Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Farber Gravestone Collection
AGS Quarterly

The Farber Gravestone Collection, some 13,500 black and white photographs of approximately 9000 New England gravestones, primarily from before 1800, is an enormous and stunning congregation of absolutely wonderful early examples of the stone carver’s art. We have nothing comparable here on the Left Coast, but it’s easy to see why East Coast cemeterians are enamored with them. The site doesn’t say when the photos were taken. Mr. Farber (né 1906) is apparently still alive and photographing. He’s a self-taught photographer especially known for his 35mm color work, but I suspect that in the long run it will be this cemetery work which will earn him lasting recognition. For those of us living elsewhere in the world, the beauty and liveliness of this collection of carvings makes it understandable why cemeterians of that region get spellbound by the resource.

The presentation of the collection, unfortunately, renders it relatively useless for anyone wanting to peruse the entire collection. Even at 250 photos per page, there are 55 pages to wade through to find anything, and there’s no way to quickly get anywhere in the collection save by clicking on page after page until you get where you want to go. Effectively, it means that images from the front or rear of the catalog (you can go either direction) get often viewed, while those in the center are buried. One can only hope that some day this organizational glitch will be repaired. Until then it’s not much use as a resource, but it’s a marvel for casual visitation, a link to which I’ve added in my “Dead-on Connections” column.

Not all the photos are of individual gravestones. Approached from the rear of the catalog, many of the photos are landscape scenes of the cemeteries. These, too, are, unfortunately, in black and white. There is some justification for b&w photos of the stones themselves, where the carving elements are emphasized, but extracting the information that color provides in the landscape shots seems to be falling under the clichèed charms of b&w cemetery shots. Yeah, yeah, it brings out the somber nature of a cemetery; but, really, it’s a cultural perception. B&w in a Mexican cemetery would be foolish, and it’s not much better in New England. Leave the b&w to art.

AGS Quarterly

The Association of Gravestone Studies is, as far as I can tell, the only quasi-academic outfit out there paying attention to cemeteries. There could well be a more obscure academic journal out there from a school of folklore studies, but I haven’t found it yet. I resisted joining the AGS for years, but finally did, as they’re the only people worth supporting in their endeavors. Heck, they’re the only people one can support; there are no others.

The association publishes three regular publications, including an annual and an email newsletter, but I’ve only seen the quarterly. It weighs in at 24 pages, more of an appetizer than an entire course, but it covers a wide range of topics from mini-bios to preservation studies to overviews of various cemeteries and traditions. If it has any fault it’s that it occasionally lapses too heavily into stories of who’s buried in a particular place, more the province of local historians rather than gravestone researchers, but it’s a temptation many cemeterians fall prey to.

The current issue, Summer 2009, is especially well oriented towards cemeteries themselves and not the inhabitants, particularly in its main article “The Evolution of Modern Slovenian Cemeteries and Cemetery Customs: the Case of Brezice” (sorry that I lack the proper diacriticals), which is essentially a thesis for a collegiate degree. Written largely in that dry, academic style, it lacks, perhaps, the verve it could attain, but it’s a detailed history of the evolution of cemetery customs up to the present day in a country which switched back and forth between Christianity and communism. It could have used a broader overview and summation, but it’s otherwise comprehensive.

If I have any significant grumps with the Quarterly, it’s in the editing (which seems lacking) and the layout, which emphasizes text over pictures. I can understand the economics of not publishing color photos, but still, the photos are the main exhibit the field has. You can talk about gravestones all you want, but in the end there’s not much to say beyond what you can see. The Farber Collection is a case in point. It has no text beyond field notes, but it’s infinitely illuminating. The AGS Quarterly would do well to severely edit the commentary and greatly expand the visuals. And I know that it’s expensive, but I’d find a way to add some color. After all, this is art, not mourning.

No comments: