Both cemeteries and photography are products of the 1830s. In America, the modern cemetery did not exist before 1831 [1]. In Europe, photography followed with the daguerreotype as the first viable photographic process in 1839. Since then, photography has held a symbiotic relationship with death — either out of necessity due to limited photographic means, scientific inquiry, or the need to depict social events. Images of post-mortem subjects, war, entropy, and the idea of capturing a vaporous moment have helped shape the essence of what photography has become. When a photographer is perceptive enough to realize a fleeting moment, they recognize that presence is soon to become an absence — they are pre-visualizing the death of an explicit or implicit event. Such a moment, destined to memory and the resulting photograph, a testament or memorialization to its once existence. However, it is important to note that memories are ephemeral and this secures the role of the photograph as a necessity in our daily lives. We use certain tropes of vernacular when soothing a grief-stricken friend, an example is saying the person they lost will live on in their hearts. This may well be true — as long as they are alive to prevail the memory of the departed. This is where my most recent photographic work begins; with the questions and mysteries surrounding those who presumably, there are no longer living witnesses. Geomancy is an on-going collection of photographs that document the gravesites of the unknown and forgotten dead.
It depends on how you choose to approach my story, but I believe that I am not supposed to exist. Or perhaps by the end of this story, I was entirely meant to exist. The reason that I think this, is because of a tragic family event on April 26, 1975, where my maternal grandmother and great-grandparents were brutally murdered. My then, nine-year-old, mother had been living with her grandparents when she lost everything but her own life. Remarkably, my mother was spared because she was recuperating in the hospital after a playground incident that had put her there. Did my great-grandparents, who had dealings with the mob, know that death was upon them or was my mothers hospitalization a mere coincidence? The blatant mysteries of my family often escape me; however, my mother survived, and I was born seven years later. After the murders, my mother was sent to Phoenix to live with another set of grandparents. That’s where she met my father and my existence came to be. The parallel part of our lives that my mother and I share is that I too, was eventually raised by my grandparents. My mother, still a child and making sense of trauma, would not be cut out for motherhood. Shortly after she left our family. Growing up I had known bits of my mother’s story but, it wasn’t until much later that I understood the weight of these events and how death can change the trajectory of a persons life.
The house I grew up in has three cemeteries within walking distance. One of which is home to the mortal remains of a few relatives. I also have vague memories of attending a service at Mount Auburn and many a Decoration Day trips to leave flowers. It is hard to ignore the attitudes about cemeteries, but I cannot recall many times where they made me feel frightened or uncomfortable. Perhaps, living near them disarmed the urban myths of popular culture as a home of the living dead. Like many students, I picked up the camera and became interested in photography during high school. Some things were considered off-limits for me to photograph and one of those things was bringing my camera to funerals. What was once acceptable in the mid-1800s is sure to warrant disapproving looks from relatives in the 21st century.
In the early part of the 2000s is where my morbid curiosities were cemented. Unfortunately, I had to live through many confrontations with death to get to the comfort that I have for the topic today. In 2001, I was living in Colorado and studying photography when my father passed away at the age of thirty-nine. Ask anyone whose parent fell victim to a premature death and suddenly your own life seems to have an expiration date. Shortly after, the events of 9–11. In 2003 and 2004 I had been vacationing at the Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado. The Great Sand Dunes is a place I find to be a supernaturally possessed landscape because of its desolate high desert location, the local native and Hispanic folklore, and how quickly the weather turns from placid to turbulent. My then husband and I had been exiting the park after a fantastic afternoon. The weather had begun to make its turn as a storm was rolling in, and we decided to leave. We found ourselves in a long line of traffic due to an accident. We happened to be near the front of the gridlock to see that a topless Jeep had rolled and that trapped inside were two passengers. The park rangers were working to get the men out of the car before the ambulance arrived, coming from the nearest city forty miles away. My husband and I assisted the rangers in pulling these men out of the vehicle to lay them on a flat surface. They were both unconscious and to this day, I do not know if they survived; it was doubtful that they did. A few months later my mother-in-law, suffering from schizophrenia, committed suicide.
When these events were happening around me, I was in college learning about the photographic works of Joel-Peter Witkin, Duane Michals, Sally Mann, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard. My instructors, most of whom were commercial photographers, had nothing good to say about these artists who turned their lenses towards the darker aspects of life. Of course, these were the photographers that made the most impression on me and who I still look to for guidance when understanding my own photographic agendas. These photographers spoke to me because it was in their work that I found depictions of what mirrored my own ideas about death. Their photographs visually defined what was undefinable, rendering the subject of absence as presence.
Life began to calm down in my late twenties; I began teaching full-time and I completed a graduate degree. At the time, I was living near downtown Denver and a block away from Cheesman Park which had once been a cemetery. The bodies had been exhumed and relocated to historic Riverside Cemetery, a cemetery located in the industrial area and backdropped by oil refineries and Burlington Northern coal trains. I began walking my dogs at Riverside weekly, and I feel that cemeteries should act as parks for the public. Keith Eggener, of the University of Missouri, mentions during an interview with the Atlantic that the premise of cemeteries of the 1830s was to leave the material world behind and enter a place for contemplation and reflection. The rural cemeteries were built during a time when there were no public parks, resulting in their use for picnics, hunting, and carriage racing [2]. I am aware that cemeteries are not meant to be dog parks, but I must say that none of my dogs, nor the cemetery residents, have ever complained of this tradition. It seemed after being followed by Death’s shadow — that I had grown very accustomed to having Death around. I began to seek Death out in the spaces I spent time in, the books I read, and the movies I watch. Anyone who knows me well knows that the music I enjoy resembles funeral dirges and laments.
The inception of this project began with an image taken in the small Victorian-era mining town, Silver Plume, CO. The city cemetery is nestled in the pines above I-70, a mile or so north of Georgetown. The majority of the graves are of Italian Catholics and decorated with wrought iron fences and sacred hearts. I came across an unembellished family plot that I had not noticed on my previous trips. Something compelled me to pull out my cell phone and take a quick snapshot. Afterward, I began thinking of how curious it was that there was not a single reference to the individuals who may have been buried there — somewhat rare for a family grouping. I later found while searching the FindAGrave website that the family plot contained Charles, Calvin, and Frank Ingram. Charles was nine years old when he passed.
I began paying close attention when I visited a cemetery and began seeking out the gravesites where no information was provided or that knowledge was utterly eradicated by age and the weather. I felt a tug that there was something that could become a photographic project. However, during that time and after eighteen years in Colorado, I had also made the decision to relocate to St. Joseph, MO. My ideas were put on hold while I organized my life for a move but, I began acquiring books on the topic of death and the history of funerary rites and burial practices. I realize that I might be one of the few people who think it is a good idea to purchase more books just before they move.
Learning the identity of Charles Ingrim didn’t interest me as much as the mystery of simply not knowing. Much of my photographic process is often accompanied with creative writing. I wrestled with the idea of digging deeper into local histories and genealogy to pair each image with short biographies or writing short fictional pieces about the supposed lives of these unknowns. Both approaches seemed to overwhelm the simplicity of not knowing. I feel that presenting biographies was too predictable and the objectivity of that process seemed just as overshadowing. The subjectivity of fictional narratives, I felt would project too much of my personal voice and dominate what the viewer could surmise for themselves.
While researching for my thesis in 2015, I was seeking out any information on melancholy, memory, and how identity is shaped by a sense of place. I came across a novel by Kevin Brockmeier that was initially published in The New Yorker as a short story called A Brief History of the Dead. The premise of the story was that when people died, they did not go to heaven or hell but, remained in an afterlife that closely resembles the living world they had left behind. This world would be populated with the dead, and they had jobs and took up their old hobbies and navigated daily life as they waited for a relative or friend to join them there. The population of this city was brimming, and the residents were allowed to stay so long as there was a living memory of them. If that memory finally faded or the person who remembered them had died, then that city resident would vanish. Although I found Brockmeier’s plot to be fascinating, it was of no significant use to my thesis project. Tossing it aside I would forget about it for the next few years.
One of the books I had recently read was Patti Smith’s M Train. Smith set out to write this memoir without the structure of purpose she had when she wrote of her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids. M Train reads like the warm meandering conversation with a close friend over coffee. Smith recounted dreams, travels, her favorite authors and detective shows, graves she has visited, but most importantly these detailed accounts of small daily ritual culminated in an ode to her late husband. Smith writes, “There is only one directive: that the lost are found; that the thick leaves encasing the dead are parted, and they are lifted into the arms of the light” [3].
I had been in communication with the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art looking for opportunities for when I arrived in St. Joseph. The museum had been considering a residency program, and after some discussion, it was decided that I would begin work on a project for the museum. This was an excellent opportunity to explore my preoccupation with unknown graves. The words of Patti Smith became the mantra of the project, and the plot of Brockmeier’s story became the lens that I began to see the subject matter through.
