I am not a big fan of flying. First, I’m sort of heavy set and each time I sit in an airplane I wonder if they got even smaller or I gained more weight (and I usually delude myself into thinking it’s a bit of both). Second, I don’t do well with turbulence: I am rationally aware and persuaded that they won’t cause the plane to crash and that they are a little bit like driving on a bumpy country road at dusk with poor headlights, still my body doesn’t like them. For a couple of years, even a gentle rumble would make my body brace for a Tower-of-Terror-style drop: not having flown for a year and a half, from October 2019 till March 2021 kind of eased that feeling – my body did a bit of a reset. More importantly, I love to drive. I love my car. I love to stop, I love to own my itinerary and be able to make last minute stops and detours.
And yet, I love airports. I especially love LAX. At night, we stand on the Esplanade at look into the North and see the flashing red lights of the surrounding structures. For us, that is the connection with the rest of the world, especially with Europe. That’s where family and friends come from, and return to their homes. To me, it’s like a Stargate.
I especially love picking up people at airports. I smell the excess fuel dumped by incoming aircrafts. I hear the the tourists crossing each other, some arriving, some departing, trolleyed around by the nightmarish car-rental shuttles. I rub against the Stargate, feel its overwhelming potential to take me anywhere and I politely decline: “No thank you, I’m just picking up”.
The light, the clouds, and the mood were just perfect when I picked up Anne-Claire last Thursday, and I was really glad my nimble Fujifilm X100V was at my side on the passenger seat.
I love how the drone helps me put everything in a new frame. I’ve always been a sunset-chaser. “I really hate sunsets”, said no photographer ever, but before the drone, the sunset was a piece of its own. Now, through aerial photography, I can frame the sunset into a broader narrative, for instance the sunset and the city.
I caught a glimpse of the Sun setting over Redondo, last night. Summer solstice was just a couple of days ago, which means that the Sun sets at the most Northern point. From Redondo, the Sun is basically setting behind Malibu. That was quite a show.
French philosopher Roland Barthes, in his 1980 book Camera Lucida, sets off his reflections by focusing on the relationship between photography and death. Portraits, he thought, are like revenants, and like ghosts, but they don’t even need their subjects to be deceased to be such. Certainly, if the person portrayed in the photograph has passed in the meanwhile, the effect is all the stronger.
This slightly macabre preamble was just to introduce how, like a bat in the night, photography has its place around death. That’s what a friend and I worked on last week as we went to Los Angeles shooting for…
The first cemetery we headed to was the Hollywood Forever, right behind the Paramount Studios (6000 Santa Monica Boulevard, Los Angeles). It was founded in 1899, towards the end of the neoclassical revival that had reshaped the understanding of cemeteries all along the nineteenth century. This vision of cemeteries, epitomized in the United States by the Gettysburg National Cemetery, drew its inspiration from the Kerameikos, the main burial ground in ancient Athens: the greek idea of a cemetery was a place of communion between the living and the dead, a beautiful garden in which to stroll and brood, letting one’s mind be inspired by the wisdom of the forefathers.
The Greek’s relationship with death was much different than the Christian one: if it’s true that the afterlife was considered as an unexciting, mildly depressed and mostly melancholic region of our universe, it’s also true that – unless one had committed particular atrocities such as murdering a family member or a guest – the underworld was not a lieu of torment, as opposed to the Christian Hell, or even Purgatory. Unbothered by damnation and salvation, the Greeks could wander in the cemetery and be inspired by those who came before about how to make their life worth living, and especially worth telling (and this obviously connects with the beauty and unique decoration of one’s tomb).
I could ramble for much longer on the philosophical, theological, and sociological implications of graveyards, but I would overstay my welcome in your attention and it would definitely be eccentric to our interest: just know that after the Christian-dominated conception of the graveyard as a place to bury the dead and to pray for them and hasten their way to Heaven, and after the distate for cemeteries of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras, the Romantic passion for classical Greece and Rome saw fit to reappropriate the vision of the cemetery as a place of beauty, made for aimless wanderings and recollection in tranquillity. After more than two millennia, cemeteries became once again places to hang out, and to be honest I think an ancient Athenian would be less scandalized at the sight of a Yoga class by Douglas Fairbanks’ monument than many of our contemporaries.
First, cemeteries are really interesting on a compositional level. Difference cemeteries display different kinds of tombs, some are more eclectic while other present a more uniform architecture. Composing the image in a cemetery is a beautiful challenge.
Second, cemeteries offer great storytelling opportunities. There are many lines you can exploit: one of my favorites is the duality between the living and the dead, which can be interpreted either by connecting dots inside and outside the perimeter of the graveyard (as in the case of the Hollywood sign overlooking the cemetery, or in the curios alinement of the Griffith J. Griffith memorial and the Observatory in the background).
Another interesting way of exploring and resolving the life/death duality is to focus on the wildlife that cheerfully inhabits most cemeteries, in this case mostly amounting to birds and squirrels. Whenever I look at the first image, I think that Mesrobian must have been a really good person.
Third, many cemeteries include indoor mausoleums and other enclosed spaces. These force you to explore different kinds of composition and editing to exploit the architecture, the decor, and the way light plays around in those purposely dim chambers.
Last, but not least, when you visit a cemetery such as the Hollywood Forever or the Père Lachaise in Paris, you you will be looking for the last earthly home of some of the stars that will burn forever bright in your imagination. This is where your culture and your personal taste will play out, because we’re all on the same Earth but we all look at different Heavens.
The “stargazing” part was particularly rewarding at the second cemetery we visited, the Westwood Memorial Park on 1218 Glendon Avenue. Beware, this one is a little hard to find, as it is nested between high-rises and parkings so you won’t see it from the street where your navigator leads you to. Trust your GPS, park, and walk to the memorial. The weather had turned gloomy, but the overall lack of esthetic charm (compared to the Hollywood Forever) is compensated by the fame of its residents. It’s almost easier to single out who you do not know than who you do. With all due respect, it is a fun experience: many things will make you go “Ha!”, for instance seeing that Hugh Hefner and Marylin Monroe rest side by side, and many of the epitaphs will make you smile, smirk, or giggle out loud.
Aside from the revealing suspicion, aroused by the Westwood Memorial, that we won’t be equal under the grass, it was very rewarding to visit cemeteries. It was rewarding from an artistic perspective, it was a great study and exercise, and it was revealing from a human perspective, too. It makes you wonder while you are there, and it makes you wander while you are home editing your photographs, and the very editing is like a mirror of your thoughts about everything you took in.
What was my takeaway? I saw many beautiful tombs, and I read many epitaphs. Many were solemn, many were solemn and personal (I could not help wondering at many graves who said the person would be forever remembered, but I had no idea who they were), and some were definitely witty – and I appreciated these a lot because I’m a funny guy. But the one that resonated the most with me was Dean Martin’s, at Westwood Memorial. It was so simple and so perfect, because not only it summed up everything we had seen. It also summed up everything life is about, and also everything photography is about.
Everything we do, it’s because everybody loves somebody sometime, and my sometime is now.
I woke up at 3:00AM this morning. It happens. I open my eyes and all of my ideas go like “Oh! You’re up! Hi!”
By 6:00 I was done with breakfast, I was washed and dressed. What to do know? We often joke about it, but the best photography happens “out there”. My best camera is not only the one I have with me, it’s also the one I have with me when I’m out there.
Yesterday night the South Bay was swept by a strong west wind, so I figured the view would have been amazing if I got high enough. Long story short, I got in my car and drove to the top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. And there it was. Down Town Los Angeles ready to become golden in the first rays of the rising sun.
As the light changed, a delightful image of Santa Monica almost composed by itself. The Ocean was so calm that it reflected the white buildings laying on the waterfront between California and Colorado Avenue. The view was so quiet, on this warm January morning, that I almost felt back home, in Europe, looking over some Mediterranean city, in Spain or in Greece.
Last but not least, I was offered a beautiful glimpse of Century City, with the Fox Pla… excuse me! the Nakatomi Plaza shining like a bar of gold, and to the west Los Angeles International Airport, with it’s characteristic architecture.
You never know, sometimes those photo hunts are golden, sometimes they are a bust. Sometimes it’s really clear by the coast, but the inland is covered in fog. Sometimes the fog is magical, sometimes it’s just too much. This morning, it was perfect.