Photographers are always looking for something new to invigorate their photography. Sometimes visiting the same old haunts or taking the same types of photographs can get stale. When I mention that I love visiting historic cemeteries, I get quite a few strange looks. Some consider it a bit morbid. Others, uncomfortable with the subject of death, can’t seem to fathom going to a cemetery unless they have no choice! Suffice to say that the notion of visiting a cemetery is not usually at the top of people’s “Things I Would Most LikeTo Do This Weekend” lists!
Table of Contents
1) Why Cemeteries?
It may be that having a cemetery just beyond my backyard fence or being within a 5 minute walk of another for much of my youth caused me to think of and look at cemeteries a bit differently than most. I never considered them spooky, haunting, or intimidating in any way. To the contrary, I was always fascinated by the older gravestones and more elaborate sculptures. I found cemeteries to be peaceful and calming – quite the opposite from how many are portrayed in television and films.
Cemeteries have always been some of my favorite place to jog or walk, since they tend to get very little traffic, almost all of which is moving at a snail’s pace. I found that reading the various gravestones and contemplating the lives of the departed seemed to take my mind off whatever ache or pain I might have had at the moment. When I rekindled my passion for photography in 2008, I naturally gravitated (no pun intended!) to some of the more scenic cemeteries around our home and along our travel routes.
Why should you consider exploring cemeteries with your camera? Here are a few reasons:
- Beauty – Some landmark cemeteries are full of very elaborate and ornate sculptures, many of which can be considered works of art.
- Character – Older gravestones and statues often have a weathered look that can only be produced by decades or centuries of exposure to the elements.
- History – Cemeteries chronicle the history of cities and towns. Even a casual examination of gravestones can provide clues into customs, tastes, and norms of a given era. Reading some of the inscriptions can provide touching glimpses into people’s lives, how they lived, what they valued, and how they were thought of by others.
- Atmosphere – Regardless of the season or weather conditions, cemetery scenes can evoke quite a bit of emotions on the part of the observers. A dark moody sky set against the end-of-day’s streaming sunshine can produce some vivid imagery.
- Wildlife – Cemeteries in rural settings often border wooded areas. As such, it is not unusual for some to become veritable sanctuaries for wildlife.
- Repose – In all but the most popular cemeteries, early morning and late afternoon hours will likely find you with little company. Getting some exercise while experimenting with some creative photography techniques in a serene setting can be quite peaceful and relaxing
2) Start Local
The best place to begin is near your own home. Most cities and towns in the United States have been in existence in some form for 100 to 250 years or so in the USA. In many other parts of the globe, cities and towns are much older. Many cities in Europe can trace their roots back thousands of years. Regardless of where you live, there is a good chance that there is at least one old cemetery that can trace its roots back to the founding of the town. Most towns have multiple cemeteries that fall in to the historical category.
You don’t often need to travel very far outside the city limits to find these hidden jewels. For obvious reasons, cemeteries were located relatively close to the cities and towns they served. Even in the sprawling metropolis of New York, you are only a half-hour drive from downtown Manhattan to the famed Green-Wood Cemetery, located in Brooklyn. Some cemeteries have capitalized on their historic nature, becoming tourist attractions, selling merchandise, conducting guided walking tours, creating virtual online-tours, and even developing smartphone applications that provide information for self-guided tours. Your local cemetery may not be developed to such an extent, but may still contain a quite a bit of history in its own right.
Entering the name of your city and the phrase “historic cemetery” into your internet search engine should be enough to help you find a number of cemeteries nearby. Chances are you will quickly find one or more cemeteries in just about any city. Historical societies are also likely to have information regarding older cemeteries, since it is not uncommon for them to be on the National Historical Landmark registry, maintained by the National Park Service (or your country’s equivalent).
I recently did a search pertaining to my neighborhood and discovered a cemetery founded in 1815 – within a few minute drive of our house. You may not be quite as fortunate to find something this close, but if you do a bit of searching, you will likely find some historic cemeteries located closer to your home than you might think.
3) Allegheny Cemetery – A Walk Back In Time
We are extremely fortunate to live close to Allegheny Cemetery, the sixth oldest rural cemetery in our nation. It is the final resting place of some of Pittsburgh’s most famous citizens, including Steven Foster (song writer), Josh Gibson (baseball player), Ebenezer Denny (American Civil War Soldier and first Mayor of Pittsburgh), General James S. Negley (Civil War and Congressman), Lillian Russell (singer and actress), General John Neville (American Revolutionary War) and many others. Allegheny Cemetery was featured in the PBS documentary, A Cemetery Special, narrated by Pittsurgh’s own Rick Sebak.
