Requiescat in Pace

Posted on November 27, 2011 at 9:43 pm
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I’m not a religious person but I wouldn’t mind ending my days in a grave. Granted, I do hope to live forever once robot bodies are made affordable by 2027, but should I suffer a more tragic fate a modest, permanent home underground would do fine. Friends or family would appreciate a little nonsectarian walk, place a flower or two (hint: daffodils), and shake their heads at my epitaph: “Beneath this stone my husband doth lie. Now he’s at rest and so am I”. The truth is, I’m not that comfortable strolling in cemeteries but they can make for good photography opportunities in this season, and that’s why you 3 people are reading this blog, aren’t you? Concluding this short series of fall pictures, I sifted through some of the photographs I had taken in autumn and brought back memories of two cemeteries nearby, Oakwood in Troy and St. Agnes in Menands. As it turns out, they played an important role in a couple of decisions I made about photography. Read on.

Oakwood Cemetery

Click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view, or check the full-screen Flickr slideshow if you have Flash installed.

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Oakwood Cemetery is one of America’s larger rural cemeteries, overlooking 100 miles of the Hudson Valley and the heart of Troy in Upstate New York. The Troy Cemetery Association, Inc. is charged with preserving and maintaining hundreds of acres, 10-12 miles of roads, and nearly 60,000 grave sites (source). The cemetery, known both for its dense foliage and rolling lawns, also features four man-made lakes, two residential structures, a chapel, a crematorium, and 24 mausolea. You could easily spend a few hours exploring this peaceful place, only to realize the gates are now closed and a murder of crows is looking at you weird.

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Since 1848 this nonsectarian rural cemetery has become the final resting place for many Americans. Among the many trees, winding roadways, and silent hills are the graves of “Uncle Sam” Wilson (really), noted educators Emma Willard and Amos Eaton, controversial financier Russell Sage, Civil War Generals such as George H. Thomas and John Ellis Wool, community founders, such as Jacob D. Vanderheyden, founder of Troy, and Abraham Jacob Lansing, founder of Lansingburgh, NY.

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Oakwood was designed by John C. Sidney, a Philadelphia engineer familiar with cemetery design, with the help of Garnet Douglass Baltimore, the first African American to earn a degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. During John Boetcher’s tenure as superintendent Oakwood’s most important icons were built: the Earl Chapel and Crematorium, the Warren Chapel Mortuary, the keeper’s house, the office lodge, numerous mausolea, and both the 101st Street and 114th Street entrances. Although it was a cemetery by definition, Oakwood quickly became a place for recreation and was used in its early days as a public park (source). And there I was, wondering where Occupy Troy could have camped…

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I visited Oakwood Cemetery for the first time in late October 2008, during one of my first outing with the Albany Photography Meetup Group. Back in 2008 I was still shooting with an old Canon PowerShot SD870 IS point & shoot, and that will remain my official excuse for the pictures presented here — I was young and innocent. I remember being the only one in the group not to have a DSLR and that made me feel a tad inadequate, for better or worse. Great cameras don’t make for great photos but at that point in time I had pushed my small toy pretty far already, and my fellow photographer friends seemed to thoroughly enjoy their fancy gear. I welcomed that last straw on my camel’s back and one month later I ordered my first DSLR, a Canon 5D Mark II.

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If you are looking for a good bunch of people to share your passion for photography, don’t hesitate to join either the Albany Photography Meetup Group or the Capital Region Photography Meetup Group. We have visited other cemeteries since then but Oakwood remains one of my favorite, it’s a beautiful place in the fall, the view on the Hudson River is very relaxing, and you can search for small waterfalls for quite a while. If you are feeling more adventurous, try to show up later, right after sunset, on a very windy, frozen night, and listen to the trees crackling. Or are these the trees?

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The entrance to Oakwood Cemetery, opened 8:30 am – 7:00 pm, is located on route 40 in Troy, NY, past St. Mary’s Hospital and Frear Park (directions).

Advice of the day: can’t figure out a post title? Latin to the rescue.

St. Agnes Cemetery

Click on any of the thumbnails to open a larger view, or check the full-screen Flickr slideshow if you have Flash installed.

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St. Agnes Cemetery is a 108 acre cemetery located in Menands, NY operated for the religious and charitable purposes of the Catholic Church through the burial and memorialization of the faithful departed. Founded in 1867 and an exemplar of the rural cemetery movement, Saint Agnes Cemetery is a beautifully landscaped property full of winding paths, magnificent vistas, beautiful sculptures, and historic monuments (source).

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This picture above was a bit problematic in that it felt photoshopped to many of my friends, as if the statue had been pasted on a different background. It wasn’t, though, but my composition was poor. I should have kept a wider view to show what was going on — a menacing storm was about to erupt in front of me (in the background), but the sun was still beaming at the statue from behind my back. This peculiar lighting made the statue really stand out and I felt compelled to take the photograph. Boom.

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Like many other rural cemeteries, St. Agnes was designed to portray order, symmetry, and peace. The landscape combines intimate enclosed places for contemplation with panoramic vistas illustrating the sublime in nature. As a place to stroll and meditate in a tranquil setting, rural cemeteries were precursors to public parks (source). There are a lot of nook and crannies to explore in St. Agnes, you will want to stop at some point but there is always that one statue you wanted to check in the distance, hoping for something very special waiting for you.

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I took this series of pictures back in October 2009 with my DSLR. Out of twenty, two were meant to enter a contest organized by the diocesan. This was, if I recall, the first photo contest I put significant effort in. It took me a couple of hours to explore the place, many more hours to develop my raw files digitally, and a few extra to nag my friends for feedback. I submitted this first one, the statue against the clouds presented above, and… and… most likely the one below it, I’m not 100% sure, I’m pulling a Rick Perry on you.

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A few weeks later I drove to Colonie Memorial Town Hall to attend the awards ceremony. It was packed. More than 300 photographs were on display. I looked at all of them and found, without a doubt, at least a dozen pictures significantly better than mine. Fair enough, my friends.

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I stayed a while longer to munch on cookies and listen to the winners, then I stood up and had a look at the selected few. It was surprising to say the least (update: I called it terrible earlier, poor choice of word, it wasn’t that strong, I didn’t pass out). Three, out of seven, were either Photoshop effects or lens filters — one solarisation or color inversion, the other an infrared filter, and the last one a color cutout, where parts of the photo are left in color and the others desaturated to black & white. Alas, the 2010 winners were cut from the same cloth, with a special mention for a particularly intense radial blur winning 2nd place and a reverse-vignetting effect winning 3rd. Not a pattern my photos were fitting in.

Am I harsh with the winners? Past the effect gimmick I felt I had been left without much to look at. This hasn’t always been the case for me but I’ve grown to prefer a photograph that stands on its own without layers of effects added to it,  for they rarely add to the story. This is arguably difficult to quantify but if the effect is too prominent or too disconnected from the subject, this won’t work for me. This holds true for Hipstamatic,, and many other faux-vintage, faux-Polaroid phone apps flooding the Intertubes, the effect takes center stage and quickly distracts me from the subject. There is a question of intent too. I do like to experiment with light painting for example, but the subject here is — for what it’s worth — light painting, as a technique. And while the post-processing in this zombie walk gallery by Live Rasoloarison is very heavy, I feel it fits the mood and serves the subject. Also, brains!

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From this point on I stayed away from popular juries. No hard feelings. I accepted I would be less frustrated — not necessarily more successful — by contests judged by artists, or curators, people who had looked at photos by the thousands already and would be less likely to regard effects as a novelty. I’m not saying one is superior to the other but I don’t think they are compatible in their treatment of substance vs. form. I feel both paths involve a different approach to photography, something I would recommend you keep in mind before submitting your shots. As a matter of fact, I have only entered 3 or 4 contests since 2009, I would warn the amateur photographer against chasing ribbons left and right, as you could lose focus searching for this type of attention and what it rewards. After that contest, I decided to aim for a more realistic, gimmick-free photography — unless my subject is the effect. I’m not a paragon of authenticity but this decision has helped me with consistency, choose the path that works for you. For that, St. Agnes, I’m grateful.

