Sunday, February 5, 2012

Grave Humor

Just because I spend too much time wandering around cemeteries doesn't mean I've lost my sense of humor.  To the contrary, I think one needs a sense of humor in order to pursue this hobby; if you let the locations and inscriptions get under your skin too much, you're apt to go looking for a mausoleum with an empty niche to crawl into.

With that said, one of my main objectives is to seek out the obscure and bizarre:  the eighteenth-century sandstones with winged skulls and death's heads, inscriptions that outline how the deceased ceased, and most of all, strange names.

I began exploring cemeteries almost as soon as I got my first SLR camera, back in 1982.  There was one a few miles from my house, the resting place of a branch of my family, with lots of interesting markers, especially this one, which caught my eye, and never let go:

St. Mary Star of the Sea, Cedarhurst, NY

More recently I was walking through one of three cemeteries in Bethpage, New York, near the famous 'Bethpage Black' golf course.  It was there that I came upon this, which is destined to become the image I will always visualize when I hear the word 'birthstone':

That same day, in one of the adjacent cemeteries, I found this, which aptly fits the definition of 'what lies beneath':

Powell Cemetery, Bethpage New York

For the final entry today, there's this stone from the Cedar Grove cemetery in Patchogue, NY, taken in July of 1991:

The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the first known usage of the term 'birdbrain' in 1933; sadly they do not provide the example.  A search through my OED reveals no listing for the word.  Given that he lived for seventeen years after its coining, I hope old Bird was able to take a joke.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

BB-39 - USS Arizona Memorial

Pearl Harbor has been an American Naval Base since the 1890's, and was the site of the infamous Japanese surprise attack on the morning of December 7, 1941.  As well as forcing the United States into World War II, this battle also resulted in the greatest loss of life on a single ship in American Naval history.

BB-39, the USS Arizona, had its keel laid in March of 1914 at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and was launched from there on June 19, 1915.  She was commissioned on October 16, 1916.  After a month-long shakedown cruise for some final work, the battleship was assigned to its homeport of Norfolk, Virginia.  Though built in time for WWI, due to the shortage of coal in Great Britain, her patrols were confined to the east coast of the US.

After the war, Arizona conducted fleet maneuvers in the Caribbean until her transfer to the Pacific in September, 1921.  Based just south of Los Angeles in San Pedro, California, she operated there for eight years, performing maneuvers and Marine training exercises, then returned to Norfolk for a complete modernization, an overhaul which was finished in 1931.  After taking President Hoover on an inspection tour of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, she returned to San Pedro.

In 1940, just before she was transferred to the Hawaiian command, the battleship was overhauled once more, this time at the Puget Sound Navy Yard.  Arizona finally arrived at Pearl Harbor in February, 1941.

Though the ships logs were lost, it is known that she entered Pearl Harbor and moored at her quay for the last time on Saturday, December 6, 1941.

       * * *

Arizona Memorial - January 28, 1996
It's a quiet ride on the launch from the visitor center to the memorial.  You hear the motor, and the water rushing past, but human voices become muted as the boat nears the brilliant white sloping structure.  Disembarking at the dock the only sounds are from the park rangers directing the crowd; inside almost everyone speaks in a whisper.  Even the children are silent.

Opened in 1962, the concrete memorial seems to float astride the sunken battleship. It actually stands on piers, and no part of the building touches the ship. It's an open-air structure, with seven large openings on either wall, and another seven in the ceiling above.  Seven openings to signify the seventh of December.  There is a large opening in the floor near the far end, you can lean on the railing and look down at the wreck.

Memorial Wall - 1,117 Sailors and Marines
Dominating the far end of the memorial is the marble wall with an alphabetical list of the 1,177 sailors and marines who died aboard the ship that December morning, most of whom remain entombed in the waters below your feet.

The marble and engraving are the same as you'll find in any United States National Cemetery, which lends an air of solemn familiarity to the place.  But although this is not a national cemetery, it is a war grave, and is administered as such by the United States Navy as an active site. 
Gun Turret Number Three

An active war grave, you may be thinking, more than seventy years after the battle? Well, yes, as the few survivors of the attack have been allowed to have their ashes interred on the ship in a niche within the Number Four turret, which is located below the waterline, and behind the Number Three turret, pictured above.  To date, a little over two dozen urns have been placed.  Men who served on the ship before the attack, but not assigned to it at the time, may have their ashes scattered in the waters over it.

A full list of the current interments and scatterings, as well as more information about the ship and memorial, can be found here


Friday, December 16, 2011


It's a very handsome piece, dark gray with lighter speckling, three lines of type at the top and the date in the lower right, all carved in a powerfully simple typeface, fittingly called Gotham, and accentuated with silverleaf.

