So we took a trip up to the house to turn the water off for the winter. It was pretty damn cold and nasty, and honestly, I don’t want to know how much colder it could get. My readers know how me and the winter don’t get along.
Moose wanted company on the ride up, moral support as he calls it, and promised me exquisite autumn landscapes painted with the beautiful brushes of mother nature. He got the company, I got cold and rain.
We got to the house, did what he had to do, I’m still not sure what it was, but we poured antifreeze in the drains. The bottle promised that it would protect to -50 degrees, again, I don’t want to know how cold it gets up there.
I walked around the house and property as Moose poured the fruit punch looking stuff down the drains and took shots of the wet trees just starting to turn. Everything around me seemed to be in a weird place, balancing on the edge of summer and fall. The cold rain wasn’t heavy, just annoying. We wrapped up what we came to do, locked up and headed down the bumpy road that lead back to civilization.
“There’s a waterfall not far off the road. You wanna stop?” Moose asked. I looked out at the drizzly day and thought about it. “No.” I finally responded. “But you know what? We passed a cemetery on the way in. Can we pull over there? I know everyone thinks I have a sick thing for cemeteries, but there was tree in it that really gave the place some character.”
“Sure.” Moose responded.
A few minutes later he stopped the car and I walked across the road to the Claryville Cemetery. The rain had stopped, but the sky was still overcast and gray. I walked up to the tree I saw as we passed, and took some shots. I wandered along the roads, lost in the world of framing, light and exposure. I was snapped out of the sound of Moose’s footsteps.
“You see the dates on these things?” He asked. “They’re pretty old. 1825. 1850. 1840. 1874. They have been here a long time.” I began to notice the dates and he was right. These stones had seen many autumns underneath this big old tree. Moose and I walked around, and then headed back to the car.
“Thanks for stopping.” I said as I took a photo of the old church on the edge of the graveyard.
“No problem, kid.” Moose responded. “Hey, look at the tree in the middle of it. It’s perfect, I mean, how could we not stop?”
… and that will probably be the funniest thing I write all day.
See, St John’s cemetery is anything but new, and it’s definitely not new to me in any way, shape or form. My Great-Grandfather, Otto, was a night watchman there. When Otto, his wife Marie, and my grandparents, passed on, they were all buried there. The first school I attended was across the street from it and for the better part of 8 years I spent more time staring at it through the windows than I did the blackboard. The church I grew up was attached to the school and it was the first thing you’d see walking out of the doors on a Sunday morning. My parents bought a house, and raised a family, on a street that ended looking at it. I spent four years of high school standing at a bus stop right in front of the same cemetery.
And yet… I guess I never really saw it until today.
I took my camera and left my wonderful new apartment, all finished and clean and warm, and headed out the door in search of something. I haven’t used my camera for much more than simply documenting my construction for the past month, and I was itching to find something out there. My feet turned towards St Johns and I thought a cemetery would be good way to get back into the swing of things, even if it was just boring old St John’s.
I thought of Otto as I walked along the paths. I wondered what he saw when he was there. I wondered if he ever got the chance the see the long shadows cast on the ground that I was seeing. Did he find the same tiny hints that spring is rapidly on it’s way that I did? Did smell the cool “still a lion” March air?
All this things I found, and this boring old cemetery provided me with some shots I am happy with. Whats old is new again and all that…
Ehrich Weisz & his mother moved to the US from Hungry as a young boy in 1878. They joined Ehrich’s father, who by now had changed the family name to Weiss, in Appleton Wisconsin. Ehrich grew up there as an average child, though there are stories of him opening locks to the kitchen cabinets to gain access to pies & sweets. As he grew, Ehrich developed great agility. Using this talent, he found his way into the spotlight, first on a trapeze, calling himself “Ehrich, the Prince of the Air.”
He took the rails at age 12, wandering around, probably performing, but eventually wound up rejoining his family, who had moved here, to New York City. He continued performing, but started working his new found talent of magic into his act. Eventually he changed his name and Harry Houdini was born.
I’ve always been captivated by magic. One of my most vivid memories was when a family friend came over and performed some magic tricks for me. He put multi colored silk scarves into a empty box of detergent, and pulled them out white. Afterwards he gave me the box, and I kept it for years. To this day I love magic specials on TV, expect the guy who shows you how it’s done. Somethings things, I guess, I don’t want to know.
As you can imagine, living in NYC’s cemetery belt, there are lots of famous graves around. Even though I spend a lot of time in the graveyards around me, I don’t focus too much on individual graves. I’ve even gone to lengths to not include the names, I dunno, I just feel awkward about it.
I always knew Houdini was buried in the neighborhood, but I was never sure where. I googled around, found the name of the cemetery and was surprised to see it was one that I had been in a few times. The site I found didn’t give the exact location, just a hint “It’s by the entrance, you can’t miss it, you see it as soon as you drive in.” Well, I must drive with my eyes closed, because I made three of four trips there specifically to look for Houdini’s final resting place and never saw it.
I guess the master escape artist was escaping one last time.
