We look into a mausoleum and into another age, an age long gone and as dead as the cadavers within. And yet somehow a colored photograph of a hot summer day (figure 1) brings an immediacy and life to the departed. I hear cicadas and the cascade of water. A gentle breeze occasionally rustles the leaves. The father is yelling at them to BE STILL.
The Mathews mausoleum in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania’s Nisky Hill Cemetery is no great pile, nor does its conventional architecture compel wonder (figure 2). The Mathews family left no mark on history. But they are the only family known to me who used a colored family photograph as the rear window of their mausoleum. I suppose the window is 3 feet tall by 2 feet wide.
The photograph is in remarkable detail, and evokes strongly a Pennsylvania summer day. A family, a mother (l), a young son (m), and a slightly older daughter (r), occupy a boat just above a little dam in a well manicured lake. The boy’s knee breeches evoke 1900, give or take.
The photographer, whom I take to have been the father, had good technical skill. With gilded age equipment he has managed to get a sharp image from front to back with only a little blowout of the whites in the subjects’ clothing. His use of leading lines, careful positioning of the bright human subjects against dark reflections of trees in the water, and explicit or intuitive use of the rule of thirds betrays a considerable artistic talent.
Figure 1 is in full resolution if you wish to download it and explore the image. Figures 3 and 4 offer the same photo but in black and white (as I suspect the original was) and also with the colors artificially saturated to offer some idea of what the window might have looked like before the colors faded.
The photograph is sharp enough that we can explore it in some detail. Of course we must overlook reflections on the glass from the bright doorway, the shadows of the grill work behind the window, and the bullet hole some stupid put through it.
In figure 5 we amazingly see cumulus clouds rising, a standard feature of a Pennsylvania summer day. The subjects of our photograph were probably hot and humid.
The trees are fully green, although some parts have died back, if the coloring is to be trusted (figure 6). So it seems to be high summer or at most early autumn. The reflections off the water and the ripples in it are wonderful. A few of the tree branches are a little out of focus: a gentle breeze?
The expressions of the boaters (figure 7), to the extent they can be made out, appear to be (left to right): loving indulgence in the wife; dutiful stillness by the son with impatience to get on to the next fun; and polite boredom in the daughter. They hold the boat still with their poles, though they are trying to make it look natural.
Between the boat and the photographer is a small artificial cascade (figure 8) which has created the gentle lake under the boaters (figure 7). On our (the photographer’s) side of the cascade the stream returns to a more natural state with visible rocks (figure 8). The even ribbon of the cascade has not been frozen still and where the water strikes the rocks on our side of the cascade the motion is blurred. Perhaps the exposure was a tenth of a second.
The sun is bright (see the squint of the mother, looking right into it, figure 7), and the shadow of the boy’s legs indicates the sun is over our right shoulder behind us. The water on our side is transparent. Are there fish in it?
The foregoing images were taken with a Nikon D3400 sporting a Nikkor 18-200 mm AF-S lens, direct to jpeg. I extend the record by adding figures 9 and 10, taken by my iPhone XS with its default lens and camera software.
None of the parties involved suspected this image would ultimately be put over their coffins in the family mausoleum. Of all the photo albums the Mathews family might have kept, it’s a virtual certainty that this is the only surviving image, or one of a very precious few. What would they have thought that day had they known someone like me would look a hundred and more years later past their cadavers upon this photograph of them full in their young lives?
Some folks put their photo in an easel frame on their sarcophagus or elsewhere in their mausoleum; many placed those little oval ceramic photos onto their tombstone; just as many now etch a photo into a stone monument; still others have incorporated photographic elements, especially faces, into otherwise idealized stained glass portraits in mausoleum windows. But I’ve never seen anything like this, and it is the most wonderful thing in the world.
This window must be conserved! A preservation order ought to be slapped on it! Some evil jerk has already put a bullet through it and now the water is getting in and attacking the emulsion and color on the inside of the glass.