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 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