Monday, September 30, 2013

Photographing in Cemeteries

(The photos below were taken in Hope Cemetery, Worcester, unless otherwise labelled.) 

I’ve always been drawn to explore cemeteries, especially when I travel.  And I love photographing monuments and gravestones. Often the words on the stone are intriguing-- clues to a cryptic but dramatic story. 

A cemetery in Minster Lovell, Gloucestershire, England

My kids would probably attribute my love of cemeteries to my morbid streak, but I disagree—I love cemeteries because they are filled with testaments of love as well as hope for a future reunion with the  departed.  Lovingly tended graves are a physical pledge: “You are not forgotten.  You live in my heart.”

So it’s no wonder that, for a photojournalism course I took last year at the Worcester Art Museum with photographer Norm Eggert, I chose for my project photos taken over many visits to Hope Cemetery in Worcester.

I posted some of those photos on Dec. 3, 2012, in  “A Cemetery Called Hope. I began the essay this way: Hope Cemetery is the place where my body will be buried.  I like visiting and photographing cemeteries because they’re filled with virtual symbols of love, expressed in the words engraved on the stones, the flowers, candles, flags, toys, burning incense, balloons, statues, birthday cakes, prayers, rosaries, letters, even bottles of whiskey and un-smoked cigarettes left by visitors on the graves.

“All these things are an expression of the hope that one day we may be reunited with our departed loved ones.  No one knows if that’s true, but that’s why ‘Hope’ is an appropriate name for a cemetery.”

Over the years, I‘ve visited beautiful and incredibly moving cemeteries in many countries.  Some that stand out in memory include the “City of the Dead” in Glasgow, Scotland; the famous “Pere Lachaise” in Paris (where I saw a mourner pour a whole bottle of Scotch on the grave of Jim Morrison—and I was enchanted by the monument to Heloise and Abelard—the nun and the philosopher/monk, apart in life but together forever in death.)   

Heloise and Abelard, Pere Lachaise, Paris

One of my favorite cemeteries, which I happened on by chance, is the “poor people’s cemetery” on the island of Martinique, where each grave—every one of them homemade-- looks like a little house with a photograph of the deceased over the door.

Day of the Dead poster, Oaxaca, on my studio wall

The ultimate cemetery experience is staying up all night in Mexican cemeteries during the Day of the Dead celebrations.  I’ve had that privilege as a member of chef Susana Trilling’s  “Dias de Muertos” cooking adventures in Oaxaca.(See “Seasons of My Heart” for a list of all her culinary tours.)   

The Mexicans have a much more comfortable relationship with death than we do in the United States.   On the days of the dead (children are believed to return on October 31, adults the following day)—the surviving family members decorate the graves with flowers, candles and (often) elaborate sand paintings and then settle in to spend the night and welcome visitors with food, music, beer and whatever else the dead person liked in life. The whole holiday resembles a fiesta more than a funeral.

Of course I take photos when I’m visiting a cemetery, and often I’m photographing and weeping at the same time.  Most graves don’t make me cry, and some make me laugh, like the one that showed the deceased posing with his favorite cockfighting rooster.

But when I see an elderly person talking to a gravestone, and especially when I see the stone of a young child who barely tasted life, but whose grave is decorated at every season by parents who never stopped mourning—that’s when I start crying.

 At Hope Cemetery I was frequently brought to tears by the small, flat gravestones in the “Garden of the Innocents” where the city of Worcester will pay for the burial of infants and children whose parents can’t afford a plot and gravestone.

 Most touching of all the small stones, where parents leave toys and holiday decorations, was this one where the parents carved the message by hand: 

 Given my penchant for photographing cemeteries, it was a sure thing that I would sign up for a class at the Worcester Art Museum that takes place next Friday, led by my friend, photographer Mari Seder.   All day, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., we will be photographing in Worcester’s Rural cemetery—within walking distance of the Museum—with a break for a picnic lunch.  I’ve heard that Rural Cemetery is even older and more picturesque than Hope Cemetery, and I’ve been wanting to visit it; an experience which will be even better with Mari’s guidance and photographer’s  eye.

Mari is a prize- winning photographer who spends half the year living in Worcester and the other half in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she’s had exhibits of her stunning photographs of Mexican women and their household altars.  Here’s a photograph she took of the grave of a 12-year-old Mexican girl, Juanita Velasquez Cruz, who lived from 1890 to 1902.

I’ve already traveled to Oaxaca twice for the classes that Mari offers there in photography, painting and collage, and once I got to tag along with her to photograph in Puebla, as well, where the Indian-decorated churches of Cholula, virtually encrusted with zillions of folk art angels, blew my mind.  You can see them on my blog post “Angels in the Architecture”.

 Mari’s day-long class at Rural Cemetery on Friday is part of a new series of immersion classes offered by WAM that allows students to spend an entire day with regional artists in an intensive day-long class in each artist’s speciality,  learning their secrets and getting face time with these experts in the fields of photography, collage, illustration or Celtic art.

