Cemeteries are not my friend, photographically speaking. Without fail my thoughts revolve around the abundance of obvious subjects; tombstones, tombstones and more tombstones. Initially they seem so full of meaning and emotion, providing an endless assortment of compositions. However when I’m back home and reviewing I find that the shots just don’t deliver, and my hit rate is very low. This is a common disconnect I run into, when the feeling I have looking through the viewfinder doesn’t transfer to the resulting photos.
I recently took a morning trip to Hollywood Cemetery with David and Brian. Of the two-hundred-plus photos I took that day I kept just seven. A few minutes into my first pass I almost gave up on the whole lot, finding no reason to save shots of tombstones belonging to people I didn’t know. Luckily I decided to put the task aside for a few days. Before I went through the photos a second time I happened to read Ming Thein’s article on travel photography. One point stood out:
My theory is that there’s an optimum amount of time to spend in a place; it’s before you get jaded and the differences stop jumping out at you, but after you’ve gotten over the initial shock of arrival. The Japanese have a term that describes this perfectly: doki doki. Once the doki doki has passed, you should be able to think rationally again. Or at least objectively enough to figure out what it is about the place that’s a) different from home, but b) also different from everywhere else. Then, start consciously looking for these elements.
Ming is speaking about traveling to new places, but I think the concept applies to any location where well-known subjects can be found. Everyone is familiar with tombstones. We can easily imagine what one looks like and we all assume to find tombstones in a cemetery, there’s no intrigue to the subject matter. While that doesn’t mean they can’t make good subjects it does mean that I’m hard pressed to pull out a meaningful photo. Additionally, a photograph that contains names I can’t connect with will make the attempt that much more difficult. Instead, I focused on subjects that are unique to Hollywood cemetery.
Luckily a few fit the bill; five of the seven photos I kept focus on sculptures and architecture. Yes, most cemeteries have mausoleums and angelic figures but these are unique to Hollywood Cemetery. A viewer might recognize one, or at least get the sense of a cemetery. If I’ve achieved either of those goals, without showing a single tombstone, then that’s a success in my book.