Strange as it may seem to some, I find cemeteries peaceful places and I enjoy spending time in them. I also enjoy photographing them. I’m mostly fascinated by the overall aesthetic of a cemetery, how the stones are placed, the ways they’ve shifted and changed over time, the carvings and motifs through the decades, decorative arrangements like walls and gates; it all fascinates me and I do my best to capture the essence of a graveyard whenever I shoot one.
There are some general guidelines you should follow when shooting burial grounds. The first thing to remember is to be respectful. These places represent lives and history and often sorrow. If there are mourners or visitors present, give them space. Don’t crash a ceremony.
Also don’t touch or move anything with respect to the graves themselves. If one is damaged or fallen over, leave it. Sometimes branches or other debris fall on monuments and I always leave those as well, unless it is photographically in the way. I also avoid climbing over anything I don’t have to like walls or gates. And I never remove anything from a gravesite and I can’t imagine doing so.
My main interest is in old cemeteries. Luckily in New England we have the oldest European cemeteries in the country and I’m never short of subjects. Whatever your particular interest is, find ways to accentuate what you find interesting. It might be particularly moving epitaphs, or artwork and common decorative motifs or maybe just finding stones of people with your name. Personally I like to show the overall structure and character of a cemetery as well as highlight some of the oldest or most interesting headstones. Decaying stones are always terrific subjects; lichen, cracks, weathering and even outright destruction can make for really interesting images.
I will admit that after years of shooting in cemeteries it does get tougher to come up with original compositions. Sometimes approaching a grave yard in a different season helps, like winter. Sometimes it means getting there at a certain time of day so that carvings are brought up strongly with shadows. Sometimes it means finding unusual perspectives and including other things like walls and gates in my compositions. Frequently I use different post-processing techniques to bring out what I want in a photo. This doesn’t always mean black and white or sepia, but I do use them since they especially suit the older burial grounds I haunt.
So don’t be afraid to step into that cemetery near your house. Explore it respectfully, photograph it creatively and walk away with a sense of history.
Kristen Smith is a New England photographer whose cemetery work can be found in her Graven Images Gallery