Mourning Woman

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For those who aren’t familiar with my affinity for cemeteries, you’d be well served to stop and read the previous entry, found here. This mournful woman can be found in the same graveyard, Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, as that angel, and the photo was taken on the same day, so much of the story is the same.

Also like that angel, I don’t recall the name of the family upon whose stone she sits. Having seen and photographed many sculptures on graves, it would be impossible to remember every one, but I have gotten to know a lot of the common themes of these monuments. Religious figures are usually what you will find; Angels of course are common, as are representations of Jesus or saints. But there is another theme, a secular one, which you find regularly: mourning women.

With her head down, and her somber expression, this nameless woman is typical of this group. There are no wings to indicate she is an angelic figure, and she is not any other religious icon such as the Virgin Mary. Whenever there is a secular statue of a mourner, it is always a female, and in the classical style; usually in flowing garments like we see here and barefoot or wearing sandals as this woman is. They don’t appear to be modeled after anyone in particular, just some anonymous Greco-Roman lady placed to endlessly lament those who were buried below her.

I’m sure that when she was new, she was made to appear as lifelike as a white granite woman can. Now the contrasts of her shadows have been enhanced by years of pollution buildup in the areas where the rain couldn’t reach to wash it away, and her more delicate features, such as the fingers, have been worn down by the acidic rain that slowly dissolves away the detail. The result of her weathering only adds to the plaintiveness of her appearance; her face now dark with soot, like a veil against her pallor. Certainly in erecting a monument like this it is intended to be a lasting image of the human form in the context of the impermanence of the flesh, but we see that even this woman of stone is not immune to the passage of time, and even she will eventually wear away in the face of nature. The yellow leaves on the trees in the distance remind us that nothing is permanent but nature itself.

This photo is of the image of a person, and at the same time, it is not of a person, it is of an object, and as such it reminds me of the conflict I have had in my mind ever since I took an interest in photography when I was thirteen years old. The question–one I have yet to resolve—is this: what makes an interesting photo?

When I was thirteen, I was of the opinion that for a photo to really be a good photo, it couldn’t be of a person; everyone took snapshots of people, and everyone was used to pictures of people, and so to do anything really eye-catching, really outstanding, as an artistic photo, it had to be of something else. Something that you didn’t see a photo of everyday. As a result, I took pictures of things that I thought made for interesting photos: flowers and such.

I don’t think that I was necessarily wrong; there are a lot of people who hang photos of flowers and such on their walls. But as I got older I realized that people didn’t appreciate my pictures as much as I did, and they didn’t understand my motivation. People seemed to be interested more in snapshots of friends and family. So at some point I reversed my thinking, and decided that the only pictures that people cared about were pictures of other people, and what’s more, of people that they could identify with. I determined that the image itself wasn’t as important as how people reacted to the image. When people make scrapbooks, they don’t paste pictures of pretty things in there, they paste pictures of family Christmases and vacations and parties. I decided that the only good photos were pictures of people, because they spoke to the human condition.

As more time passed, and I took more pictures, I continued changing my opinion of what made a photo interesting back and forth between those two poles. So here we have a photo that is in some ways both of them. I guess at some point I resigned myself to thinking that neither one is fully true, nor fully false. I know I was working under the fallacy that merit is determined by popularity, and that there is some universal definition of quality in photography, both of which are absurd in retrospect.

I won’t suggest that this is a good or even an interesting photo; I’ll leave those judgements up to the viewer. But in the same way that this mourning woman typifies the sculpture of her place and time, while being no less expressive because of that, this photo typifies my photography in a way that even I can’t fully explain.

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  1. A suspension of small globules of one liquid in a second liquid with which the first will not mix: an emulsion of oil in vinegar.
  2. A photosensitive coating, usually of silver halide grains in a thin gelatin layer, on photographic film, paper, or glass.
[New Latin ēmulsiō, ēmulsiōn-, from Latin ēmulsus, past participle of ēmulgēre, to milk out : ē-, ex-, ex- + mulgēre, to milk; see melg- in Indo-European roots.]

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition