Memento mori: Stop hoping

Memento mori: Stop hoping for a better past.

LOL, as I did when I read this 6-word snippet online just recently. This is Memento mori [“Remember your mortality”] meets Embedded Quote, with a colourful ornament from Te Henui cemetery, New Plymouth. What it is to be human, and of a certain age! Will any of it matter in another 50 years?

Memento mori: Te Henui detail

Te Henui detail, New Plymouth. 11.07 am, 6 May 2011

This scene is how I found it, except for removing a fallen twig or two. Beside a grave a cherub sits on a plinth, under an elm. An artificial vine crosses her feet and a plastic wreath is nearby – I doubt that she will still be in the same position today, as, sadly, cemetery vandalism is common.

This was the main cemetery for New Plymouth; I have two grandparents and a great-grandfather buried there. The oldest part goes back to the 1860s and includes headstones related to the Anglo-Maori Wars;  there is also an extensive section for returned soldiers. Some areas are hilly but these are also nicely planted or fringed by trees and shrubs.

As a cemetery Te Henui offers an unusual variety of scenes, topographies and chronologies. It would warrant a high place in the Lonely Planet guide to NZ cemeteries, come the day. That’s a jest.

1/4 sec at f16. Nikon 85mm; ISO <200

Memento Mori: Passage of years

Passage of Years; Te Henui Cemetery, New Plymouth. 12.12 pm; 6 May 2011

“Eternity is really long, especially near the end”, according to Woody Allen. Of course eternity can’t be measured in years, but the only other scale we have is that of generations, counting from our own backwards or forwards, to the umpteenth. This too is an odd meditation: some people can barely remember their grandparents, and how many can recall their great-grandparents (I met two of mine as a boy)? Conversely, on our 100th birthday, will we look on our gathered descendants in wonder and bemusement – if not detachment?

On a well cared-for grave this uncommon collation of colour presents an ironic contrast: the most ephemeral of natural beauty is mimicked in everlasting plastic, and set against a single, powerful word engraved in enduring stone. That word will inevitably claim us all!

Memento mori is a Latin phrase which in loose translation means “Don’t lose sight of your own mortality”.  This is the 13th in a series of New Zealand cemetery cameos.

1/30th sec at f16. Nikon 85mm; ISO 200

 

Memento Mori: Moonlit grave at Te Hapu

Moonlit grave at Te Hapu, Golden Bay. 9.28pm, 7 February 2012

This follows my Memento Mori post of last month, and records the lonesome hilltop grave of young Cecil Addison, a Tb victim from 1924. The wooden headstone has a carved inscription; the site is protected from stock by a more recent fence. The background blur of colour is my wife Al on her way to a nearby seat bench, unaware of my long exposure.

This uncommon scene has another attribute: it shows both moonlight and twilight, in equal strength. Of course this odd balance of light must occur at some point with every moonrise,  but is hard to notice at the time. The rising moon casts no shadows until twilight has dimmed deeply enough for them to show. Moonlight is a feeble 2 watts, so all other light (such as twilight, street lights) outshines it. Each full moon when I am out with my camera I tell myself I must be on the watch for this intriguing moment of light balance, but even so,  it usually eludes me!

2 secs at f2. Nikon 50mm; ISO 2000

Memento mori: Visiting a lone grave

Visiting a lone grave at Te Hapu, Golden Bay. 5.02pm, 6 February 2012

Typically the dead have company, as we are social creatures in death as well as in life. Our cemeteries may be ranked as communities in their own right: hamlets, villages and towns. Despite the poor (or absent) roads of colonial New Zealand, lone graves are not common here. The law required burial in a cemetery unless there was none within 30 miles (50km) distance. This was the case when young Cecil Addison died of tuberculosis at remote, unroaded Te Hapu farm, on Christmas Eve 1924. Just 16 years old, he was buried in pasture on a terrace overlooking the Tasman Sea – a lovely prospect on a fine day but a site also fully exposed to ocean weather.

