Amazing Graves

14 Oct
2011

Amazing Graves

by Lorette C. Luzajic

The cemetery may seem an unlikely place to find tranquility, but I’m not alone in seeking serenity in the quietude of death. There seems to be no more elegant way of confronting the stark and solemn truth about ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Whether one said goodbye in the natural twilight of old age, or in the bloom of youth through horrific violence, in the cemetery they rest in peace.

Multi-story graveyard in Hong Kong – Photographer Unknown

Many seek the solitude of a graveyard for reflection and prayer, a private place to mourn the dead and the challenges of life, too. Others float through an afternoon of dreamy somnambulance in astral ambience, meditating on mortality. There are those who  seek pragmatic confrontation of their fears among the spirits, walking among spooks and getting cozy with the doorways to the unknown world. And a cemetery is also a window into the past. Each one preserves local heritage and tells stories about the region and its people. Each venue peers into the human narrative, sharing private family secrets as well as chronicles and legends of the cultures and migrations and conquests and struggles and hopes of humanity.

Cemetery in October Snow – Jim Thompson

Smart fiction writers head to cemeteries for atmosphere and inspiration, for local flavour.  Journalists and historians snoop among names and dates for something that catches their eye and leads to new discoveries or an offbeat tale. And photographers know that the graveyard is a treasure trove for creativity. Some photographic subjects never grow cliché, and because of the profound, ongoing relevance of death to life, the cemetery is one of them.

Camiguin Sunken Cemetery – Dexter Maneja

An artist must look for new ways to capture themes covered a million times over, but there are certain subjects that resonate so deeply that people never tire of looking at them. Mountain vistas, the moon, babies, flowers, and beautiful women are captivating examples. They hold up better than most subjects under the weight of oversaturation, unoriginality, or technical flaws. The cemetery, too, will never waver out of human curiousity, and the  interesting value of its subject matter makes audiences more forgiving of inevitable repetition or other potential artistic weaknesses.

Grief – Lorette C. Luzajic

There is no shortage of visual and experiential opportunity in the graveyard, and the tried and true will do just fine. But this is all the more reason for artists to challenge themselves to aim for great photos, rather than being happy with good ones. There is no triumph more satisfying than finding a new way of seeing in a scene that has been seen by billions before. Look for fresh ways to reveal familiar subjects. A cemetery changes with the seasons; the weather accessorizes the backdrop with moody mist and hazy rain or a stark and barren sky. Constantly shifting light sifts shadows through endless combinations around the clock, changing the atmosphere from morning to midnight. Think, too, about the range of ideas and emotions that can be explored through a cemetery, from the human fascination with the macabre to religious ritual to the legacy of war.

Arlington National Cemetery – Photographer Unknown

The stories of humans interacting with the dead are also ongoing- what does a fresh, colourful jumble of a shrine tell us about a particular tomb or community? What does a forgotten and crumbling corner say about change in a town’s history? What story does grave desecration tell about a vandal- or about the deceased? What does the religious poetry in epitaph say about the response of a community to death? In any particular situation, do ostentatious and expensive tomb markers speak more about the dearly departed or about those he left behind? What effects can be created with other subjects, whether twins or basset hounds or cars, if I use cemetery as the backdrop?

Old Jewish Cemetery, Krakow Poland – Wayne Higgs

A good photographer can return to the same cemetery time and time again and ferret out new pearls, and it is a good exercise to do so, just to stretch the imagination and force the eye and mind into new ways of seeing. But variety is the spice of death, and there are thousands of graveyards to visit the world over. Exploring the visual diversity and architectural symbolism of various counties and cultures leads to new ways of looking at death. Graves have also made a considerable contribution to art, featuring an array of eerie stone sculptures, poetic epitaphs, wooden markers, engraving, even architecture. While classics like crosses and angels are ubiquitous, there are infinite expressions to mark a life and death, from statues of weeping Mary to crudely carved sticks to engravings of skateboards or rifles or Mickey Mouse. Mausoleums, sarcophaguses, monuments, flowers, and candles memorialize the dead in infinite ways, some garish, some bland, some eerie, and some exquisite. Words like “ossuary” and “charnel” and “catacomb” and “cenotaph” add poetry, depth, and narrative to the context or content of our visual stories.

Russian Orthodox Cemetery – Alan Grant

At a cemetery, a photographer is not only an artist, but an archeologist and anthropologist, too. The official word for a photographer or for anyone who is a cemetery enthusiast is “taphophile,” not to be confused, please, with “necrophile.” The taphophile is passionate about photography, engraving rubbings, “tombstone tourism,” research, and any other activities that will, ahem, unearth more information about graveyards and the people buried there. Many taphophiles are most interested in locating the graves of famous people, perhaps famous writers or soldiers, for example, or in –groan- digging up the past to enrich historical knowledge. Others are devoted and drawn most to the visual aspect, finding a- sorry- haunting beauty in viewing or creating artwork centered around death. And for many artists and photographers, there is no creative experience that parallels wandering through cemeteries, shooting the quick and the dead.

Headstone in the Grass, St. Augustine, FL – Rose Elle

Mexican Graveyard – Adam Richer

Photo by Herbert Baglione

Photo by Amanda Heeys

Visit artist and writer Lorette C. Luzajic at ideafountain. She is currently at work on a series of abstract compositions and photos celebrating the human part of nature. Her most recent book is Fascinating Writers: twenty-five unusual lives, soon to be followed by Solace, her second poetry collection.

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