Art of the Grave: The Cemetery Photographs of John D. Woolf

December 1, 2021

John Woolf has spent more than two decades photographing Mount Auburn Cemetery. He appreciates Mount Auburn as an arboretum and place of tranquility. “For years,” he adds, “I have photographed sculpture and architecture, and I have always been drawn to 19th-century iconography of death. All that is there in the Cemetery.” The imagery of mourning figures, ascending souls, and guiding angels are constant themes in Woolf’s work. He portrays memorial art through the aesthetic lens of early photographic processes, finding creative ways of marrying 19th-century techniques with 21st-century digital imaging technology as seen in his image of the Holbrook monument, in Lot 2697 Central Avenue above.

In a process he calls “digital collodion,” Woolf takes a digital image with his camera and then imports the image into his iPhone. Only the iPhone, he notes, has the software that enables him to create the particular antique look he desires. He then exports the image to his computer and edits it further in Photoshop.

Woolf’s photograph of the Dutton monument exhibits an irregular, distressed look around the edges. The image emulates the appearance of a 19th-century wet-plate negative, where the collodion emulsion that was poured over the glass plate bled onto the edges, creating an uneven surface on the negative and resulting print. Woolf’s photograph also looks like a tintype, another process in which collodion was applied to a tin plate leaving distressed edges and chemical corrosion. He prints his images with an ink-jet printer onto textured cotton rag paper that produces photographs with a grainy, fibrous texture, similar to early photographic prints known as salted paper prints.

Back of stone woman in robes looking left with curving hair down her back, in sepia tones
Dutton monument, Lot 421 Central Avenue

Woolf employs software to create the optical effect of early photographic lenses that produced images with a sharply focused center and softly focused outer edges. The soft focus of the background in the photography of the Mary Baker Eddy monument gives a sense of movement to the photograph, as though the foliage behind the monument is swaying in the breeze. Sometimes, Woolf adds a hint of color, such as the orange tint in the background of the image that appears as shining light, lending an ethereal quality to the scene.

Classical temple with four columns, steps to either side, grass and water in front, framed by tree leaves in sepia tones
Eddy monument, Lot 6234 Halcyon Avenue

Woolf has worked for many years at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he has had extensive experience photographing sculpture. He understands the difficulty of capturing monuments outdoors in a cemetery setting where all the elements cannot be controlled. Lighting, he notes, plays a critical role: “You want the light to show the volume and texture of the piece. I will often go back three or four times for the same piece to get the lighting just right.”

Isolating a memorial nestled among other monuments or competing elements in the landscape also poses challenges. “I need to select a good vantage point,” Woolf says. “I use a lens with three to four times the normal focal length and a large aperture so the background blurs out.” In order to capture the Lucy Brown monument, Woolf employed a long lens to separate the sculpture from the trees. In the background, “you get this lovely blur,” he explains. “In photography, there is a Japanese word ‘bokeh’, [meaning] the out-of-focus quality that the lens produces.” Here, the enigmatic background seems to mimic the material qualities of the sculpture as well as the decay of the stone. “Many of the pieces are made from marble which is adversely affected by air pollution and acid rain,” Woolf notes. “I see my photography as both documentation and art.”

Profile of carved stone angel as a child with hands clasped looking up, in sepia tones
Lucy Brown monument, Lot 787 Cypress Avenue

Woolf says influences on his photography include Japanese woodblock prints with their formal dynamic of “movement through space from the foreground to the background.” He used a long focal lens to photograph the Sphinx and Bigelow Chapel. “With a normal lens,” he explains, “you wouldn’t get this degree of spatial compression, which brings the background forward.” His composition achieves a striking juxtaposition of the two historic Cemetery landmarks.

View of backside of large stone Sphinx sculpture on left, spires of stone chapel, weeping tree on right, in sepia tones
View of Sphinx and Bigelow Chapel

Woolf’s imaginative techniques lend a mystery and patina to the memorials he photographs, many of which, like the 19th-century processes he draws inspiration from, were created in the 1800s. Woolf describes his art, which he likens to painting, as a multiple-step process. “I select from a range of effects for each image,” he says. “Each image is unique.” His photographs evoke the passage of time, reminding us of the beauty, fragility, and ephemeral quality of the monuments and the souls they memorialize.

Detail of low relief stone carving of man in robes, palms open, looking up, in sepia tones
Amos Binney monument, Lot 1390 Heath Path

More of John Woolf’s “Art of he Grave” photography can be found on his website:  http://www.jwoolf.com/portfolios/funeralart

About the Author: Melissa Banta

Consulting Curator, Historical Collections & Archives View all posts by Melissa Banta →

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