One warm spring day I went back, not so much to look for it, but just to enjoy the day out. I parked my car, wandered along the silent rows and climbed to the crest of a hill. I looked around, from there you could even see the skyline of Manhattan. I looked at the busy road in front of the cemetery and my eyes followed it along. Suddenly I saw it… what I had been missing … another gate! It dawned on me now, that the entrance that was being referred to was no longer and entrance, but a chained up service gate. I hurried down the hill, and in a few minutes I was there.
Houdini’s tomb was exactly as I had read it looked like. It bore both his stage name, as well as his real name. A woman in stone wept at the base. Walls stretched out from both sides of it embracing the smaller name markers of those who lay in plot. Harry’s had some stones on it, and someone had left behind a key.
I took some photos, breaking my usual practice, but I figured a man who lived and loved the spotlight so much wouldn’t mind.
(thanks to BK Hagar for reminding me to write this up…lol)
Only one single thought went through my mind in the few milliseconds that I was airborne.
Protect the camera.
In the past two weeks, I’ve seen two fellow photographers Brody Grant and Sue Henry endure the anguish of a broken camera. Thankfully, both of them survived, and they lived to shoot another day. As gravity sucked me down I freaked that I would suffer the same fate. Acting on instinct alone, I tucked my camera into my chest and rolled so my back stuck the ground first.
It worked, and as I lay on the patch of cold wet ice that caused me to fall in the first place, I held up my camera to make sure. As I did, I felt the consequences of my great defense maneuver, and a pain ripped through my back. Thankfully the pack on my back took most of the force, but I still kinda hurt. Ahh well, no pain no gain, right?
I got myself back up and navigated safely towards the steps that I was heading to. I took some photos and continued on my way.
The “Blizzard of ’09” that the weatherman predicted was pretty much a dud, but there was a fine covering of snow and ice over much of Queens. I headed to where I knew the snow and ice would be most untouched by shovels and rock salt, a cemetery. Apparently I was the only one with this thought, because I found a quiet and peace I hadn’t really seen before. The air was crisp and it blew through the leaf-less trees. On the ground were tracks of cats and either a few rabbits, or one amazing active one. Almost every where I walked, my footprints were the only human ones left behind. I raised my camera, trying to capture the stillness, but knew that no matter how good the shots were, they would never be able to capture the tranquility I was feeling.
I continued on until the pain in my back and the numbness of my fingers drove me indoors.
The night before I was sitting with an old friend, a person I have undying respect for, but unfortunately I haven’t seen a lot of in recent years. I showed him the “2008 yearbook” of my work. When he was finished he handed it back to me and said “Ptchfork, you’ve really found that thing you’re meant to do it life and I’m proud of you brother.” His words went right to my heart, and thought about them as I warmed up with a cup of hot cocoa and processed the photos I took. I’m pleased with the outcome and I don’t know if was his words, the beauty of my surroundings or my crash on the ice, but I feel like I might have busted through the funk I’m in.
Time will tell though… we’ll see when I post again.
It’s funny how I, at one time, thought this blog could only be about photos, and not about me. It was a friend who the other night finally keyed me into the fact that since the photos are me, then whatever I blog about will be me as well.
The other morning I grabbed my gear and headed out the door and wound up in a cemetery … again. As I’ve tried to explain, It’s not just that I’m insane or have an unnatural attraction to cemeteries, but it’s also because I’m surrounded by them. I live in the “Cemetery Belt” of New York City. Also, despite my urban upbringing I’ve always been a nature lover. In this city, the best place to see what the world would look like if not for the injection of concrete, steel and glass, are cemeteries. Parks are too man-made and designed to get a real feel for it… I’ve never seen a hawk in Juniper Valley Park, but I’ve seen them in a cemetery.
Of course, as I walked my mind wandered and I wasn’t surprised where it wound up, given my surroundings. Bob was not only my biggest fan, and the most encouraging person when it came to my hobby, but he was also one of my closest friends and confidants. Bob was one of those guys who knew the whole story, even if I tried to leave out a detail, he’d figure it out. Bob loved looking at my photos. I would even send him private ones, snapshots from my vacations or trips with my kids to museums or just playing in the park, stuff that never made Flickr or Grasp The Moment because he loved seeing smiling faces. However, as for the rest of the stuff, Bob always told me he loved my cemetery stuff the best. He grew up in this area, and like me, spent a lot of time in them. Yes, Bob spent a lot of time on the wrong side of the tracks, and cemeteries were also excluded spots where he could be left alone by the law, but he always told me that he too saw a peace and tranquility in between the stones as well.
Bob left us all Thanksgiving day in the stupidest of ways which does not make it any less painful not to have him here anymore.
My memories and thoughts of Bob were interrupted by a soft sound in the distance. I was in a newer part of the cemetery, one I usually don’t shoot in because the graves are newer, modern, not the old craftsmanship which I am so fond of. I usually just hustle through it. At the edge of the section was tree, bare of it’s leaves, but decorated for Christmas. The ornaments seemed personal, mostly cars and a motorcycle, and whoever placed them there made sure they wouldn’t blow away in the winter wind. It was obviously done with great care. As I photographed I noticed that some of the graves around were also decorated.
