President Alan Chesney’s Photographic Legacy

April 27, 2021

A former Air Force pilot who served 35 missions in World War II, Alan Chesney was president and trustee of Mount Auburn from 1968 to 1988. During that time, Chesney oversaw the sale of 15 acres of land for family lots and single graves, the addition of 4,000 new grave spaces, and the planting of hundreds of trees and shrubs. He also established the Friends of Mount Auburn Cemetery (FOMAC) in 1986, a program that continues to promote the appreciation of the Cemetery through its preservation, horticultural rejuvenation, and educational programs. Photo above: Flowering Tree, Wilkinson Monument, Undated.

Another of Chesney’s lasting legacies was his photographic record of Mount Auburn. A skilled photographer, he took more than seven hundred 4 x5 color transparencies of the Cemetery’s landscape, monuments, and buildings, leaving behind an extensive chronicle of Mount Auburn in the late twentieth-century. The collection, housed in Mount Auburn’s Historical Collections & Archives, documents the business of running the Cemetery that took place under Chesney’s watch: the construction of the new crematory (1970), new greenhouse (1971), and garden crypts (Auburn Court, 1973 and Willow Court, 1984), as well as demolition of the old receiving tomb (1973) and damage from Hurricane Gloria (1986).

His breathtaking views graced many of Mount Auburn’s annual reports. The color on some transparencies has faded, lending a certain aura of nostalgia to the images. Thankfully the entire collection is scanned, and the originals are safely stored in a climate-controlled storage vault that will reduce the rate of color fading and increase the longevity of the images.

Chesney was most drawn to the beauty of the landscape juxtaposed with the Cemetery’s monuments and architecture. Using color transparency roll film, he brilliantly captured the palette of colors found in Mount Auburn in all seasons—pink crab apples alongside Bigelow Chapel in spring, white rhododendrons bordering Auburn Lake in summer, a red Threadleaf Japanese Maple on Magnolia Avenue in autumn, or snow covering the Hood memorial in winter.

Captions handwritten by Chesney on the transparency sleeves sometimes include the type of lens, exposure setting, and other notations. He describes a view of the Mary Baker Eddy Monument or of Upper Auburn Lake, where he had photographed many times before, as a “new vista.” Over the years, Chesney, who remained an Honorary Trustee of Mount Auburn until his death in 1997, discovered novel ways of seeing the Cemetery’s sacred landscape—which like all of us, he delighted in returning to again and again.

About the Author: Melissa Banta

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

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