Photographing the Beyond

March 09, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

As long as I can remember, I've been obsessed with cemeteries.  Photographers are ultimately story tellers.  We tell the stories of a moment in time, or a place, or of other human beings.  Burial places are full of stories (even if those stories serve as a big full stop).

I am fascinated by the ways in which humans memorialize their dead, from elaborate granite tombs built in a futile attempt to withstand the ravages of time... to simple uniform headstones. You can learn a lot about people from their final resting places. 

In the area I grew up, there are burial structures that are almost as old as civilization itself. The passage tombs of Carrowkeel have stood on a windy Irish hillside for five thousand years. Visitors can still climb into the interior burial chambers, now long since empty of human remains. The Dolmen of the Four Maols has stood sentinal on a hill outside my home town for thousands of years before that town ever existed.  Visiting these places allows us a connection, a real, physical connection, to people long forgotten.  But they were here.  They were alive.  They existed.    

Carrowkeel, Ireland, 2016Carrowkeel, Ireland, 2016These majestic tombs have looked out from the side of this Irish mountain for four thousand years. Dolmen of the Four Maols, Ballina, 2016Dolmen of the Four Maols, Ballina, 2016

I live in California now, where even old graves tend to be measured in decades not even centuries, never mind millennia.  Still, the stories are there. In Mendocino, there is the grave of Dennis Nolan, age 28, "a Native of Ireland" who died in 1887.  Denis would have been born in the aftermath of the Great Hunger, to a devastated Ireland still wracked by unimaginable poverty.  When he left Ireland, he was never going to return - and he died in a place so far away it may as well have been another planet.  Still, he got a pretty impressive grave marker, so death aside, it seems he did pretty well.

Mendocino, 2014Mendocino, 2014

In the ghost town of Bodie, a small lonely graveyard on the edge of the town tells the stories of the gritty pioneers who risked everything to seek their fortune in a beautiful but desolate place.  For most of them, the risk never paid off. BI & LM Barlow lost their son Arthur (aged 3 months and 18 days) just weeks before the dawn of a new century. His headstone, with its single marble rose, still stands - a symbol of grief that has outlived baby Arthur's short life, many, many times over.

Bodie, California, 2017Bodie, California, 2017

In Hollywood, the graves have exactly the level of showmanship one might expect, whether it's Johnny Ramone's life size effigy, or Cecil B De Mille's grandiose marble sarcophagus, though I admit to being disappointed by Jayne Mansfield's surprisingly flat final marker.

Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 2017Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 2017 Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 2017Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 2017 Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 2017Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 2017

 

Some graves quite literally tell a story - Edward Duffy's in Dublin's Glasnevin cemetery being a prime example.

Others markers tell more about those left behind.  The Bayeux War Cemetery in France contains the graves of mostly British soldiers who died on D-Day.  It's a somber place, but the simple inscription "our lad at rest" on the headstone of a young RA Allen, somehow spoke more to the human cost of WWII in a way that the volume of headstones alone could not.

OUR LAD AT RESTOUR LAD AT RESTBayeaux, France.

Of course, no one does military cemeteries better than the Americans.  I've taken some of my favorite shots among the resting places of America's patriots.

Golden Gate National Cemetery, 2016Golden Gate National Cemetery, 2016


I've never passed a cemetery I haven't wanted to visit, or photograph.  As photographic subjects go, it could be considered pretty trite, and that's certainly a valid criticism.  Still, I come back for the stories.  As photographers, we can give new life to those old stories.  We can see - and show - something of those people who went before us - and perhaps in that we can contextualize our own brief existence. 

If not that, then we can at least just agree that headless angels are cool.

Sacramento, 2018Sacramento, 2018

 

 

 

 


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