On the day that we arrive in Forest Hills Cemetery, Jamaica Plain, Boston, snow is blanketing everywhere with a silent white. The sky is a deep, cloudless blue, and the sun is bouncing leaving us slightly dazzled and snowblind. We are looking for Anne Sexton’s grave, but the cemetery is enormous and I can’t quite read the map and many roads are hidden by pristine drifts. We drive around and around. We take in the laden trees, the lake, the grand mausoleums. When we eventually find Sexton’s grave, it is in the family plot, a large, beautiful granite tomb etched with the names of all the people I have been writing about for the last year.
I am curious how you photograph a grave, I mean really professionally photograph a grave. How is it different to photographing a person? How do you set a mood? What do you look for? What do you need to do? I am doubly fascinated because the person that I am with, photographer Kevin Cummins, is much more well-known for photographing musicians. How does photographing a grave differ from a living breathing singing person?
Photographing a grave he tells me is like “the extension of a portrait”. You have to turn up, spend some time in the place, get a feel for the environment and how to portray it. Just like photographing a person, you have to spend time with them, understand how they see themselves and how you see them as a photographer. It can’t be rushed. It takes time.
But isn’t there an inherent melancholy of photographing a grave, I ask? The person is gone and absent. How do you deal with that loss, visually? He replies that the one thing about photographing a grave is the “absolute stillness” of it. There is the architecture, the style, the inscription, the objects left behind. But one way to capture that stillness is to place it in context, to show a depth of field. Alternatively, you can isolate it off and focus in on just the grave itself, some sort of detail that captures you (I guess this is a version of Barthes’ punctum?) These pictures of Sexton’s and Plath’s grave show both of these techniques. Plath’s headstone sits forefront in a sea of other graves jumbling back to the edge of the shot. Sexton’s tomb is tight, up close, with a rosary dangling over the edge.
The day we are there, I brush snow off the top of the grave and unearth love letters that have been left for Sexton. One is signed “All your pretty ones”. There are acorns beneath the snow covered in tiny ice crystals. The photographs take time. The light is not quite right. We need to wait so we drive across the cemetery to visit e.e.cummings’ grave and walk by the lake. By the time we return, the light is in the right place and the photographs begin. I am surprised how long it takes. Hours to get the right conditions, the right atmosphere. It’s like re-phrasing Plath: “Photography / Is an art, like everything else.”
The final pictures perfectly capture the dignity of Sexton’s resting place. Just as the photographs of Plath’s grave taken a couple of years earlier capture the wild beauty of her setting in Heptonstall. I am lucky to have photographs from these shoots in my book. There is a true stillness about them. But there is something about the poets captured there too. Gone but not gone. Immortalised and remembered, or as Roland Barthes says, much more elegantly than I ever could: “What the photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.”
That unique, rare one-offness of Plath and Sexton.
Three-Martini Afternoons at the Ritz: The Rebellion of Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton can be ordered here
You can see more photography by Kevin Cummins here