The beauty of photographing cemeteries

My friend Shira Mushkin photographs tombstones, where she finds a different kind of beauty.

FROM SHIRA MUSHKIN’S  ‘Stitches in Time’ and ‘Swimmers,’ 2019. (photo credit: SHIRA MUSHKIN)
FROM SHIRA MUSHKIN’S ‘Stitches in Time’ and ‘Swimmers,’ 2019.
(photo credit: SHIRA MUSHKIN)
As we approach the time of year when many of us visit the graves of our loved ones before the High Holidays, I’m thinking of my friend Shira Mushkin, who is drawn to cemeteries all year round.
Other photographers post photos of hanging hydrangea and basil bruschetta, but Mushkin – who has both a flower garden in her home in Meitar near Beersheba and is gourmet cook herself and mom to patissiers, posts photographs of tombstones where she finds a different kind of beauty. Travel with her (I was with her on a Holocaust trip to the Ukraine) and you will be visiting Jewish cemeteries.
This month, her cemetery photographs in an exhibit she calls “Living Memory” won first prize in Barcelona in the Julia Margaret Cameron Award for Women Photographers international photography competition, an integral part of The Worldwide Photography Gala Awards. It was judged by famous photographers Elizabeth Avedon and Mona Kuhn.
MUSHKIN, A visual artist and curator, was captivated by cemeteries in her childhood. While in most families cemeteries were judged too spooky or sad for children, Mushkin’s late father Cantor Mordechai Goldstein included the Rose Hill Jewish Cemetery in Commerce City on their annual Colorado holiday, along with Red Rocks Park and Dinosaur Ridge.
Mushkin’s Russian-born paternal great-great-grandparents, toting tefillin, brass candlesticks and a china closet, joined the wagon trains heading West in the 1860s. Gold-colored stone was sighted in Colorado’s Platte River in 1858, and a year later 100,000 so-called 59ers began the trek to seek gold in them thar hills. Theodor Herzl wasn’t even born yet.
They journeyed in ox-drawn wagons with signs “Pike’s Peak or Bust.”
Among the half of those who didn’t bust and arrived in Colorado were Jewish prospectors and wannabe dry goods merchants. They weren’t the first Jews to go west. The biblically named Zebulon Pike wasn’t Jewish, but Solomon Nunes Carvalho, the photographer recruited for the 1853 winter expedition to document the area, was. His were the first daguerreotypes of Colorado.
In the Rose Hill Jewish Cemetery were the graves of Goldstein foreparents and other pioneers. Cantor Goldstein, who often officiated at funerals and was comfortable in cemeteries, wanted to introduce his children, nieces and nephews to the history of the far-flung community and related detailed stories about them all.
Says Mushkin, “We would make the rounds of the cemetery, visiting a great-grandmother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and of course the great-great-grandparents who were among the pioneer families who founded the Jewish community in Denver. I remember those hot summer cemetery visits seeking shade under the trees, and listening to my father tell us stories about each person near their tombstone. From the graveside, he introduced us to our relatives and brought those people to life for me.”
Cantor Goldstein told the same stories every year and the children waited for them like long lost friends.
“When my grandmother was alive, she would come to the cemetery and polish her late husband’s grave so it would shine,” she said. “The cemetery wasn’t a place of sadness for me.”
The children would pose for photographs near each tombstone. They still have the slide shows.
“I’m always smiling in those pictures, and usually squinting with the sun in my eyes,” says Mushkin.
Those early photographs were family portable memorials and touchstones for recreating family history. Mushkin remembered them when she made her first trip to Eastern Europe to visit the sites of ghettos and concentration camps in Poland 2005. And there, where millions of our brethren don’t even have a tombstone, she found herself walking from grave to grave in Warsaw, Kieclce and Krakow, trying to picture the lives of those who lived and died before the Holocaust. She read the inscriptions and noted the details – some stark, others elaborate and colorful. She filled her memory card and her own memory with images. Her Cemetery Project was born. Today she has many thousands of photographs of graves.
When she got home to Israel, she filled in as much of the stories as she could from the scant information. She focused on the lives of women.
MUSHKIN’S PRIZE is named for celebrated 19th century British photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the greatest portrait photographers of that century. Cameron began her career in photography around the time the Goldsteins settled in Colorado. The international competition is for women photographers only, although this year for the first time one category was open for men.
Mushkin won the digital manipulation and collage through landscapes and seascapes award.
“Living Memories” was scheduled to be shown at the 6th Biennial of Fine Art and Documentary Photography exhibition in Barcelona in October, but because of the coronavirus it will take place online.
Each of Mushkin’s pictures shows both a grave and a photograph of life before the Shoah. The photos are chosen from a cache discovered not long ago, negatives on glass, appropriately hidden in a Lublin, Poland attic. They were probably the stored records of Abram Zylberberg, a photographer of local events, even funerals. Paradoxically, the tombstones are in color, the photographs of daily life are in black and white. She’s combined them because they match visually – women engaged in hand-stitching in Poland with a tombstone (from Hungary) with a delicate gold and turquoise mosaic.
There’s a photo of women relaxing and laughing in friendship on a riverbank matched with a Berlin tombstone that looks as if its stains might be droplets from the river. Yellow yarn ties each pair together, a memory of the artistry that preceded the color becoming the imposition of yellow stars.
“Knitting with the yarn also connected me emotionally to the ‘women’s work’ in the photographs. There are so many stories to tell, but I want the viewer to try to create his or her story. I want to celebrate the beauty of everyday life that pulsed through the Jewish communities before the war and to amplify the loss at the same time. I was delighted that the judges understood what I was aiming at.”
I’ve been inspired. Let’s bring our children and grandchildren to the cemetery this year. Let’s tell the stories. Let’s build family memory by celebrating their lives. Don’t forget the photographs.
To see more of Shira Mushkin’s work: www.thegalaawards.com/15-th-jmca-nonpro-digital-manipulation-
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A Daughter of Many Mothers.