, and ravages, of time.

The so-called Victorian Era (1837-1901) saw cemeteries becoming more like parks, where the living could visit the dearly-departed in comfort. Hand in hand with that movement, grave markers grew more elaborate, with carvings decorating the markers with everything from Angels of Death and the Star of David to the Egyptian Ankh, horseshoes and willow trees. The symbols told a story of the person's life, religious beliefs and even social class and occupation.

As you can imagine, I've only scratched the surface here, focusing as I am on the photography. But it's a fascinating topic, at least to me.

Analog East Texas is an ongoing photographic project by Andrew D. Brosig, photo editor for The Daily Sentinel. Each month, Analog East Texas will highlight an antique film camera from Brosig’s personal collection. The idea behind the project is to explore the technology and technique that inspired both amateur and professional photographers in the pre-digital age. Analog East Texas also gives the photographer a chance to return to his roots in nondigital, film-based photography.
In addition to these pages, you may follow the project on

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