Dying to Photograph a Cemetery
Tuesday 10 March 2015 — Category: Outings
It is no joke that I have been dying to get into a certain cemetery for the past few years — before I died! One of the items on my bucket list of photographic outings was a trip to River View Cemetery, 70 miles up the I-5 in Portland. Last week I finally made that dream come true!
Why in the world would I want to take pictures in a cemetery in the first place? Well, my thought was that there would be a lot of interesting headstones — not so much the inscriptions, but photo-worthy shapes and shadows and colors. What I saw while I was there, and what I captured in photographic images, was even beyond what I had imagined!
I left home about 6:30 AM, fought my way through the rush-hour traffic, stopped at a nearby Fred Meyer for a potty break, and arrived in the cemetery parking lot about 8:30. Within a few minutes I was wandering around the 150 to 200 acres of burial space with more than 75,000 graves. The low March morning sun and the many trees made for excellent shadows, and the clear, sunny day made for awesome light.
River View Cemetery, and the smaller adjoining Greenwood Hills Cemetery and Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery, are situated on a steep hillside overlooking the Willamette River. From the eastern border along Oregon Route 43 to its western border along SW Boones Ferry Road is a distance of about 0.7 miles as the crow flies, with a rise in elevation of about 400 feet. This translates into an approximate grade of 11 percent.
Once I had wandered high enough, I had a great view of the 8,365-foot Mount St. Helens 56 miles to the northeast in Washington state, as well as the 11,249-foot Mount Hood, the highest peak in Oregon, 48 miles to the east.
By 10:15 I had made it to the small, historic Greenwood Hills Cemetery near the top of the hillside. Then I explored the adjacent and even smaller Grand Army of the Republic Cemetery. Next, I walked about 100 yards north on Boones Ferry Road to the Beth Israel Cemetery, where I was hoping to find more interesting shots. But I was greeted by a sign which warned “absolutely no trespassing.” I was very disappointed by the cold welcome. However, seeing that Jewish graves have been desecrated throughout history, right up to this present time, I can understand their concern.
Around 11:00 I started making my way back downhill to my truck, taking a different route than the one I had ascended by. During the next hour I passed by a number of mausoleums, as well as a wide variety of large and small, simple and ornate headstones, including a number of distinctive Woodmen of the World headstones. There is a unique story behind each one of the multiplied tens of thousands of graves there.
I was approaching my truck as the clock was approaching noon. One of the last graves I stumbled upon (figuratively!) was that of Pacific Northwest beer baron Henry Weinhard. That was the perfect ending for an excellent photographic morning. After wandering uphill and down for three and a half hours, I had worked up quite a thirst!
Once in my truck, I drove back to the Greenwood Hills Cemetery at the top of the hillside, where there is a small pond and a few picnic tables. There, I spread out my lunch and cracked open an ice-cold beer. “Sorry, Henry, it wasn’t one of yours, but my current favorite beer: Dos Equis Ambar. I gave up on your beers once you stopped making your tasty hefeweizen.”
Out of the 234 photos I took at the cemeteries, a whopping 110 have been considered worthy of being included in the new Portland River View Cemetery 2015 album. That’s an unusually-high “keeper” rate of 47 percent.
Out of those 110, only 4 were taken with my Panasonic 12-35mm zoom lens — this pond photo to the right being one of them. For the remaining 106 images, I used my Panasonic 35-100mm zoom lens, which was perfect for this outing. This lens — with a classic 70-200mm equivalent focal length — has been the neglected Cinderella of my lens kit over the past few years, but lately I have rediscovered is versatility, as I elaborated on in my recent article La Purisima Mission.
With this lens' zoom range of up to 200 mm (equivalent), I was able to capture details of the headstones without having to get really close to them. By using its maximum aperture of f/2.8, I achieved deliciously-blurred backgrounds which really make the subjects of the pictures stand out. If I wasn’t convinced before, this outing has removed any doubts about the capabilities and usefulness of the Panasonic 35-100mm zoom lens. I will definitely be relying upon it much more on future outings.
After seeing all of the interesting shots I got in the graveyard, you might be dying to get into a cemetery yourself. Go for it! They are everywhere, easy to find, and you never know what photographic treasures you will discover there. And don’t forget your picnic and a beer, so you can have a banquet amongst the dead once you are done!
On March 12, 2015, Sandra Bunch wrote:
All 110 pictures were great! For some reason 108 hit me. Rock and I loved to stop at cemeteries when we would travel...way back when!