Michael Weil’s uncanny Moonlight in the Gates
Michael Weil’s recent photographs of Lake View Cemetery remind me of Alvin Langdon Coburn’s 1917 comparison of photography and “black magic,” but not exactly because Weil’s pictures were taken at night and include a great deal of black. Coburn made this connection to introduce his “Vortographs,” some of the first photographs ever conceived as abstract art. In a period of photography defined by Eastman Kodak’s accessible snapshot cameras, he hoped to remind photographers of their medium’s enduring strangeness. Now that we’re ensconced in smartphone photography so ubiquitous that “accessible” doesn’t even seem strong enough a word, I find that Weil’s pictures offer a similar and welcome correction. They show that photography is strengthened by intensive technical and personal commitment, and they highlight the familiar medium’s mysterious capabilities.
Collectively titled Moonlight in the Gates, Weil’s photographs are neither eerie nor spooky, as one might expect with headstones and monuments. Even so, the familiar and the mysterious abound and weave together in the series, and their combinations make the pictures enthralling. You’ve likely seen flowers at a cemetery, but you’ve probably never seen something like Fresh and Untired, where petals flare in bright white against an otherwise shadowy black and gray scene. Rainbows are another well-known sight, but the one in Promise to Noah’s Night is unusual as can be: framed by the dark silhouettes of trees and statues, hung in a nearly-clear sky at dusk, and not a curving bow at all but rather a horizontal band. Black Moon Light shows so much crisp and legible detail—from a web of branches to a towering obelisk and a cloudy background—that it’s almost too much. A typical photograph would be overloaded by so much information, but this picture remains compelling rather than overwhelming.
Weil’s photographs offer a diverse array of effects like these, and yet they also hold together as a coherent group. The crucial unifying ingredient is the titular moonlight itself. To capture it, Weil finagled permission to bring his camera along for a year’s worth of full moon nights in Lake View Cemetery. When we met to discuss the photographs, he said that he initially wasn’t sure that the project would be worthwhile. The moonlight won him over after just two sessions. He had initially considered camping out in the Cemetery, but he soon realized that the night (especially when clouds were cooperating) was too valuable as working time to be wasted with sleeping.
The strengths in the Moonlight in the Gates pictures, then, come from the many qualities of moonlight that go unseen when we close our eyes for the night, but also from Weil’s careful translation of those qualities into his prints. Across the group, moonlight is sometimes cool blue or sometimes warm yellow, sharp or soft, bright or dim. To track these traits Weil managed his camera carefully, but he also kept a journal. Even digital photographs can’t offer absolute accuracy, and so these printed results are as subjective as they are technical. Nevertheless, they ring true. The same goes for those headstones and monuments that Weil has documented—each was carefully crafted, but summing up a life in one memorial requires something beyond technique. The photographs ably carry the fullness of these commemorations along with the ambient conditions that surrounded them; altogether a tremendous amount of specificity transferred from moonlit nights to finished prints.
You can see the pictures in two very different but equally captivating forms. For the Foothill Galleries (which Weil owns and operates) in Cleveland Heights, the artist printed them on Hahnemühle photo rag metallic paper, which really does give them a glinting, burnished look that’s only appreciable in person. Here the inside of a cast wheelbarrow resembles liquid mercury, there a distant stained glass window warmly glows with alluring, nearly microscopic particularity. Trust me, the images you see online cannot possibly do these features justice. Inside the gates of Lake View Cemetery itself, 45 larger prints are mounted on metal frames and clustered in groups across the grounds. These are so nearly-black that during the Cemetery’s regular hours they seem to stubbornly insist that night should bend time and face the light of day directly. To really see them I had to take off my sunglasses and let my eyes adjust; the outdoor prints compel visitors not just to glance but to stop and be absorbed in their darkness. The indoor and outdoor renditions of Moonlight in the Gates are less than a mile apart, making it easy to compare them while contemplating photography, darkness, light and their rich intermingling.