For a little Halloween fun I went with some members of Houston Photographic Society to shoot at Glennwood Cemetery in Houston on Saturday morning. We were hoping for fog, but a front blew through on Friday night and killed any chance for that happening. It was a beautiful morning though. That elusive Houston fall weather of a cool, crisp, morning followed by a pleasantly warm and sunny afternoon. I arrived a little before daylight and took a drive through the cemetery to get my bearings and spy anything that might have been of interest once the sun came up.
The cemetery itself is a true gem in the city. When it first opened in the 1870’s Houston residents considered it as much a park as a cemetery. The landscaping and architecture compliment the natural shape of the land there. Houston is pretty much a flat and boring landscape; Glennwood turns that idea on end. It’s fell into decay a couple times over the last 130 years of it’s existence. But, I think the caretakers have done a good restoration and improvement job over the last decade or so.
Photographically, I became bored with it quickly though. Yes, it’s a beautiful place. It should be a photographic playground. Maybe it is for most people; but not me. I guess it’s because I’ve seen so many photographs of picturesque places. Manicured landscapes dotted with memorials to the dead have been subjects for photographers since shortly after photography was invented. It’s an easy subject to shoot. The residents aren’t going anywhere so you have plenty time to construct the perfect image. Everyone with a camera who has come before you has had the time to construct the perfect image too.
But, thoughts lead to thoughts lead to ideas. As I was walking through looking for something unique to catch my eye I saw a woman in the distance placing flowers on a grave. not a new grave, but an old one. I don’t know that she was family. She had a pretty large assortment of flowers with her and only used a few. I think she may work for the cemetery and goes around making sure everyone looks fresh and cared for. It was a scene and impressionist or pictorialist photographer would live for. I enjoyed it, but it wasn’t going to fill a morning.
It made me think though. Here I am, surrounded by man-made beauty working with nature. Chill air and a clear blue sky with the sun just starting to warm the places it’s rays touched. This place of clean wonder in a dirty city, built to memorialize those who have passed. I might have been standing there enjoying all the place and the morning had to offer, but it would only be for a moment. Everyone who visits the place only enjoy’s it for the moment. The dead though, they get to enjoy it for an eternity. I guess we don’t really know what the dead do, if anything. There are plenty of beliefs about that and you can insert your own into the story at this point. What I wondered though, is how do the dead enjoy this place if they can? Forever is a long time after all.
I didn’t really know of a way just yet of how to explore that question visually. I had to spur the thinking juices by just continuing walking, deeper into the cemetery. I trusted this place to provide me an answer. I came across a back-hoe parked on one of the paths that was being refurbished. The repair crew wasn’t there and the equipment was just parked for the weekend. Long past are the days when a gravedigger with a shovel dug the holes in a cemetery. Now, tools such as the back-hoe do the work. A tool such as this is one of the last things to do work for you. It makes a place for your last home, and seals you in it. Maybe, this was what the dead would see of the place? A utilitarian monster of a tool amid the delicate architecture of the and around it. I explored this with the camera, but it didn’t seem like the right answer either. The tools changed with the time. Someone from the 19th century would have no idea what the thing was. Death is something that transcends the millenniums.
So, I kept walking. Just beyond the construction equipment was a small group of headstones all with American flags next to them. They were a group of Union soldiers from the Civil War. Someone had been there recently and placed fresh flags next to the graves. Since I am a bit of a history buff, especially Civil War history, I had to take a few images. Looking at these old soldiers and thinking about my earlier questions my answer came to me. Maybe it’s just simple, we see what we have always seen. Straight ahead. I took my camera and put it on the ground looking up at the sky. What does Lt. Paine of the 7th Vermont Infantry see everyday? Yes, six feet of dirt would be the logical answer; but I was given to a bit of fantasy here. Straight up at the sky. A wide view of the world from a single place upon it.
Checking the screen on the back of the camera kind of surprised me. The ultrawide lens I was using not only saw the sky, but the headstone too. Every day Lt. Paine sees a reminder that his life is over. Beautiful blue sky shining through the trees, rain, snow, day, night; and always that reminder that he once was a soldier in a place and time far away. I didn’t find it bitter. Not so long before he got to see someone who never knew him in life, probably not descended from him, place a flag next to him. It may not be in view, but he was still thought about. What he did in life was worth remembering to someone.
After working out some of the technical details of making the photographs I set about trying to show as many of these ‘views of the dead’ as I could before the sun became too hard to deal with photographically. Glennwood has some once wealthy and influential residents. Their monuments ranging from solemn to garish. I wanted see how different some of these could look. Do you look up and wonder if your family didn’t care much about you because your stone is so plain? Do you wonder how you may have had a bit of ego when the twenty foot mountain of marble or granite was placed? Will you be jealous of the huge edifice next to you, or think it’s just preposterous? Maybe you will just enjoy the view.
I don’t know, maybe I just over thought the whole thing. Perhaps it’s just a silly flight of fancy wrapped up in a pretentious package. I know it’s not exactly ‘good’ photography. But maybe it is a cause to stop and think, at least, to think about how to take a different approach to a familiar subject. Maybe, it’s just my unconscious telling me to quit looking at what has been, and look up at what could be.