The young man—he’s perhaps all of twenty-five—sits for his formal portrait in a jacket, tie, and pressed white dress shirt. Bennie Mazer possesses a full head of thick black hair and holds what is fair to call a Mona Lisa smile. The man’s eyes, though, are inscrutable. Through no fault of his own, the photograph—printed on a ceramic disc nearly one hundred years ago—has started to deteriorate in a most unexpected way.
In this image, Mr. Mazer’s deep set eyes appear as if engulfed by sparkles of light. The swirling electrical field that creeps over his right shoulder seems to have entered the body and lit Mazer like a jack-o-lantern from within.
The photograph, set into a large stone grave marker, is lovely, fascinating, and bizarre—equal parts local history and science fiction. It’s also hard to fathom how this object that survived 98 harsh Pittsburgh winters would deteriorate in such a lopsided way. The reality probably has to do with the printing technique and the particular value of that two-tone shade, but it feels like the work of spirits.
The Orbit first went goo-goo ga-ga over these early-century ceramic grave photos when we encountered them at Loretto Cemetery years ago. Those were a revelation … and then Beaver Cemetery upped the ante considerably. Those earlier posts brought to mind all sorts of ponderances on memory and permanence and how we (the living) use these places—we’ll not repeat all that here but to say those questions are never far from the noggin.
We also discussed the strange clustering of ceramic photos in certain cemeteries and the near complete absence in others. Let me know if you find more than three or four of these in all of giant Allegheny Cemetery.
Stone for stone, the per capita count of photo graves, or posthumous portraits, at the tiny Workman’s Circle Branch 45 Cemetery (and next-door New Light Cemetery—we’ll get to that) is off-the-charts. There are so many examples that we decided to break these out into a series around a few loose themes.
Here then is part one, where we look at the most haunting of the gravestone portraits—the ones that are in their own slow dissolve right before our eyes. The images contained range from mostly there with some weird distortions—like we see with Bennie Mazer—to versions so weatherbeaten and sun-bleached as to make their subjects barely distinguishable. We also threw in a handful of gentle fades and a couple that have apparently been defaced—a sadly common occurrence at all these cemeteries.
We’ll quit the gabbin’ so you can get to gawkin’. We’ll see you on the other side.
See also: Chain Chain Chain: The Posthumous Portraits of Workmen’s Circle Branch 45 Cemetery, Part 2
3 thoughts on “Among the Ghosts: The Posthumous Portraits of Workmen’s Circle Branch 45 Cemetery, Part 1”
All your posts are enjoyable, but these graveyard portrait tours are over the top. I only hope that drawing attention to these remarkable relics does not attract vandals.
47: The thought that any post I do might draw the attention of miscreants to do harm to any of these things/places/objects has not escaped me–and it would be a guilt that I’d likely carry to my own grave. [Note to self: prepare guilt-ridden epitaph.]
That said, it’s very hard to imagine there’s a group of would-be vandals or (in this case) anti-semites out there who are just sitting around the couch wondering what to malign when one of them decides to cruise The Pittsburgh Orbit to discover a true mission for their hatred and/or destruction. That *could* happen, but my guess is the weather–or just random bored teenagers–will get there first. Thanks for reading!