It was with much pomp and PR that the cornerstone for what was then known as the Freedom Tower was dedicated and set in place at the World Trade Center site on July 4th of 2004.  And it sat there while the state and the city argued and dithered for almost two years as the building was re-planned, re-purposed, redesigned, renamed and finally re-sited to the point that it was obvious that this granite cuboid would serve no actual purpose and have no physical part of the structure it was intended for.

So on June 23, 2006, with the building now sited forty feet to its west, the stone was hauled away in order for construction of the underground infrastructure of the WTC to begin.

And the twenty tons of Adirondack granite went east, back to the stoneyard where it was shaped and engraved.  The company, Innovative Stone, didn't feel it was right to keep it in storage, so they landscaped a plaza in front of their building at 130 Motor Parkway in Hauppaugue where the stone was rededicated on September 11, 2009.

December 11, 2011


Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Metropolitan and The Essex

October 1985

I always liked this picture for the two-tone effect of the almost-silhouetted foreground and background and the way the midtone grays give a sense of distance to the buildings.  If the buildings were as dark as the trees they'd seem as if they were both on the same plane.  As it is, they're actually on three different planes.

The foreground trees are in Central Park, somewhere around the Wollman Rink.  The Essex House and its neighbor to the east, the twin-chimenied Hampshire House, have been side-by side on Central Park South (W. 59th Street) since the early 1930's.  Looming behind them (and two blocks south, on West 57th, forming the third plane) is the northeast face of the 78 story Metropolitan Tower, a triangular residential building which had just topped out around the time of this photo, and would be completed two years later.

I had wanted to use this picture back in 2007 for my other website, Images of the Lost City, but was frustrated by my inability to find its location in the park: after twenty-two years the trees had grown to the point where nothing was visible.  It would have been an interesting sight, too, since almost as soon as this building opened, another, taller building (though with 14 fewer stories, curiously), the Carnegie Hall Tower was constructed a mere thirty feet to the west.  The six-story Russian Tea Room stands between them.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

But Wait, There's More!

November 7, 2011

The Friends Meeting House is on Old Jericho Turnpike in Jericho.  Easily overlooked, next to a multi-story professional building on the edge of a commercial area.  The cemetery behind it is hidden by trees from Route 25, and about ten feet above the roadway, so you'd never see it driving by.  I noticed it on my map, and seeing it was near a few others, decided to see what was there.  Walking in I knew right away there wasn't anything to interest me: all the markers were identical, two and a half-foot high dark granite stones, all mostly 20th century burials.  The meeting house dated from the 1700's, but any stones from that period must have weathered away long ago.  Worse, all the stones faced north, away from the light, and this type of granite is hard enough to read even in good light.

I wandered about anyway, after all, I was here, but frankly, this was a boring place. But there's always something...  

Now, I've been to dozens of cemeteries here on the Island, and I've seen every sort of phrasing possible carved on gravestones; from tortured verse on the passing of a child (Lynbrook - "Ah, no more can we list to her laughter/nor see the fond light in her eye/Like a flower she blossomed and faded/T'was God's will that the dear one must die.") to extended descriptions of the manner of death (a 19th century man in Commack, 'by a waggon loaded with hay running over his brest') to the diseases that killed them (Southampton, 'died of the Smallpox', late 18th century).  I've learned that 18th century wives were often referred to as 'consorts', and then 'relicts' a hundred years later.  I've seen huge stones with space for a half-dozen names yet having but one, often that of a young woman, carved off to one side, with the rest of the stone blank.  I've even seen a gravestone for a man who survived a shipwreck.

So here's to Andrew Dott, Jr., the newest addition to my list of odd stones, for the past forty-two years beckoning passersby to 'See Other Side' and read his wife's curious verse:

Quaker Cemetery, Jericho, N.Y.


Monday, October 31, 2011

Hallowe'en with Harry

October 31, 2011
I've been to see the gravesite of Harry Houdini many times over the years at the now semi-abandoned Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, and even went there last year on Hallowe'en, but I never had the chance, until today, to see his bust atop the center pillar of the memorial.

The bust was originally a part of the site, which was built by Houdini (born Erich Weiss) in 1916 to honor his parents, who are memorialized in the carvings on the left (mother Cecelia 1841-1913) and right (father Mayer 1829-1892) sides of the half-circle bench. (These were cut from the original stela the parents were buried under and incorporated into this new one.)  They, along with his maternal grandmother and four of his brothers, are buried with Harry in the forecourt.  The stories I hear was that the original bust was was stolen so often that the family finally gave up on replacing it, and a reproduction was created by the Society of American Magicians and placed here only for the memorial service they hold every year on the anniversary of Houdini's October 31st, 1926 death.