Now that fall colors are burnishing the trees, I’m hoping for some remarkable photographs to come out of Rural Cemetery this Friday.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Amalia's Art Deco Miami Beach Birthday

Granddaughter Amalia's second birthday was celebrated on August 25th in two cabanas of Miami Beach's art deco Raleigh Hotel with its famous swimming pool that seems to be perpetually waiting for Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire or Esther Williams to show up.

We tied some balloons to the palm trees so guests could find the party, but Amalia objected loudly to the balloons--not because she thinks they're too kitsch-y, but because she finds balloons scary.

She cheered up when a man named Bobby brought pitchers of lemonade and iced tea and red and white Sangria.  That's Abuela Carmen on the right.

He also brought some pizza to the cabana.  Amalia decided she would check it out.

It was so tasty that she ate the whole pizza before any of the guests arrived.

Amalia and the other little girls ignored the famous swimming pool and kept dipping water out of the pool with empty sangria glasses and pouring it on the sand so they could make sand castles.

Finally Mommy and Papi managed to lure Amalia into the pool to pose for a family photo.

Amalia was fascinated with one of her presents--a toy for making cakes and sweets out of play dough.

While the adults ate pizza and drank sangria, Amalia concentrated on the play dough.

Then Bobby brought some special ice cream that was a surprise sent by Amalia's Tia Marina who was in San Francisco and couldn't come to the party.

Then they brought the cake that Amalia had chosen with her Mommy from Epicure: it was alternating layers of chocolate and vanilla cake with strawberry mousse between the layers and butter cream frosting.  What Amalia liked best was the confetti on top.

Everybody sang to Amalia as she dug into the cake for her first bite.

Everybody waited to see how she liked it.

But after one bite she abandoned the cake and the fancy ice cream and went back to nibbling on the play dough cupcake she had made.

When it started to get dark, Amalia knew it was time to say good-bye.

 There were goody bags for the children.

And when she went home, there was another present -- a Dora tricycle that made noise and gave directions in Spanish and English. It was a surprise from Yiayia Eleni and Papi had assembled it.

After careening around the house....

Amalia ended the evening by dancing with her Papi...

It was her best birthday ever!

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Power of a Photograph

This photograph, taken by Bassam Khabieh for Reuters, was on the front page of The New York Times on Aug. 22

I read with great interest the article in Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review, “The Delicate Handling of Images of War”, written by Margaret Sullivan,  the newspaper’s public editor, defending the decision of The Times’ editors to use in the newspaper two shocking photographs from Syria.

One was a large (four-column-wide) photograph from August 22 that I described in a recent post, “The Children of Damascus”, which began " The beautiful babies and children, wrapped in their white shrouds, laid in a row in the street in front of a mosque, while a voice on a loudspeaker asks people to come forward and identify the bodies.  They seem to be sleeping, but they were choked to death with poison gas.

This image deeply affected me when I saw it on the front page of my morning newspaper, and it (and similar photos and videos) clearly moved President Obama as well because, in his address to the nation on Tuesday, he said: "The images from this massacre are sickening.  Men, women, children lying in row, killed by poison gas.”

I’ve been a journalist all my life and my medium is words, not photographs, but I’ve always been fascinated by the ability of a photograph to hit you like a punch in the gut –something that words can rarely do (but sometimes it happens—especially if you’re reading Yeats.)

This unique ability of photographs to elicit a visceral reaction in the viewer is one reason photography has always fascinated me and why I’ve been collecting antique photographs for decades.  Today, when we’re all aware of the ways that an image can be manipulated, it’s hard to realize how shocking and convincing the first photographic images were in the 1840’s, after Louis Daguerre revealed his discovery to the world. 

These images “written by the sun” as they were advertised, (because, before electricity, they could only be taken on a sunny day) were understood to be God’s undeniable truth.  That’s why photographs were immediately used by scientists and politicians for propaganda to promote their warring views.  Louis Agassiz, the leading scientist of his day, traveled to southern plantations in the 1850’s and had African-appearing slaves stripped and photographed on daguerreotypes (now owned by Harvard University) in an effort to substantiate his arguments that the Negro was a separate (and inferior) species from the Caucasian.  That’s why the Northern abolitionists, starting with Charles Sumner, hired photographers to photograph mulatto slaves-- who appeared to be white-- and circulated the images to media like The New York Times and to politicians, to excite anti-slavery feeling.  (I’ve blogged about this, most recently in   “White Slave Children of New Orleans – Why?” )

Back to the disturbing photographs coming out of Syria.  Newspapers have always taken pains editing the images on the front pages, which their readers will see as they sit down to their breakfast cereal.  But sometimes a photograph is so moving and so important that The Times runs with it.  The example I remember most clearly was the1972 image of the little girl in Viet Nam, naked and burning with napalm as she ran away from an attack on her home.  The minute I saw it, I said, “That photograph is going to win the Pulitzer Prize.”  And it did.  And perhaps it hastened the end of that war, as I (and President Obama) hope the photographs of the dead children in Syria will lead eventually to the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons.