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The entrance to St. Agnes Cemetery, opened 8:30 am – 4:00 pm, is located 48 Cemetery Avenue in Menands, NY.


  1. Tim says:

    First of all, that photo at the very top embodies the entire ball of feelings that I get when taking a cemetery photo walk (Oakwood is also the place that really inspired me to get into photography, coincidentally). I am at once creeped out and mesmerized by the intricacies of 19th/early-20th Century cemeteries. They can be completely quiet, calming places to take photos, and then there’s also this:

    You definitely did both of these places justice with that little point-and-shoot.

    Also, FWIW, I’ll come clean and admit to being in a love-hate relationship with my Hipstamatic app. Yeah, it’s not “real” photography, but there are elements that set great Hipstamatic shots apart from those pictures of someone’s lunch. I’ve had some misses and a some hits (in my opinion) using it. Typically, as with any photo, it comes down to how I’ve composed the shot, something that an electronic filter simply cannot simulate. This is where some level of skill comes in to play. People can call the shots simulated and dismiss them if they want. I am proud of them nonetheless.

  2. Jess says:

    I’ve been to both of these places and I agree, cemeteries are a great place to get some beautiful shots. There is a cemetery in Rome called “Il Verano”. If you ever get a chance to go it’s full of good photo ops. You’ll end up spending the whole day there.

  3. A.C. says:

    Gorgeous photos. I’ve tried to capture the rosary beads and flowers on statues in St. Agnes, but I was hampered by no talent and cheap camera – - very pleased to see it here captured by your eye.

  4. B says:

    You know I feel the same way about processing, but defining “gimmick” is going to be hard. Shallow depth of field is a gimmick. High contrast and saturation are gimmicks. As you say, what lies underneath the gimmick is important, but it doesn’t mean that a gimmick can’t add to the work. McCarty had an enormous enlargement of an iPhone photo directly across from your honorable mention at the ACG, right? Where does that leave us?

    There’s a separate discussion of popular appreciation of art vs. the “art world” in here somewhere. “Don’t you have photos of horses?!” to paraphrase our friend. I think we both view the type of opinion chasing in popular photography as ridiculous, but a lot of people do the same in the art world, no? Just chasing the opinions of a different set of people. Large works, conceptual art, artist’s statements. HDR, hipstamatic, Facebook likes.

  5. Chuck Miller says:

    If you saw the photographs that won last year’s St. Agnes contest, you would feel differently about your stance against the contest. The winning photograph was a beautiful winter sunrise framed against several monuments.

    Personally, I would like to see you and Bennett submit entries for next year’s competition. I’m going to do so, even though my last picture didn’t get as much love from the judges as my “Star Trails” one did the year prior. In fact, I challenge the two of you to enter pictures in next year’s competition.

  6. adrienne says:

    Really amazing….i love the first photograph
    …also the one of the rosary..all of them are so well makes one feel as if you were right there so realistically captured. Your photos are inspiring in amazing

  7. Sally Reckner says:

    These are awesome; Sebastien. I have goose bumps as that obelisk-ish thing in Oakwood is close to my husband’s grave and I’ve take weird pictures of it, playing with the tones on my pathetic cell camera.

  8. Sebastien says:

    Thanks guys!

    @Tim: actually I was originally going to title this post “Weeping Angels” :)

    @Jessi: I would love to go to Rome!

    @AC: a cheap camera can do just fine :)

    @B: Agreed. I had no issue with McCarty’s shot though, I don’t recall it had an effect added to it, did it? The subject was way stronger than the device he captured it with, in my opinion.

    @Chuck: sorry, but that sunrise is an HDR photo and it still feels like a gimmick to me. As B pointed out, your mileage may vary. The post-process is what produced these colors and “made” the shot. No effect, no award. You submitted the ultimate gimmick too. What does showing the control codes or the film itself bring to the story of that statue, I’m wondering? Furthermore, you have done that same kind of montage indiscriminately before on other photos if I recall, this blurs your intent significantly, as I’m left thinking you are piling an effect on top of a photo just for the sake of it. The connection is not clear to me and it distracts me from a potentially good photo. Anyway :) Sorry, I’m not interested in the St. Agnes contest anymore, just not my style.

    @Sally: this must indeed be an important place for you then.

  9. B says:

    The subject was way stronger than the device he captured it with, in my opinion.

    Yep, that’s what I mean. enlarging a iPhone photo to 4 feet square is a gimmick, in my eyes — not all gimmicks have to be applied by software. So just as the gimmick doesn’t make a photo, it doesn’t necessarily break it, and in that case I think the it worked symbiotically with the subject. That’s the goal (and why McCarty is awesome).

    I know this is choir-preaching. But you came down hard on a certain type of gimmick, when the reality is everything has a place, it depends on the skills and aim of the artist.

    Chuck, while it’s been a long time since I’ve done some cemetery shooting, and I’m sure I’d enjoy a walk through St. Agnes, I wouldn’t be doing it to enter that competition, it’s a goal that’s not on my radar. Sebastien has explained well how that type of competition rewards a certain type of photography which I’m not interested in, and trying to fit my peg in that hole is pointless. I’m more interested in finding outlets that appreciate the reward the type of work I do than aspiring to mold my style for the sake of a few ribbons.

  10. Sebastien says:

    enlarging a iPhone photo to 4 feet square is a gimmic

    That’s interesting, because I’ve never felt the size of a print was an issue, though you have voiced your opinion against big prints before :)

    when the reality is everything has a place, it depends on the skills and aim of the artist.

    The intent, or lack there-of, is a parameter for me too. If you are trying to slap the same, distracting effect on completely different subjects, that is a red flag for me. Everything has a place, hopefully the end of my post was more about finding your path and what kind of contests would work for you. That winning 2011 photo Chuck pointed at is nice, but when I look at it I feel what makes it is the post-process, and it shows something that, to me, is not a property/specificity of the beauty of St Agnes. At this point knowing about HDR is more a curse than a blessing, are we jaded? :)

  11. Chuck Miller says:

    I’m just saying that you guys seem to be eschewing the contest more out of sour grapes than out of any sort of principle. Oh, they used HDR and solarization and “gimmicks,” that’s just below me. No it isn’t. You took good photos, Sebastien, you should attempt to re-enter the contest as opposed to just trashing anybody who won it.

    Example. I’ve lost on photo competitions before. That doesn’t mean that I simply give up and never try again. I didn’t get in the regionals last year. Does that mean I’m going to sit there and kvetch and not try again? Hells no. I’m going to try again and again and again. And as I said before, you both should try to enter this competition again. What’s it going to hurt? A couple of dollars for an entry fee? Free munchies at the awarding?

  12. Sebastien says:

    @chuck: I wasn’t going to win in 2009 anyway, there were better, gimmick-free photos than mine, hands down. Ironically, one such photo, which I loved, was posted right below the one that took first place. Bennett didn’t enter the contest, he is not sour and neither am I, it was a local, friendly competition, not Nat Geo. Maybe you are projecting your issues with rejection here, a recurring topic in your blog. If I had felt “crushed” by this “defeat”, I can’t imagine the level of stress I would subject myself to in more serious, real-life or professional situations. And honestly, it made me laugh at first, I cursed my naivete that day :)

    I don’t think it’s negative criticism to point out prominent effects used for the sake of putting an effect on a photo, without a strong connection to the subject. I explained my reasoning, whereas you haven’t told me what the link is between the statue you took a shot of and the films you montaged on top. It is interesting that you said in that TU post: “those codes actually prove that I used real film, as opposed to some sort of digital Photoshop trickery”, because it is *still* a trickery, you know, be it digital or physical. Gimmicks are not *below* me, I’ve done it in the past, oh boy I did, check Flickr, it’s something I’m less interested in, though I use some form of light HDR now and then.

    Bottom line, the contest was not free-form, it had a subject, and that subject was St Agnes. If the vast majority of the winners are effects put on otherwise just-OK photos, then I see a pattern I don’t want to repeat, personally, and sure enough that pattern was still there in 2010 and 2011. Bennett and I have talked about re-entering Photoshopped photos, as a joke, but I’m not even sure we have any talent at that.

    Chuck, your way of “trying again” escapes me, sorry. You *did* ask people for advices for the Photo Regional and we *did* point out that this wasn’t a popular jury and that your effects- or montage- heavy photos would probably not work. Yet you submitted them all and none were picked. In my opinion, you had as much chances to be selected there that *I* have to be selected in St Agnes, because we are walking two different paths. We shall see next year.

    Same goes with “The Chance”, a few people pointed out which variables you could act on or ignore, how to experiment with the parameter space, but still, you are going to try the *very same thing* each and every time, 4 times a year. You are not progressing here, you are repeating. I know you love a good underdog story but at this point have you considered you are not making it to that TV show because you simply applied too many times? After that many tries, this might not be seen as perseverance, but as somebody who can’t move on.

    It helps to take a step back and realize your strengths and weaknesses, in my case not only was I not that interested in the kind of photos the jury had picked, but because it’s not what I like to do, it’s unlikely I would be able to deliver a picture that pleases said jury. There wouldn’t be much joy doing it anyway and there are so many other things I could do with my free time.

    Also, everybody go see “The Muppets” :)

  13. B says:

    I’m just saying that you guys seem to be eschewing the contest more out of sour grapes than out of any sort of principle. Oh, they used HDR and solarization and “gimmicks,” that’s just below me.

    That’s along the same lines of what I’ve been trying to say, and I don’t think Sebastien really feels that way though the post comes across as if he does. As he said, I actually never entered that competition so there are no grapes here at all, sour or otherwise, I never had interest in it (or similar popular competitions) from the start. I had enough of a taste of those long ago. It has nothing to do with who’s above or below what; as I said (with a typo) earlier, I’ll look for outlets that appreciate and reward the type of photography I do. Rhymefest is not going to try winning the Country Music Awards, right? I don’t think I am above gimmicks or anything else; right now you can see some macro photos on my flickr front page, definitely a gimmick. I just know I don’t want to chase a brass ring only for the sake of holding it.

    Example. I’ve lost on photo competitions before.

    This is part of the problem. I’ve had submissions turned down too, but I never considered it an issue of winning or losing. Popular competitions like the St. Agnes definitely foster that mindset, which is antithetical to artistry. I did not consider an honorable mention at the ACG regional a “win” nor did I consider being passed over for the Woodstock fellowship a loss. I’m sorry to put it harshly but that’s a very narrow mindset.

    What’s it going to hurt? A couple of dollars for an entry fee? Free munchies at the awarding?

    I only have so much time and energy to devote, so yes it’s more than a few dollars, it’s effort I could spend on other projects, time I could spend with my friends or on other hobbies, etc. As I said, I have no desire to carve out time to visit St. Agnes with the express purpose of entering a popular photo competition. If I had a good reason to, I’m sure I would enjoy a couple hours there, though.

    Not trying to slam you here Chuck, you seem to enjoy entering popular competitions, and you’ve had lots of success with them. You’ve had an international showing! That’s more than Sebastien or I can say at this point. If it makes you happy, more power to you, but it’s not the row I’m hoeing.

    For the sake of completion, I’ll reiterate a few things I said on your blog in the past which directly tie in:

    You’re good at making photos with a general mass appeal — which I admire, because I’m not. But a lot of that depends on the “wow” factor, which you don’t get when you put images in front of someone whose livelihood involves looking at art.”

    I’ll go out on a limb and say that if you took a random sample of the photos that do get presented in the Mo-Hud, they would probably not fare that well in the competitions you’ve entered in the past. [. . .] In the end I think we’d all benefit from seeing you stick to your convictions and produce the kind of work you want to than to shift your output to something you don’t enjoy producing as much but has a better chance in a certain gallery. I don’t know if you want to be an artist, but I can’t think of any good artists who do that.”

  14. Sebastien says:

    You’ve had an international showing! That’s more than Sebastien or I can say

    Hey now, I’m French, everything I show in the US is international showing :)