In the image above there’s a summery sense of that lovely prospect, minus the soundtrack of the surf rolling in below poor Cec’s resting place. With my telephoto lens waiting, an obliging friend has gone over to the grave (at left is a protected planting), well out of our way. I have underexposed for a day-for-night effect, although the sky is too blue to pass for a night exposure. The soft curve of the land in view is not a true impression of the front country at Te Hapu, which is made up of corrugated terraces, with limestone bluffs and headlands behind giving a picturesque backdrop for a lonely grave.

To shoot a similar scene today i would drop my shutter speed and my ISO, for a cleaner finish. 1/400th at f16 at ISO 250 seems a more obvious combo to me now, with minimal risk of camera shake. With due thanks to Richard, for “going the extra mile” for my camera.

1/1600th sec at f16. Nikon 85mm; ISO 1000

Memento mori: Flowers at Picton

Memento mori: Flowers at Picton, Marlborough. 12.08pm, 14 April 2018

“People have to die but flowers last forever”, no one said; this series is devoted to the Latin phrase that reminds us that our lives all have an end. Plastic tulips and carnations mingle here with real life bulbs, in this cameo from the upper slopes of the Picton cemetery. A single non-perfumed daphne flower ornaments the bottom of the cross, between the infants, while red and green buttons of plastic sit on the adjacent concrete.

It’s a timeless scene, maybe, but still subject to sunlight and the wind, and some day will be at the mercy of vandals or a severe storm. The terraced layout of the cemetery makes it easier to take such close-ups, and other graves often constrain picture angles. Although I can’t honestly say I’ve never done it, I don’t like to trespass on the actual graves. It seems disrespectful.

1/250th sec at f6.3. Nikon 85mm; ISO 500

Memento mori 9: In loving memory

In loving memory, at Mokau cemetery. 4.15pm, 12 August 2013

The cemetery at Mokau (in the southwest Waikato) occupies a hilltop terrace and gives good views in all directions. The house far across the valley seems relatively close with the compressed perspective of a long telephoto. Depth of focus here is enhanced by the tiny aperture, only available at the far end of the zoom. f40 is actually a ratio of the size of aperture over the length of the lens – thus the “wide open” f1.4 on my 85mm lens requires big, fat specs to obtain such a ratio: 1/1.4.

In post-processing certain areas of my images are typically worked over with spot-saturation, although I resist the urge to have them “pop”, as you see in so many sparkling real estate photos. Here the lichens were startling enough, and have been left untouched, apart from a +25 increase in overall vibrancy. In composition terms, the top right corner is occupied by only a gate and fence, and a horse or cow would have made this more interesting. Still better if the house owner had come out and stood on her verandah for a minute, but my yodel would never have gone the distance.

“Memento mori” is the Latin phrase reminding us of our inevitable mortality. Some say that we live on in the hearts of others – that’s the “loving memory” part. With the passing of the generations that memory is eventually eclipsed. The love is passed on though, to nurture and sustain later generations (best case).

1/50th at f40. Nikon 250mm zoom; ISO 2000

Memento mori at Motunui, Taranaki

Memento mori at Motunui, Taranaki. 6.02pm, 18 August 2013

Across from the huge petro plant at Motunui, north Taranaki, is Waipapa cemetery, a Maori urupa dating from 1923. The cemetery is unusual in having a surrounding wall and a gateway, while its monuments present an awesome contrast with the industrial silos on the other side of Otaraoa Rd, to the northeast. However, most of the Motunui installation is out of sight, beyond the knoll.

When I visited here on a rainy summer’s day in 2010 the no-exit gravel road ended as it does now, just above the beach, but as a neglected cul de sac, overgrown with roadside weeds. Amongst the overgrowth was unsightly rubbish, dumped over a long period, and potatoes grew large in the resulting compost. Later visits found the road-end cleaned up and much improved, and two calls by  moonlight were memorable for the dairy cows in the adjacent paddock, and the surf on the cobble beach below.

