I have, at this point, spent a fairly extraordinary amount of times wandering cemeteries and photographing graves. While not every shot is an award winner, I have narrowed in on a few basic principles for shooting graves – themes, strategies and ideas I find myself focusing on whenever I approach a new spot.
Here are five of these, with some examples for each from my own shots.
While some graves are unique and ornate, the majority are fairly simple, and there’s a beauty in that simplicity. Minimalism can be a powerful tool for photographers, and graves – already a somber and quiet subject – are perfect for that particular style. Finding a way to remove other elements from a shot and allow the viewer to focus exclusively on the stone and its form can add an air of contemplation to a shot.
I found this grave in a small African American cemetery attached to the one my grandmother was buried in recently. As you can tell from the photo, it was small – maybe six or eight inches in height – and surrounded by tiny white flowers. The juxtaposition was great, so I got down low and used a narrow depth of field to get the blurred foreground and background with the grave in sharp focus. The field of flowers, though not even, helps to guide the eye directly to the stone at center and keep it there.
And, of course, McDowell Quattlebaum is a fantastic name.
2. Soft Light
Light is, of course, the most important tool for a photographer (in a technical sense, it’s the only tool). What I’ve tended to find is that the best grave and cemetery shots have soft light: shade, an overcast day, or indirect sunlight. This tends to add to the atmosphere of a shot; a harsh or direct light source doesn’t feel as peaceful as filtered light or shade can.
This shot, of former Massachusetts Governor Christian A. Herter’s grave in the lovely and out of the way Prospect Cemetery in Millis, MA, was one I knew would turn out well the second I laid eyes on the grave; I loved the color of the stone, the sharp detail of the chiseling, and the bright flowers. But I loved the effect of the woods the most, and I played with a few angles to get the effect I wanted. I finally settled on this because of the different types of soft light: the streaks of it across the headstone, the mottled light on the pinebed, and the sunny but faded light on the trees in far background.The light here gives the shot a sense of discovery.
None of these strategies are really unique to cemeteries – light quality, minimalism, repetition are all tools that photographers use in virtually any setting. However, cemeteries lend themselves most easily to some ideas, and repetition is a perfect example. This is especially true in standardized cemeteries like Arlington National Cemetery, or other cemeteries for fallen soldiers; in a tradition begun by the cemetery at Gettysburg, many soldiers’ cemeteries are uniform, with most stones resembling one another and laid out in standardized rows. For the photographer, this creates opportunity: the eye loves a pattern, especially if there’s a single blemish or break to interrupt it. That tells a subconscious story, and lifts up the object that breaks the pattern.
This photo doesn’t quite fit that strategy, but I like it regardless: one stone, set into a hillside, with a pattern revealing itself behind it. Others have done great things with rows of like headstones; this is a slightly different take, but still reliant on the pattern behind the foreground to lend it weight. Again, the shallow depth of field setting creates the blurred background that sets the subject apart.
One thing I’ve found myself drawn to more and more as a photographer when it comes to graves is the physicality of them – the texture, the integration with nature, the evidence of time and grit and erosion. The only way to adequately capture those is to get close in on the subject itself and capture the smaller details that would be missed by a wider shot.
The grave of poet e.e. cummings – in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, possibly my favorite cemetery – is a perfect example of this. The marker itself is a flat ground stone, already low-profile. It’s impossible to capture this one without thinking about detail. I managed to get to it at the right time, with low sun still illuminating it, but at an angle that enhanced shadow and therefore texture. I cleared some brush off of it so that the name was visible, but not all of the brush; to me, the leaves and dirt are part of the story here and need to be visible. The late autumn timing of this shot meant as well that I got an unusual splash of color. The stones that had been placed around the grave made for a perfect frame, and – using a sharp prime lens – got in close enough to put those stones at the outer edge of the shot, which pulls the eye in. The effect is to make the shot intimate; the texture is visible and makes the viewer feel closely connected to the shot on a physical as well as aesthetic level.
A lot of what goes into graveyard photography is trying to convey a sense of what it’s like to be at the grave itself. While that sometimes means focusing on the smaller details, as above, it can also mean backing up to see the full context of a place. Many cemeteries are simply beautiful locations – at seaside, on wooded hills, near cityscapes. Sometimes a grave simply has a beautiful background that must be captured, or it’s surrounded by impressive and interesting stonework. At times it’s not just a single grave but an entire cemetery that has to be placed in context, as it is with Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
I wasn’t actually able to go down into the cemetery, unfortunately. However, the cemetery sits just below the walls of El Morro, the oldest fortress on the island, so I was able to take this shot, which puts the burial ground in context in a couple of ways. First, you see it through the brick and mortar ramparts of the fortress itself, which creates a natural frame for the image. Second, behind the central memorial dome, you see the coastline and buildings of Old San Juan stretching out behind. The effect is to place the cemetery inside the experience of Old San Juan itself – the historical and the modern city.