A Busman’s Holiday

Taking a break from graves, we went to Death Valley to celebrate the New Year. The first two days were very bitter: cold, windy, and blowing dust under a closed grey sky. On the first day of the year, the weather cleared, and I was able to go out and shoot.

Death Valley is particularly stunning in that there is so little vegetation that you can easily see the remnants of former earths. Each layer of soil, rock and salt adds its own story, told in colors, textures, and shapes.

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The stories tell of the explosions of distant stars, the dry ghosts of oceans and lakes, and mountains that rose up only to be polished by the soft hands of wind and rain. Worlds changed and changed again by life from the first blue green algae to the invention of plastic.

I am once again enthralled in the beauty. I am once again embraced by the earth.

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Messages

Mick's Grave, New OrleansWhen I photograph a grave, I do not normally change anything at the gravesite.  I might remove a stray leaf or prop up a fallen flower vase, but not often.  I want to document each grave on its own terms within its own context.

I started photographing cemeteries in New Orleans in 2006.  The first child’s grave I came across was Mick’s, a boy who loved Batman.  His family had decorated his tomb with new toys, butterflies, and an Easter basket, as if Mick were close by and might want to play.

Grave offerings are acts of communication, stories told by survivors.  Theirs is a language of granite angels, photographs of better times, plastic flowers, toy cars, lofty inscriptions, plaster saints — small versions of Heaven, where dolls and skeletons dance in the midst of the invisible.

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Color in the Afterlife

Building Paradise, Panajachel, Guatemala 2006

Building Paradise, Panajachel, Guatemala 2006

It was when I was working with the Guatemala images that I began to think of what people who report having had a near death experiences often recall that the colors in the afterlife are so intense and beautiful that they are impossible to describe in earthly terms. Thinking of the graveyard as a borderland began taking shape at this point, and the idea that perhaps I could use digital image capture interpreted through Photoshop to somehow pierce the wall between this life and the next.

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Judgement, Panajachel, Guatemala, 2006

I am reminded of Huichol shaman-artists whose brilliantly colored yarn paintings show their gods and the forces that shape the spiritual world, a world revealed to the Huichol through their ritual use of peyote.   While traditional yarn paintings were done in naturally dyed yarn, their modern paintings are made with bright, almost electric colors of artificially dyed yarn.  One Huichol artist remarked that the new colors were so much better, as the intensive almost electric colors came much closer their visions of the spirit world.

We need not lament change when we can use new techniques to better see the invisible.

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A Village of Tombs

A Village of Tombs, Chichicastenango, Guatelmala

A Village of Tombs, Chichicastenango, Guatelmala

My first angels were captured in medium format on black and white film, which I scanned.  I solarized those images to better convey the spiritual dimensions of the angles, graveyards and offerings, but was never satisfied with the outcome.

By 2006, I was using a digital SLR and went to Guatemala, where the graveyard at Chichicastenango was a fantasy of colors, a village of tombs on a hillside.   In Panajachel the graveyard was comprised mostly of nichos, small compartments in a burial wall or crypt, and each one telling a story.

Beloved Teacher, Panajachel, Guatemala

Beloved Teacher, Panajachel, Guatemala

One such nicho was a celebration of a beloved teacher, David Lebold, who passed away in 2004 Panajachel at the age of 63. His memorial reads “Although your body is no longer with us, you will live on in the memory of many children.”

Gravesites are works of art, as they embody the invisible by depicting the beliefs, hopes and lives of a people.  They create a vision of heaven on earth or perhaps a portal to the afterlife.

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How the Graveyard Series Began

Devastating Angel

Angel of Roses

I started spending more serious time in graveyards in 2004, during a trip to New Orleans. At that point, I just wanted to take pictures of angels, an angel binge that lasted through Vienna, Prague, London, and the wonderful Victorian cemetery in Rochester, NY called Mount Hope, among others. I’d never really thought much about angels before, just enjoyed looking at them in the setting of the churchyard. They ranged from the cute, cuddly putti to fierce warrior angels with raised swords and serious scowls; from gorgeous, dreamy damsels, to languid, effeminate angels covered so heavily with moss they look like they suffered from leprosy.

Bringing the images home, I began to make friends with these beings, who seemed so alive. Isolating them from their mossy, peaceful environments via pixels saved on a chip and later reassembled on a computer screen hundreds of miles away, the angels were telling me that yes, they are indeed alive.

Eventually, I began to think of the graveyard as a borderland, a place where there is a veil between life and death that one could attempt to reach through.

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