Bethany Jacobson: An Ode to a Cemetery
July 7 through 24, 2023
By SCOTT ORR, July 2023
The COVID-19 pandemic led millions of souls to the cemetery. Brooklyn’s Bethany Jacobson, an accomplished photographer and filmmaker, was one. But unlike the multitudes who were ushered to their graves by the disease, Jacobson’s journey was one of escape and awakening.
Jacobson, you see, lives across the street from one of the world’s most storied burial grounds, Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, the 478-acre swath of hill and dale that is the final resting place of more than half a million New Yorkers.
At a time when death seemed inescapable, Jacobson found herself moved to create a photographic homage to Green-Wood’s long-dead multitude and to the venerable cemetery itself. Now, she brings this work to Manhattan’s East Village in her one-woman show Ode to a Cemetery. The exhibition opens at EV Gallery on July 7.
“When the pandemic shut down New York City, Green-Wood became a refuge, a place to find solace, to escape the confinement and isolation of my apartment,” said Jacobson, an award winning photographer, photojournalist and filmmaker whose work has appeared in countless magazines and galleries over a career that has spanned decades.
“During my many meditative walks, I photographed the iconography of the statuary, the century old trees and rediscovered how important nature is to the human spirit. Attracted to the symbolism of the Christian statuary, the worn surfaces of the gravestones spoke to me. Time and the elements have left their markings, inscribing their own silent history, expressing a dimension that transcends their religious purpose,” she said.
Many of Jacobson’s images are haunting and cheerless, chilled appropriately by the quietus of death. There’s a lot of stone and a lot of autumn and winter. A couple are images of monuments flanked by tombstone-scapes, bathed in a gray ghostly effluvium, seemingly in wait of some George Romero revenants. Still, Jacobson never surrenders to the Green-Wood photo cliches, like the hackneyed shot with the Manhattan skyline springing efflorescent from a graveyard foreground that has suggested life outpacing death to generations of amateur shutterbugs.
Some of the pieces are endowed with an organic feel by her cunning use of blanched and tattered handmade paper as a medium. One piece, for example, features a weeping shade tree nearing its annual slumber, mournfully embracing a rough-hewn headstone engraved heartbreakingly with the single word “BABY.” The use of the handmade paper helps the photograph overcome its static finality to suggest a possibility of rebirth and oneness with nature.
Ode is not all about despair, inevitability and finality, as an exhibition about a graveyard shot during a pandemic might suggest. Some of her shots contain subtle allusions to optimism, suggestions of motility and nods to the possibility of a worthy post-pandemic future, a sort of afterlife. Nature plays a supporting role throughout the work and while most of the trees are leafless skeletons, they are not dead, again suggesting the persistent potential for renewal and afterlife.
There is strategic use of color in some of the works as well, signaling that all is not dark and suggesting the possibility of escape. Other pieces are brought to life by depth, perspective and lightplay. Some achieve mortality through the subjects themselves, especially the angelic statues of women with pensive expressions gazing into infinity.
One piece, for example, features a bust of a woman gazing wistfully toward the heavens with softly blurred trees in the background. The piece presents itself in shades of blue and gray, with the exception of subtly colored falling leaves, bringing it alive with motion and giving it a feel of impermanence and expectancy.
Kerri Lindström, the owner of EV Gallery, said she found Jacobson’s work to be transcendent in its exploration of the culture of death and inhumation, while at the same time acknowledging the unending generational cycles of life and nature.
“Yes, taken as a whole the work is a contemplation of death, but it is not consumed by death. Ode is also about remembrance, dedication and resilience. Death is final, but these photographs do not necessarily depict endings. They explore the ceaseless passage of time through their depiction of stone monuments and statues that are worn by time, but do not yield to it. It also explores the cycle of life and death as represented by the trees and other symbols of nature that occur in the backgrounds. It is certainly evocative, but also beautiful,” she said.
Known over its more than two year history for its embrace of work by amateur photographers and artists, EV Gallery turned to an experienced professional for this show. Jacobson’s CV could begin decades ago when she was given a Leica Iiif as a teenager by her father. She cut her professional teeth shooting with 35mm film cameras as a photojournalist in the 1980s. Her photographs of Wim Wenders, Iggy Pop, and Jean Michel Basquiat, among others, were published in Blitz, Harpers Bazaar, Tatler, Cover and House & Garden.
That shot of Basquiat, the troubled East Village artistic genius who died at 27 in 1988 and happens to be buried in Green-Wood, captured professional accolades for Jacobson and indirectly led to her exhibition at EV Gallery. The portrait was selected for the Southeast Center for Photography exhibition in 2022 and was purchased by photographer George Hirose, an adjunct associate professor at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Hirose put together the show through his association with the EV Gallery.
Jacobson also has something in common with what is without doubt history’s most famous cemetery photograph, Ansel Adams’ 1941 masterpiece Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, which features a cemetery in the foreground of a landscape shot of a small town at sunset. Last year, Jacobson's landscape series from New Mexico received an honorable mention in the 17th Annual Julia Cameron Awards sponsored by Fotonostrum in Barcelona.
In addition to her photography practice, Jacobson also has amassed filmmaking credits over the years, working on indie features, documentaries, and television series, which have aired on PBS, MTV, BBC and WDR.
An Ode to a Cemetery opens at EV Gallery, 621 E. 11th St., with a reception July 7, 6-9 PM, and will remain on view through July 24. WM