By MICHAEL PERKINS
PHOTOGRAPHERS DOCUMENT THE THOUSANDS OF PERFORMANCES AND RITUALS, from theatre to sacraments, that define human existence. They vary in language, music and format to an amazing degree: some are ornate, others simple. However, none are so exotic as our very last performances, those staged for us after we pass from this world.
The etiquette of death, the forms and symbols that we regard as “appropriate” or “reverent”, are, in themselves, a kind of show business, complete with their own exclusive cues, costumes and production values. Part of this strange pageant is an attempt to make the living feel comforted in times of grief or terror, since we know, all too well, that mere inches of random fate separate the mourners from the dearly departed. With luck, we feel oddly satisfied when things look “just so”, even as the images that mark these final acts can later strike us as eerie instead of elegant, banal rather than dignified.
I can never quite excuse my photographic expeditions in cemeteries over the years. Am I a ghoul, suffering some kind of Addams Family fixation with the morbid? Or am I merely looking at all this visual lore as the bizarre attempt at closure that it is? Perhaps it’s just the terribly strange juxtaposition of shapes, shadows, textures and artistry that’s produced in this most unlikely of dramas. And then there is the choice, for a photographer, of hue and tone. Is more hope expressed in color? Are the muted shades of monochrome more respectful?
I can’t say that walking through graveyards is a “guilty” pleasure, or any pleasure at all. At best, it’s like visiting the weirdest nation on the planet, Shakespeare’s Undiscovered Country. Everyone is, or at one point, will be, in the club, and so sizing up the visual totems of our eventual addresses is both fascinating and frightening. And what pictures all that confusion can make….