Many of the granite, limestone, and copper sculptures are simply breathtaking. Quite a few graves date back to the early 1800s. Some of the cemetery’s residents were originally from other graveyards in the Pittsburgh area and were moved with the founding of Allegheny Cemetery. A number of these individuals died during the late 1700s.
The approximately 300 acre cemetery has become a wildlife sanctuary as well, providing safe haven for a variety of deer, groundhogs, fox, red-tailed hawks, crows, chipmunks, and other species. It is not uncommon to see a herd of deer calmly walking through the cemetery feeding on grass. During the warmer weather, deer may take shelter in the shade of larger memorials, seeking escape from the sun’s rays. They are quite used to being around people and will simply watch you walk by.
It is difficult not to be moved by the impressive array of gravestones and sculptures, and the sheer amount of history represented by the cemetery’s many inhabitants. Despite our many trips to Allegheny Cemetery, each visit is a learning experience, whether it is the discovery of an interesting gravestone previously unnoticed or finding the resting place of a historical figure.
4) Preparation – Do A Bit Of Research
4.1) Existing Photos And Websites
Nowadays, it is hard to find anything that has not been photographed by someone at some time. There are some upsides to this, as you can often conduct a “virtual visit” to an area by perusing photos on sites such as flickr, smugmug, 500px, or the website associated with a given cemetery organization. Regarding the cemetery near my house (mentioned above) I found someone had created a website that outlined its history. This in turn led me to a local amateur who had a number interesting photos on flickr, enabling me to quickly get a sense of the photography potential from the comfort of my home office.
For some of the more popular cemeteries, websites can be treasure troves of information. Even smaller cemeteries, such as the one I described as being near my home, may have websites created by a local resident who simply wanted to document the neighborhood’s history. It may come as a surprise to some, but many of the popular historic cemeteries have walking tours and strongly encourage people to visit. If that seems difficult to believe, how about a band, music, dancing, actors, and food in the middle of a cemetery? It’s true! Allegheny Cemetery will host Doo Dah Days, a celebration of Stephen Foster’s life and music this coming Saturday.
Some have pathways – most often grass but sometimes stone – between the graves specifically designed for walking tours. Even the lesser-known cemeteries often make their presence known via historical societies and also suggest that people stop by and explore their grounds.
4.2) Contact The Administration Office
The larger historical cemeteries likely have offices staffed with employees or volunteers during weekday business hours and perhaps on weekends as well. It pays to call ahead of time and mention that you are planning a visit. Ensure that you ask about and understand the cemetery’s policies and guidelines.
When I contacted the Allegheny Cemetery office, I was greeted by Debby, a very friendly staff member. I had called regarding a recommendation for stone repair craftsman. When I mentioned that I was an amateur photographer, Debby shared some helpful information regarding the policies for early weekend access, upcoming tours, and even offered me some advice regarding the location of a mother fox and her pups that had taken up residence on the corner of the cemetery, and some information regarding the local deer population. Debby also advised me to stop by the office for a visit, and take a look at the array of maps and other literature highlighting the history of the cemetery and stories of its more famous residents – all free of charge.
4.3) Follow The Light
If you are planning a trip of some distance, you may want to know the position of the cemetery relative to sunrise and sunset. Looking at a detailed map will give you a general sense for where to spend your time throughout the day. If you wish to be more specific, there are a variety of websites, such as www.suncalc.net that will show you the angle of the sun by hour by day. For iPhones and Android devices, the Photographer’s Ephemeris application will provide similar functionality. Of course, nothing beats a visit to the site to understand the layout of the cemetery, which direction the headstones face relative to the sun, etc. Combining a sun-tracking application with a detailed Google satellite map view, you can now get a very good sense for how the sun will strike a specific headstone throughout the day, on any given day, and even take into account how the trees might affect the light as well – without even visiting the cemetery! The wonders of technology…
Fall is my favorite time to visit cemeteries, since many of the older cemeteries have large, mature trees with a diversity of foliage colors. Winter months are special because the sun never gets too high in the sky, so you often get direct sunlight on your subjects without the harsh shadow effects associated with the summer months. Summer is the best for infrared photography, since the lush vegetation of the cemetery is perfect for reflecting infrared light. For cemeteries with flowering trees, such as white and pink dogwood, Spring can provide some stunning contrasts between the rebirth of spring flowers against the backdrop of 200 year old statues and headstones.
