French philosopher Roland Barthes, in his 1980 book Camera Lucida, sets off his reflections by focusing on the relationship between photography and death. Portraits, he thought, are like revenants, and like ghosts, but they don’t even need their subjects to be deceased to be such. Certainly, if the person portrayed in the photograph has passed in the meanwhile, the effect is all the stronger.
This slightly macabre preamble was just to introduce how, like a bat in the night, photography has its place around death. That’s what a friend and I worked on last week as we went to Los Angeles shooting for…
The first cemetery we headed to was the Hollywood Forever, right behind the Paramount Studios (6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles). It was founded in 1899, towards the end of the neoclassical revival that had reshaped the understanding of cemeteries all along the nineteenth century. This vision of cemeteries, epitomized in the United States by the Gettysburg National Cemetery, drew its inspiration from the Kerameikos, the main burial ground in ancient Athens: the greek idea of a cemetery was a place of communion between the living and the dead, a beautiful garden in which to stroll and brood, letting one’s mind be inspired by the wisdom of the forefathers.
The Greek’s relationship with death was much different than the Christian one: if it’s true that the afterlife was considered as an unexciting, mildly depressed and mostly melancholic region of our universe, it’s also true that – unless one had committed particular atrocities such as murdering a family member or a guest – the underworld was not a lieu of torment, as opposed to the Christian Hell, or even Purgatory. Unbothered by damnation and salvation, the Greeks could wander in the cemetery and be inspired by those who came before about how to make their life worth living, and especially worth telling (and this obviously connects with the beauty and unique decoration of one’s tomb).
I could ramble for much longer on the philosophical, theological, and sociological implications of graveyards, but I would overstay my welcome in your attention and it would definitely be eccentric to our interest: just know that after the Christian-dominated conception of the graveyard as a place to bury the dead and to pray for them and hasten their way to Heaven, and after the distate for cemeteries of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, the Romantic passion for classical Greece and Rome saw fit to reappropriate the vision of the cemetery as a place of beauty, made for aimless wanderings and recollection in tranquillity. After more than two millennia, cemeteries became once again places to hang out, and to be honest I think an ancient Athenian would be less scandalized at the sight of a Yoga class by Douglas Fairbanks’ monument than many of our contemporaries.
Graveyards, or cemeteries (please stop spelling it with an A, you’re not Stephen King) are a fascinating object for a photographic study on so many levels. As I give you an insight of what animated my interest, I hope to give you some photographical tips as well.
First, cemeteries are really interesting on a compositional level. Difference cemeteries display different kinds of tombs, some are more eclectic while other present a more uniform architecture. Composing the image in a cemetery is a beautiful challenge.
Second, cemeteries offer great storytelling opportunities. There are many lines you can exploit: one of my favorites is the duality between the living and the dead, which can be interpreted either by connecting dots inside and outside the perimeter of the graveyard (as in the case of the Hollywood sign overlooking the cemetery, or in the curios alinement of the Griffith J. Griffith memorial and the Observatory in the background).
Another interesting way of exploring and resolving the life/death duality is to focus on the wildlife that cheerfully inhabits most cemeteries, in this case mostly amounting to birds and squirrels. Whenever I look at the first image, I think that Mesrobian must have been a really good person.
Third, many cemeteries include indoor mausoleums and other enclosed spaces. These force you to explore different kinds of composition and editing to exploit the architecture, the decor, and the way light plays around in those purposely dim chambers.
Last, but not least, when you visit a cemetery such as the Hollywood Forever or the Père Lachaise in Paris, you you will be looking for the last earthly home of some of the stars that will burn forever bright in your imagination. This is where your culture and your personal taste will play out, because we’re all on the same Earth but we all look at different Heavens.
The “stargazing” part was particularly rewarding at the second cemetery we visited, the Westwood Memorial Park on 1218 Glendon Avenue. Beware, this one is a little hard to find, as it is nested between high-rises and parkings so you won’t see it from the street where your navigator leads you to. Trust your GPS, park, and walk to the memorial. The weather had turned gloomy, but the overall lack of esthetic charm (compared to the Hollywood Forever) is compensated by the fame of its residents. It’s almost easier to single out who you do not know than who you do. With all due respect, it is a fun experience: many things will make you go “Ha!”, for instance seeing that Hugh Hefner and Marylin Monroe rest side by side, and many of the epitaphs will make you smile, smirk, or giggle out loud.
Aside from the revealing suspicion, aroused by the Westwood Memorial, that we won’t be equal under the grass, it was very rewarding to visit cemeteries. It was rewarding from an artistic perspective, it was a great study and exercise, and it was revealing from a human perspective, too. It makes you wonder while you are there, and it makes you wander while you are home editing your photographs, and the very editing is like a mirror of your thoughts about everything you took in.
What was my takeaway? I saw many beautiful tombs, and I read many epitaphs. Many were solemn, many were solemn and personal (I could not help wondering at many graves who said the person would be forever remembered, but I had no idea who they were), and some were definitely witty – and I appreciated these a lot because I’m a funny guy. But the one that resonated the most with me was Dean Martin’s, at Westwood Memorial. It was so simple and so perfect, because not only it summed up everything we had seen. It also summed up everything life is about, and also everything photography is about.
Everything we do, it’s because everybody loves somebody sometime, and my sometime is now.