Robert Richfield is no stranger to mortality. We all have had our brushes with the scarier side of medicine, and then, of course, none of us are as young as we used to be…our thoughts do wander sometimes to darker places. Robert’s father was a pathologist who regularly performed autopsies, so there was always more than a small whiff of death in the air when Robert was growing up. He himself has been photographing cemeteries for some fifteen years, so he’s been around the dead for quite some time…and their silence.
But cemeteries are not just places for the dead, but also for the living, for the survivors. Various cultures have called them cities of the dead, islands of the dead etc, in the hope that doing so would segregate their inhabitants from us, the living. Usually such “cities” are walled against vandals, and worse. But are they only to keep the harmful forces out, or do they also serve to keep the dead sequestered so that we are safe from them? The dead are buried and mourned for, rituals are observed, but there is a time and a need for the mourners to go home and leave the dead behind – behind the walls. We Americans shun death and dying…we do not even want to think about it, much less dwell on the subject. So our cemeteries look like parks and have a stark antiseptic sameness about them. They have the requisite stones, with carved names, but are essentially without personality or idiosyncrasy. They read like obligations fulfilled, more than paeans to the fierce and sorrowful memories for particular loved ones lost. A gnashing of teeth, a tearing of garments, and a clawing of the very ground has been replaced by impersonal serenity and physical order. There is nothing to upset the living or remind us specifically of the dead…only that they are there, respected.
But Robert Richfield photographs another kind of cemetery. They are mostly European, but sometimes Mexican, where a respect for the dead involves more of an embracing of death than a fleeing from it. Where the beloved dead are honored by little jewel box displays, each unique, fashioned of simple elements: flowers, photographs, locks of hair, and other mementi mori. They seem like vernacular Joseph Cornell boxes, under glass, all the same and all different. They are assembled by the bereaved, as a lasting touchstone for all who visit, or just pass by the crypts that contain the remains of the dead. These crypts resemble stacked filing cabinets, and in a way that is what they are. The back parts of the “drawers” contain the remains of those interred. This compartment is then sealed at the front end with a carved stone, not unlike our own headstones.
In front of the headstone there is an air/exhibition space of some depth. It is here that the stagecraft of the bereaved is brought to bear by the choice of the objects placed on view as the triggers to memory and devotion…which pictures, which personal objects, the type and plethora of the floral display. But this mis en scene is not by any means static, as life is not…time, and the glass see to that! The display space is sealed, to a greater or lesser degree, by a sheet of glass. The idea of the glass is to protect the display while maintaining the view…happily this is not the way it works out. The failure of the seal to separate the interior world of the display from the outside world of the living, is the key to unlocking the essence of what Richfield is seeing here in the necropolis. Moisture seeps in, and dirt and insects invade the sanctity of the display space. The flowers die, and mold grows. Moisture also partially, or totally, fogs the inside of the glass, editing, softening, and distorting our view. The little scene is decomposing right before our eyes – it’s another death of sorts. Not only is the body disintegrating in the file drawer, but the aide de memoir is shifting, and mutating as well. There is no anchor, no way for even memory to remain constant, and no way to stop the decay that all that lives must suffer.
Then along comes the photographer with his camera, and together they select and edit in their own particular way…and then, of course, Richfield runs into the problem of the glass. The glass is the border that must be crossed to make the visual record happen. He has to see through it because he can’t remove it. While selectively obscuring the scene within, the glass reflects the photographer and the world without, as glass does, making them both semitransparent ghosts of questionable corporeal substance. It’s hard to know what’s what the closer Robert gets…and he does get close. The glass is the plane of confusion…the semipermeable membrane that separates this world from the next. These photographs are about that nexus point – how we perceive the frontier and where we stand in relation to it.
Can balancing on the border of the two give us any knowledge about either…and the passage in between? Is it fluid? Once we cross that line, can we come back? These photographs are our guides, our charts to what is surely terra incognita, at the very point of entry. But they are more uncertain than most maps. They take us to the gate, show us around, while leaving the ambiguity and mystery of crossing over very much intact.