I began reading a survey on the various ways loss can be interpreted, explored, and embraced. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by feminist historian Rebbeca Solnit made reference to the Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor who defined a Buddhist philosophy of shul. A shul, in the simplest of terms, is the mark or hollow left behind where something once was [4]. I began to see the gravesites as shuls. Some were so old and forgotten, that they were literally becoming recessed into the ground — that they would soon become entirely concealed by the earth. Almost all of them had spots where the soil had settled, and several had deep impressions where the headstone had laid for years after having fallen over. Combing these cemeteries for hollows in the ground, I felt as if I was attempting to reveal some aspect of the individual through the photographic processes, giving voice to a shadow whose memory had been forgotten and leaving them irrevocably dead. Indians in northern Canada believe that the shadow and the soul separate at death. The soul journeys elsewhere while the shadow remains lingering by the grave [5]. I spent my summer communing with the shadow hoping that my acknowledgment of them could breathe a bit of life into their lost memory. I decided to title the project Geomancy, a medieval practice of the divination of markings on the ground. The landscape environment was just as crucial as depicting merely the headstones. Even when the landscape is reduced to blades of grass, it is not insignificant. Fine art photographer Sally Mann writes in her autobiography Hold Still; “I came to wonder if the artist who commands the landscape might, in fact, hold the key to the secrets of the human heart; place, personal history, and metaphor” [6]. It is best to view each of the images I have presented as environmental portraits.
I had come into this project knowing that our cemeteries remain in various states of entropy, but the level of neglect was saddening. I decided that I would not venture into the more well-known cemeteries of the region, such as Mount Mora, which has been photographed so often, that I felt that my efforts were not needed. Maintaining a cemetery is a costly venture, and most of the cemeteries I visited relied on donations or volunteer efforts and, the majority did not have historical boards to protect the better interest of these hidden landmarks. Some locations I visited several times, while others only once. Only twice did I encounter the presence of others; both times, they were the caretakers. What I learned from speaking with them was that record keeping was often inadequate for the oldest of the burials. The locations of burials were known but, precisely who was buried in a plot remained largely unknown. One caretaker even confessed to moving stray headstones to places were they knew there was a burial, just to fill in the gaps. This deepened the mystery of the project even more than I had anticipated. Most of the time, stones were broken into pieces, mixed, and then stacked into piles like cairns marking a trail. I made multiple visits to Sunbridge or also known as City Cemetery. Sunbridge was considered St. Joseph’s cemetery for the indigent, with over 6,000 burials and with only about 150 actually marked or any record of who might have been placed in the plots [7]. As I walked through the back edge along the brush line, on an upper 90-degree day, I noticed only by parting the blades of grass, there were several one-inch-wide markers engraved with only an assigned number.
I have always been at odds with the digital camera and printing but find it difficult to set aside the time required to photograph and print with traditional film and chemicals. When I began thinking about how I would present these images, I remembered the headstone rubbings most of us have done as children for a school history project. Over the last few years, I had begun experimenting with a digital film that could be transferred onto other surfaces. This process provided the convenience of digital image-making, but also allowed for a handmade and one of a kind final product. Each printed image from Geomancy is an alcohol gel transfer. After printing the image on transfer film, I coat a piece of watercolor or mix media paper with hand sanitizer. Placing the image face down on the coated paper and rubbing with a brayer, I can then lift and pull back the plastic backing of the transfer film, leaving the image on the coated paper. This process reveals the hand of the artist through the visibility of brushstrokes and, each image is subject to unpredictable imperfections such as areas where the image didn’t make contact with the paper. I wanted these prints to be an acknowledgment of headstone rubbings.
When an image search using the keyword “cemetery” is conducted in either Google or as a hashtag search on Instagram, it is quickly noticed that there is a particular way that the subject of death and cemeteries are depicted. When I began this project, I was very much aware of the photographic cliches that often include weeping angles backed by ominous skies and dead trees, or the moody model in heavy lipstick posing in front of a mausoleum. These approaches I feel are tired and are exploitive to the dignity that these spaces deserve. And that is coming from someone who believes a cemetery is an excellent place for a dog park. Regardless, I hope that I have presented a familiar subject in a way that can inspire a new visual dialogue with the dead. One that allows them to speak for themselves.
(Geomancy: Imagining the After Life | Artist Lecture at Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art | 2018)
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Sources
1. Greenfield, Rebecca. Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries. The Atlantic. March 16, 2011. Web. Retrieved from: https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/our-first-public-parks-the-forgotten-history-of-cemeteries/71818/
2. Greenfield, Rebecca. Our First Public Parks: The Forgotten History of Cemeteries. The Atlantic. March 16, 2011. Web. Retrieved from:https://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/03/our-first-public-parks-the-forgotten-history-of-cemeteries/71818/
3. Smith, Patti. M Train. Knopf. 2015. Pg 240.
4. Batchelor, Stephen. Buddhism Without Beliefs: A Contemporary Guide to Awakening. Penguin. 1998. Pg 80.
5.Chevalier, J. Gheerbrant, A. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Penguin. 1996. Pg 869.
6. Mann, Sally. Hold Still. Little, Brown and Company. 2015. Pg 210.
7. Northwest Missouri Genealogical Society. Sunbridge Cemetery. Web. Retrieved from: https://www.nwmogenealogy.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=219&catid=69&Itemid=255