This particular bust, I learned, was created by the Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, after a years-long fundraising effort, and installed here, somewhat covertly, on this past September 27.  You can read their account of it here

The Weiss Family Gravesite - October 2011

But last year, when my sister and I came by, there was no bust, in fact, the cemetery gates were locked.  We got onto the grounds through the adjacent Hungarian Cemetery. (The Machpelah gatehouse has been abandoned for several years now.)  I was here again this past August, and while the gates were open, the grounds were somewhat overgrown in places.  While not as far gone as the Bayside/Acacia Cemetery in southern Queens, or the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Philadelphia, it could, sadly, be only a matter of time.

Grave Marker.  Note the small padlock in the letter 'O'
Houdini died in Detroit at the age of 52; he was born 26 years before the turn of the century and died 26 years after.  His wife died in Needles, California, in 1943.  That date remains uncarved on their stone for the simple reason that she isn't buried here.  Bess, as she was known, was born and raised a Catholic, and her family would not allow her to be buried in the Orthodox Jewish cemetery.  Or the Orthodox Jewish Machpelah Cemetery  would not allow a shiksa to be buried there.  Both stories are out there, take your pick.  Bess can be found in the Gate of Heaven cemetery in Hawthorne, New York.


Addendum:  I received an email this morning from George Schindler, the dean of the Society of American Magicians, informing me that this year's Broken Wand ceremony will be held at 1:26 PM on the anniversary of Houdini's death, based on the Hebrew calendar (23rd of Cheshvan, 5687), which this year falls on November 20.  If you're interested in attending let me know, and I'll send you directions to the cemetery and parking information (Machpelah Cemetery has no parking lot).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Along the Deuce

July 1988

I spent four years working on the west side of Manhattan, on 44th Street at 12th Avenue.  When I first started there in 1987, the old West Side Highway structure still ran down to 43rd Street on 12th; if there were any windows on my floor they'd look right out onto the roadway.  The USS Intrepid was docked across the street, a few blocks north of the Circle Line boats.  Neither of them drew too many tourists back then, and given the ambiance of the neighborhood, it's not surprising.  There were still concerts at Pier 83 in the summer, which was about the height of culture, unless you were interested in the mating habits of the Jersey Johns with the local crack whores.

West 42nd street was still a miasma of filth and abandonment, with empty theaters and quarter peep shows on both sides of the block, interspersed with souvenir and counterfeit stores.  

So of course it was one of my favorite places to stroll through; at the shop we'd refer to it as 'the scenic route'.  Disney was still almost a decade away from finally conquering it all, but there were other attempts that threatened to destroy the quaintness of it all.  And those plans did not go unchallenged.

July 1988

Designs had been announced in the fall of 1988 for a development plan for the Square involving four huge office towers on the north and south ends of 42nd street and Seventh Avenue.  Four bland, monolithic structures that were probably doomed to never move beyond the drawing board before the ink was even dry, but lots were being assembled and condemnation was going forward.  The owners of some of the theaters began to protest, utilizing their marquees as giant picket signs, as seen below.  Of course, the cynic in me still thinks they were more upset that they wanted market rate for their properties, rather than the offers they were given by the city under eminent domain, but it all made for public outcry and, pun intended, good theater.

I never took a lot of pictures on the Deuce, partly out of a sense of self-consciousness, and partly out of a sense of self-preservation.  The street was usually crowded when I was there, and with an open camera bag on my shoulder and a camera at my eye, I was a good target.  Notice in the second of the two pictures above, the man in the white jacket with the cane?  After I took the picture I turned around, stepped back on the sidewalk, and put my camera back in the bag.  He'd crossed the street by then, and hit me in the ass with the cane. True story.

October 1988
While I like the first two pictures here for their historical perspective, this is my favorite for its artistic point of view.  Early on a rain-soaked evening, with a mix of loiterers shuffling about and pedestrians hurrying along the sidewalks.  Peep show marquees reflecting in the wet roadway and lone streetlight arching into the air.  You can follow the vanishing point all the way down 42nd street to where it ends at the river, the hills of New Jersey a gray hint beyond.

More ruminations on 42nd Street can be found here.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Manhattan Tower

March 11, 2003
I cannot for the life of me remember why I was crossing the bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan on this morning in March.  I've been wracking my brain trying to recall, and I keep coming up empty.  I know I started on the Brooklyn side; the contact sheet from this roll has images from there.  I just don't know why, or even how I got to Brooklyn. 

And as you can see, I had the walkway pretty much to myself.  There was one group of about three people a few hundred feet in front of me, and I had to wait for them to pass under the arches in order to get this shot, but other than them, and a few bicycles, I was alone over the East River.  