The juxtaposition of cross and silos was achieved with a long telephoto setting and a tiny aperture – even f45 is possible at maximum zoom on this lens. This gives a better depth of focus, compensating for the inherent shallow focus of any telephoto lens. After focus, the second challenge at twilight was naturally the changing light, and the trade-off between selecting a small aperture or a short exposure (to freeze cloud movement). In these situations it always comes down to this: you can’t optimise both, so just choose one!

10 secs at f40. Nikon 200mm zoom; ISO <200

Memento mori 6: Love at Mokau

Love at Mokau
Memento mori 6: Love at Mokau, Waikato. 4.50pm, 12 August 2013

These cherubim fronting for love caught my eye in a cemetery-with-views on a Mokau hilltop. Having recently purchased a Nikon zoom lens (70-300mm) I was putting it through the paces, late one winter’s afternoon at this small community on the west coast of the North Island.

Using the tripod to allow slow shutter speeds, I was interested to see what the zoom did at the longest extension, especially at closest focus, and when well stopped down.  While I was impressed that the lens went to f45 – a ratio usually seen only on large format lenses – only later did I learn about the diffusion effect at such tiny apertures, with DSLR cameras. An odd occlusion occurs – a bottle glass effect might be the easiest way to describe it. Fortunately none is seen here.

I like the juxtaposition in this image, and little group is an uncommon sight too. Exposing for marble sculpture can be tricky, and typically they are overexposed “in scene”, but at close range getting a good range of tones from marble is less challenging. These boys being at ground level were at least clean of the usual overgrowth, a definite problem on taller monumental figures, where beyond easy cleaning reach unsightly lichen and moss can become well established.

Memento mori: In turn we all take our leave. But love lives on, at least.

1/10 sec at f18. Nikon 300mm; ISO 250

Memento mori 5: Odd neighbours

Odd neighbours

Odd neighbours at Greymouth. 6.37pm, 10 April 2018

The neighbourhood of New Zealand cemeteries can be quite quirky, especially in the larger cities, but even in Greymouth a cross can have an industrial background. Land bordering cemeteries is less desired for housing, so perhaps becomes more affordable for industry, or other purposes.  The cross is strongly associated with Catholic graves, and it is easy to forget that our cemeteries have traditionally been segregated along religious lines, into Catholic, Protestant and Jewish sections (where the cross is understandably absent).

The cross is not perfectly placed, but close enough, given my frustrations with setting the tripod in a confined situation. The foreground is flash-lit, but the small aperture has subdued the usual effect, while enhancing depth of focus (thus the reasonably sharp background). No skein of cloud was available  for the top left corner but the space is well balanced by a similar empty space at bottom right. In composition, empty spaces can be offset by other blank spaces in the frame. Colour-wise, the golden lichens on the cross have their counterpoint in the lingering sunset reflected in the windows.

Memento mori: Succinct Latin remembrance that we all die, each in our time.

1 sec at f16. Nikon 85mm; ISO 500

 

 

Memento mori 4: Amongst the leaves

Amongst the leaves

Amongst the leaves, Te Henui Cemetery.  3.06 pm, 2 April 2018

A supplicant cherub amongst fallen leaves – these being a common metaphor for poignant memory and les temps perdus. This simple image again makes use of contrasting blank spaces, as I have resisted the urge to crop it at top and left.  The limited palette adds considerably to the effect, assisted by the flat light of an overcast day.

The 85mm lens at close range has little inherent focal depth, but stopping down to a self-timed f16 has maximised the depth of field. Any gain here will  sharpen focus for a short distance in front of the focal point – in this case the tiny leaf directly in front of the figure – while increasing it over a much larger zone behind the object. The self-timer was set to the shortest time (2 secs) and I often use this aid with the 85mm, both for hand-held shots and with tripod.

Te Henui is the first of New Plymouth’s two main cemeteries; situated above the valley of the Te Henui Stream in rolling country typical of Taranaki, it was originally on the edge of town. The lower slopes are wooded, making the older sections of this cemetery notably rustic. However, interesting cameos such as the above were sparse. My time was not all spent on photography, as I was surprised to discover (quite by accident) the final resting places of two people who appear in the family history I am at work on.