Who did this? Why? Definitely not the names on the stones themselves, but the names they left behind, that was obvious, but I wrestled with why as I walked along. As I reached the top of a hill, a blast of chilly air hit me in the face, and I knew right away it was Bob. “You idiot.” I felt he was telling me. “Death is something we all struggle to make sense of, and we all find our own way to deal with it. Some curl up in a ball, some decorate the graves of their lost ones and some walk, camera in hand, trying to make sense of it all. Now go take some more photos, Slick, and you don’t have to remember to email me anymore, I see them the second you take them.”
I will Bob. In fact, just help me out sometimes, move the clouds a bit so I can get the perfect light or something ok?
I’ll see you some day. Until then, stay outta trouble.
Below are the shots I took that day. To see more of the Cemetery Shots that Bob loved so much visit my Flickr Set
As I’ve said before, I strongly believe we are not just meant to see things, but we are meant to see them when we see them.
Isn’t it wonderful that we live in world that’s constantly changing. The sun moves through the clouds across the sky. Trees and flowers grow, bloom, and eventually die. The wind blows the wildflower seeds across the swaying grass to find a safe place for them to take root. A bird lands on a branch and shakes off the leaf which drifts down to the ground below.
I had walked through Lutheran Cemetery so many times in my lifetime it would be impossible to count. As a young boy, I rode my bike through it, and it served as a convenient shortcut from Middle Village to Glendale especially on foot. I know this might sound creepy to some, but when you live in the “cemetery belt” of New York City, it’s just a way of life. So nothing seemed out of the ordinary when I walked along the cobblestone paths yesterday. I had a little over an hour before the gates closed, and the sun hung low in the autumn sky.
Almost immediately I felt as if I was entering a place I had never been before. Sure, I recognized some of the statues and stones I had photographed in the past, but everything just seemed different, alive almost. I saw things through eyes I had never seen through before. I took a few photos, I was more focused and direct then ever before.
I saw what I wanted, and I got it.
It was a good day.
The one comment I hear most often is “What’s your obsession with cemeteries?” To be honest, I don’t know. I think really, it’s more a reality of living in the part of Queens that I do rather than an obsession. Pull out a map of the Queens / Brooklyn border. See all that wonderful green? A giant park? A national recreational area? The Himalayas of New York City?
Not really. They’re cemeteries. They way it was explained to me … and I’m sure my dad will correct with if I’m wrong … is that after they passed the law that no more bodies could be buried on Manhattan Island, they floated them across the East River and through them on a wagon and headed as far as they could before things got real stinky. That’s where the cemeteries popped up.
Growing up, I rode my bike in cemeteries all the time because of the paved roads, hills, and lack of traffic. They remain largely untouched, I mean the grass is cut and they are mostly well manacured, but this how the rest of Queens would look if we weren’t mucking things up with our houses. (I mean without all the tombstones, of course.) The wildlife in our cemeteries are amazing. I’ve seen pheasants, possum, all sorts of birds, and a few hawks. One of them even had a delicious meal of a freshly caught squirrel only a few feet away from me.
Of course, the biggest attraction to me is the quiet. Cemeteries are the most peaceful place in this hustling, bustling metropolis.
There is however, that little detail of the remains of passed lives all around you and that’s where the differences between cemeteries and parks begin. I have a few rules I make myself follow when I go into one, camera in hand. The golden one, is I stay far away from actual mourners. This is their place way before it’s mine, and I would never take away the moments they have spent in some connection with a lost loved one. I don’t even shoot anything anywhere near where mourners are. I don’t like to shoot new graves either, where you can see the fresh dirt, I did this once, and I took pains to keep the image from showing that it was actually off a new grave. I also try not to shoot the names on the stones, I try not to make the person in the grave the subject of the photo. It’s unavoidable at times, I guess, but I try my best.
Of course, all cemeteries have different rules regarding photography. My favorite ones doesn’t seem to bother with me. In another one across the street, I was kicked out. I would explain my rules listed above if I was given the chance.
Then there was Bayside Cemetery.
Bayside, which is no where near the part of Queens called Bayside, was a cemetery I had heard alot about for interesting photographic opportunities. So with trusty map in had I drove over there and parked outside. I spent a few minutes in the cemetery that shared the street with Bayside and got some shots. Finally, I ventured inside the place I had heard so much about.
Things looked different, right from the start. The door to the main office was open, but no one was around. I walked past the small building inside the gate and took a hand full of shots of the mausoleum and what was around it just ahead of me. I was about to proceed and heard a sound. I turned to my right and a cemetery worker was walking along the path.
Needless to say, he told me photos were forbidden, and I would have to leave. I, of course, did what he said, and haven’t had the chance to return. I never made it more than 100 feet inside the main gate.
Here’s the only photo of Bayside Cemetery I took…
To answer the question, no I didn’t put the chair there, and no, I have no idea who did. Guess it was just one of those things I was supposed to see when I was supposed to see it.
I’m dying to see the rest of Bayside Cemetery though… someday..