It was a clear sunny day, late in the morning to judge from the sun's angle, and the classic Gothic towers were lit beautifully.  I took advantage of the light, with my main concern being symmetry.  The narrow walkway on the bridge was limiting my lateral movement, so a straight architectural composition was my  goal.

I still managed a bit of creativity, I think.  While the image is far from perfectly symmetrical (note that I wasn't even standing on the center line of the boardwalk), I like the way the cables running from the center of the tower form an asterisk of sorts as they lead down and across the upper third of the picture.  The cloudless sky also aids the composition as it seamlessly gradates from light to dark over the middle to the upper third.  Clouds would break this sense of flow, making the image jumbled and confusing to the eye.  

Finally, with one exception, every line in the picture is a straight line: verticals, horizontals, and diagonals, each vertical and diagonal matched on the left and right side, the horizontal brickwork of the tower complimenting the boards of the walkway and girders over the roadways.  The only curving lines of course, being the twin arches in the very center, which help to soften what would otherwise be a very severe image.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lido Sunflower

August 1999

My first autofocus camera was the Pentax ZX-5n which I got in the summer of 1999.  I remember I was able to afford it because the newspaper I was working for at the time had finally cut me a check for the assignments I'd done during the previous three months.  (They really hated paying freelancers.)

One of the neat features of this camera was the 'panorama drop-in', which was a mask that blacked-out the top and bottom thirds of a single frame, to create a panorama effect.  I say 'effect', because a true panorama camera would expose the image across two, three and sometimes four entire frames of a film roll, using either a wide-angle lens or a rolling slit-shutter.  But those cameras cost thousands and required elaborate tripods, so for about the $350 that the Pentax cost, I was happy with the drop-in mask.

Of course, I could have just cropped the top and bottom of the image in the enlarger when I printed them, but my technique at the time was 'shooting for the full frame', that is, I never cropped any pictures that I printed.  I used an oversized carrier in my enlarger that let me print the border of the negative as a frame around the image. Without a masked negative I wouldn't have a black border all around, only on the sides.

There was an inherent problem with this, however.  Minilabs at the time were programmed to automatically print negatives shot with the mask  as pano prints, which cost a dollar each (or more, depending on the lab), so if I used color film, having a roll processed and printed could wind up costing a fortune.  And since the prints were basically just super-enlargements, if you used 400 speed film, you could wind up with grainy, expensive, unusable prints.  I had to remember to write 'print all frames as 4x6' in capital letters in the special instruction box when I had color film printed.

That said, this picture works well as a pano, since the area of interest is in the center, and having more sky and road on the top and bottom would just detract from it.  This was shot looking west along Lido Boulevard across from the beach clubs back in August of 1999.  I'd been driving past this spot all summer, and I really liked the sunflowers that one of the homeowners on Marginal Road (the street to the right) had planted on the narrow median between the streets.  I finally took my bicycle out that way to get some shots.

Here's why I think this composition works: on the left you have the empty, open road, angling into half of a vanishing point. On the right a busy scene with trees, houses and cars, the sunflower in the foreground, and barely discernable, the other half of the vanishing point, running behind the flower and pole to join with the left side somewhere off in the distant trees.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Bleecker Street in July

July 30, 1986

Here's another example of Kodak's Recording Film, on a hot Wednesday afternoon in July.  For this one I was standing on the west side of Sixth Avenue at Bleecker Street, between Churchill Square (the Downing Street Playground) and Father Demo Square.  The pigeon was probably flying towards Carmine Street, a block to the north, and the Empire State building is, of course, about thirty-one blocks further north (and an avenue east) at 34th and Fifth.  

This was shot with my first 35mm camera, a Pentax ME Super.  I think I had a 70-200mm zoom lens on the camera, and although I don't know for sure what the focal length was that I was using; I don't think it was racked out to the full 200mm, more likely it was at around 150mm, but after 25 years, my memory of these things is about as hazy as the sky was on this day.

The above image is also cropped from the full scene, and when I first printed this negative I made two versions: one was cropped as you see here, and the other horizontally, with none of the trees showing.  I liked the way that one looked, almost like a bas-relief of the pebbly building emerging from the grainy sky.  Below is the full image from the original negative.   

Looking at the contact sheet, this was the first of only three frames that I shot of this scene.  The other two were verticals, the second at about the same focal length as this one, and the last a longer shot (i.e., a shorter focal length, probably at 70mm) to show more of the street.  I can't remember if I even saw the bird in the viewfinder when I took the picture; I may have, and then made the second to insure that I'd have what I was initially after, since I had no idea it would be positioned so perfectly, and I certainly wasn't trying to compose anything like what I wound up with.  
But serendipity has been a wonderful collaborator.