Lake View: Barney Taxel’s photo meditation on Cleveland’s landmark cemetery
The parks and public gardens movement in America started with the development of landscaped cemeteries, early in the nineteenth century. One of its most glorious products is Lake View Cemetery here in Cleveland, established in 1869 on a beautiful hillside overlooking Lake Erie. Lake View serves as the final resting place for many of the notable figures of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Cleveland. They included John D. Rockefeller, the century’s greatest financier and the richest person in human history up to that date; Jeptha Wade, the founder of Western Union, the first information age colossus; John Hay, Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, and later Secretary of State; and presidential kingmaker Mark Hanna, who brought about the election of William McKinley and four or five other Republican, Ohio-based presidents–and created the first national political machine.
Several of Lake View’s monuments were carved by notable figures in the history of American sculpture, and it boasts two notable architectural projects, the Romanesque hill-top tower constructed in memory of assassinated U. S. President James Garfield, and the Wade Chapel, one of the finest and most complete surviving Louis C. Tiffany interiors.
Cleveland-based photographer Barney Taxel has had a notable career as a commercial photographer, working for such clients as The New York Times. But his new book on Lake View Cemetery, with text by his wife Laura Taxel and a foreword by former Cleveland Museum of Art curator Tom Hinson, provides an opportunity for him to work on a more expansive scale, producing not only memorable individual photographs, but a larger pictorial story and meditation. Death is an inherently sobering subject, and he approaches it with a variety of different photographic languages.
Loosely speaking there are two sources for what he has achieved. The notion of the photo essay emerged with the development of mass-market photo magazines in the late 1930s, and achieved its classic statement in Eugene Smith’s series on “The Life of a Country Doctor,” published in Life Magazine in 1949, which followed the rounds of a country doctor in Kremling, Colorado, arranging the photos in sequence, alternating long shots and close-ups, to create a narrative drama not dissimilar to a film. Series such as this showed that a sequence of photographs could have a dramatic impact very different from a single image. The notion of the photo book took root in the 1950s, particularly with the creation of Aperture Magazine, established by the photographer Minor White in 1952 in Rochester, New York. Like magazines of photo journalism, Aperture published photographs in series, focusing on the work of individual notable photographers, but without a single-minded narrative focus, and instead stressing issues of personal expression and visual contemplation.
Taxel’s book has its roots in both these traditions, and it interweaves several different photographic styles. It moves back and forth between color and richly toned black-and white: expansive richly textured landscapes; classically composed architectural photographs; close-ups of gravestones, flowers, and natural details; and candid snapshot of weddings, ceremonies, and visitors relaxing in the cemetery. The eloquent text by Laura Taxel, provides a series of poignant narratives, some inspiring, others heart-rending, which detail the lives of those who are buried in the complex.
The motives for creating these rural cemeteries was partly practical, but also touched on deeper themes. Jacob Bigelow, who founded Mount Auburn, was a doctor concerned about the unhealthiness of crowded church burials, as well as of the problems of running out of space. But the move to a rural setting also touched on deeper issues of man’s relationship with nature—above all, the idea that nature plays some healing role in human existence, and that connecting with nature has a spiritual aspect.
Usually organized in a picturesque fashion, rather than in severely regimented squares, the rural cemetery introduced a new notion of landscape design, and set the stage for the later development of parkland areas in American cities (designed by figures such as Frederick Law Olmsted), as well as the development of America’s national parks. In an age of urbanization, global warming, and technological transformations, these issues have increasing pertinence to mankind’s life on this planet.
This is a book of beautiful photographs, but the contents and their arrangement, shaped by Taxel’s eye, also invite readers to contemplate the deepest issues of life, death, and man’s relationship to nature.
The Lake View Cemetery: Photographs from Cleveland’s Historic Landmark
Barney Taxel, with Laura Taxel
230 pp. ISBN: 978-1-937378-70-7
University of Akron Press / Ringtaw Books, 2015