Memento mori (“Remember, we all must die”)  presents a series of cameos from New Zealand cemeteries, illustrating memorable scenes or detail. Of course they have their melancholy aspect, but cemeteries retain a  strong human interest and convey an impressive sense of time’s long passage. Often (but not always) these aspects are matched with a park-like atmosphere of peace and calm.

1/250th sec at f16. Nikon 85mm; ISO 500

Memento mori 3: Sadly missed

Sadly missed

Sadly missed, Picton cemetery. 11.59 a.m, 14 April 2018

A striking cameo, illustrating colour composition. The two elements of the composition have been widely spaced, but there is just enough line and texture to hold the frame together. The simplicity of the image owes everything to the uncommon colour of the plastic flowers. As for the succinct inscription, those two short words are an effective final statement.  I did not see them used elsewhere here.

A short telephoto lens works well for this type of assignment. However a slower shutter speed using the self-timer would give better depth of focus for the inscription. I don’t always think through optimal manual settings – and here I was wary of camera shake, which 85mm exaggerates. My main object was good definition on the key feature.

The drainage built into the site is proof that this cemetery is perched terrace by terrace on a steep hillside. This is not at all unexpected in Picton, a ferry town surrounded by high hills, where flat land is at a premium. The Latin tag “Memento mori” is a shorthand reference to the inevitable mortality we each face.

1/500th sec at f4.5. Nikon 85mm; ISO 500

Memento mori 2: Kettle angel child

Kettle angel child, Greymouth cemetery.
Kettle angel child, Greymouth cemetery. 6.06pm, 10 April 2018

Rarely have I taken such a strange, otherworldly scene such as this. The funereal gold, grey and alabaster are relieved only by the faint sunset and the industrial background. In using flash I could easily have hand-held the shot; instead I struggled to compose on a tripod (already set up for long exposure possibilities). Flash is ideal for highlighting form over colour, but its great powers of definition involve high contrast, which I have softened here in post-processing. Twilight alone would not have chiselled the angel child nor have gilded the name so remarkably.

Memento mori: Latin for “Remember that we all have to die”, a reflection on our respective entrances and exits from the long-running Stage of Life. Of course “We are born alone … and die alone”, but what really matters is that these existential bookends happen gently, and with loving support.

1/250th sec at f8. 50mm; ISO 250

Memento mori 1: Angel at sunset

Angel at sunset, Karoro Cemetery, Greymouth
Angel at sunset, Karoro Cemetery, Greymouth. 6.21pm, 10 April 2018

I have begun a new project: a series of cameos from New Zealand cemeteries, taken by day and night, styled under the Latin term above. No longer a common phrase, memento mori  translates to “Remember that you have to die”, meant as a reflection on our inevitable mortality. Cemeteries, and particularly older ones, are sanitised theme parks testifying to this hugely inconvenient fact.

They are also places where one can nod to one’s ancestors and their collaterals, witness innumerable past lives (some long; many short) and war casualties, and see unusual sculptural forms. It is generally the only place where Westerners can encounter angels, which are very distinctive forms and ones I rather like.

There are two main challenges here, the main one being to balance the flash with the steadily fading daylight – this requires an effort with aperture selection and distance, owing to flash fall-off. For example I would’ve preferred f8 or f11 (rather than f5.6) for better depth of focus, but these weren’t practicable because the flash was not so strong at that distance. The second consideration is to crop surnames from headstones wherever possible, although occasionally a single distinctive name adds to the effect, as we shall see in due course.

Karoro Cemetery is on Greymouth’s outskirts; it is a large and open setting, on a long, flattish terrace; we walked there in a roundabout way from the holiday park below.  My Thai companions walked through the place  reluctantly, from cultural apprehensions, and did not linger. However I found plenty of interest, as night gradually fell.

1/250th sec at f5.6; Nikon 85mm; ISO 250