I usually carry my trusty Nikon D800. On sunny days, I always bring my infrared-converted DSLR and 16-85mm lens. If I had to take one lens for FX, it would be a 24-70mm or 24-120mm. For DX, the 16-85mm range is ideal. If you really want to add some drama, a fisheye, 16-35mm (FX), or 10-24mm (DX) will provide some interesting distortion effects for close-ups of sculpture and gravestones. I usually bring a backpack with me and carry a few lenses, a reflector, a flash, and on rare occasions, a tripod. If the cemetery is known for its wildlife population, a longer zoom such as a 70-200 or 70-300mm may prove useful.
6) Photography Tips
Dramatic light is always a welcome edition in any photography setting, but perhaps even more so for great cemetery shots. Planning a trip at daybreak or sunset can improve your odds of capturing some interesting photos, since the gravestones can cast very long shadows. Once you make a few trips to the cemetery, you will soon get a sense for where to spend your time throughout the day.
Shooting at different angles can also add a bit of flair to your cemetery photography. Angling the camera up from your feet using a wide angle or fisheye lens can distort perspectives and accentuate portions of the statue or gravestone.
Using a fast lens such as f/1.4, f/1.8, or f/2.8 can throw the background out of focus and create some very moody images. Fast lenses are a favorite of portrait photographers, but they shouldn’t be overlooked for other situations as well. Bring a reflector with you. The sun may not always be in the position that provides the best light on your subject. A 32 inch collapsible reflector can do wonders to cast some extra light onto a headstone that is covered by a huge tree.If you are into or considering infrared photography, cemeteries can some great opportunities, particularly during the dog days of July and August. Since infrared light renders the lush grass and large mature trees yellowish/white, and stone and other materials a dark brown, you can easily create scenes with striking contrast. During the summer months, if you are fortunate to encounter some cumulous clouds and a bright sunny day, and you can create stunning photos during the very hours when most people with regular cameras have stopped shooting.
I don’t often bring my SB-900 flash, but it can provide some helpful fill flash if put on manual using a lower power settings. Using it at full power on a select subject, such as Cherub sitting atop a headstone, can also create a bit of moody “moonlight” effect.
If, like many serious amateurs, you integrate some photography excursions into your family vacation plans, consider searching for some historical cemeteries in the area of your vacation destination. My wife, Tanya, and I like to visit some of the wineries located within a few hours of our home. During one of our visits to New York State’s Finger Lakes region, I came across Glenwood Cemetery, founded in 1872, in the town of Geneva. Glenwood has some amazing sculptures and unique gravestones. It is located within a 2 minute drive of the famous Belhurst Castle resort and winery, one of our favorite places to visit.
On another wine-tasting trip, Tanya and I made our way up to the Lake Erie Wine Trail, which straddles the borders of New York and Pennsylvania. We did a bit of research prior to our trip and were surprised to find that Lucille Ball (of “I Love Lucy” fame) was buried just a short drive from our Lake Chautauqua hotel. Lucy had originally been buried out in the famous Forest Lawn – Hollywood Hills Cemetery, in Los Angeles, CA. At the request of her family, her body was been moved back to her hometown of Jamestown, NY, in 2002, and buried in the family’s plot in the Lakeview Cemetery.
We found another historic cemetery, Old St. James, which had some stunning gravestones dating back ~200 years. It was located on our route to one of the area’s most popular wineries, 21 Brix.
8) Study The Work Of Others
Flickr has a variety of groups that focus on cemetery photography. You may have to weed through quite a few to find the gems, but there are some stunning photos on the site. Some of these may help foster some ideas for your own cemetery adventure. Here are a few of my favorite flickr cemetery groups:
Historic cemeteries offer a unique combination of art, atmosphere, and history. Consider exploring those in your neighborhood first, and incorporating some visits to those cemeteries that may be along your travel or vacation routes. Always be respectful of the resting places of your fellow man and policies of the cemeteries. With a bit of preparation and experience, you may find quickly find yourself becoming a frequent visitor and taking some great pictures.