In defending The Times’ editors, Ms. Sullivan mentioned that they cropped the photograph of a Boston Marathon bombing victim, which showed that one of his legs had been reduced to a single naked bone projecting from his knee.  In this case, the newspaper’s editors were trying to protect us from the gore, but in the present day of instant, unedited dissemination of news, I and everybody else had seen that photo in its entirety on the internet almost before the victim reached the hospital.

Photographs have a unique ability to move us and drive us to take action, and as long as the photograph is real (un-tampered with) and as long as the caption is accurate in telling us where and when it happened (not the case with a second Times photograph in Sullivan’s piece showing kneeling Syrian soldiers about to be executed by rebels in Syria), I believe that reporters and editors should never have to apologize for showing us the truth of what they see.

My interest in the impact of photography is the reason I follow a blog— that analyzes news photographs, discussing what they appear to show and how they are being used as propaganda.  Two days ago it featured a series of photographs of executions in Syria, prefaced with the words, “Warning:  Some of the following images are graphic in nature and might be disturbing to some viewers.”  I usually can tolerate scenes of gore, but that day I chickened out after the first photo.  Today I’m going to make myself go back and look at them.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Things to Do When You Turn 70

Last January I received an  e-mail from Sellers Publishing inviting me to contribute an essay to a forthcoming book called 70 Things to Do When You Turn 70.    The royalties, they said, would be donated to nonprofit organizations dedicated to preventing and curing cancer.  It would be a follow-up to their book 50 Things to Do When You Turn 50.  The series has been very successful, according to the Editor-in-Chief Mark Chimsky, and more than 300 notables have contributed essays,  including President Jimmy Carter, Gloria Steinem, Garrison Keillor, etc. 

How could I refuse an invitation like that?

I haven’t received my complimentary copy yet, although the book is being published this month, but I thought I’d give “Rolling Crone” readers a sneak preview of the cover and the essay I contributed, which was based on a blog post that I wrote when I turned 70.  That was  two and a half years ago. So here it is. ( Would love to hear from other senior citizens their suggestions for making the most of one's seventies.)

Musing on the Joys of Cronehood
Joan Paulson Gage

When you turn 70, you can’t consider yourself middle-aged any more.  Let’s face it, you’re wicked old. Which doesn’t sound great, but in ancient times the entry into cronehood, the third period of a woman’s life – after Maiden and Mother-- was feted with ceremonies and rituals, because the crones were revered as wise women who could impart their knowledge to the tribe.

I used to think the best time of life was when children are young and future triumphs are still possible.  But now I think that, if you’re a woman and lucky enough to remain in good health, your cronehood is the best era, free of the drama, responsibilities, worries, and the insecurities of youth.

When women turn 50, they’re likely to give their husbands a big cast-of-thousands celebration and ignore their own birthday.  But when they turn 60, many of my friends celebrated themselves with the party or trip they’d always wanted.

At 60 women often channel the creative energy they spent on home, children, and jobs into some long-hidden passion-- designing jewelry, writing a book, gardening, volunteering. They allow themselves to try the things they'd always dreamed of, but never had time to do. A friend of mine went from wife, mother, and chef to law student, then lawyer, then judge, then a state chief justice. After a run-in with cancer, she retired.  Now, she’s enrolled at Tufts University’s Veterinary School so that, at age 70-plus, she can fulfill her childhood dream and become a veterinarian. (And she relaxes with horseback riding and tap dancing!).

I, too, went the “find-your-passion-at-60” route and turned from journalism (although I still do it) to rediscover art, which was my college major.  So, 12 years ago,  I started taking lessons at the Worcester Art Museum, exhibited in some local shows, and even sold some paintings.

As long as I can get around, I intend to travel to places I’ve never been, take lots of photographs and turn them into paintings. Just before turning 70, I spent a night on a beach in Nicaragua, watching sea turtles hatch and head to the sea, following our lanterns. For my birthday, I took a culinary tour in Mexico with chef Susana Trilling, and witnessed the migration of millions of Monarch butterflies at the El Rosario sanctuary—an amazing  experience! 

Since then, these “bucket list” experiences have been crowding in—some by design and others by happy accident.  But the biggest and best came in  2011, when my first grandchild, a golden-eyed girl named Amalía, entered the world. 

Hanging out with her and chasing her around have literally made me feel a decade younger. And no exotic bucket-list experience can compare with seeing the wonder on her face when I show her something for the first time:  patting a horse, throwing stones in a lake, putting the angel on the Christmas tree. I’m rediscovering the beauty in everyday things through her eyes.

To see everything as if for the first time—that’s what she’s teaching me, and that's what this crone would like to pass on to the next generation.