Let me begin by saying I plan to be cremated. The thought of dying and being put in a box to forever take up space on this earth once I am dead–and–gone seems a bit presumptuous to me, always has. And I am not a fan of the modern American graveyard . . . the ones that you see spanning hillsides near the Garden State Parkway or while riding the train from Westport, Connecticut into the City. They are almost hospital–like in their uniformity and they eat the landscape like condos or malls or fast food restaurants.
But there are graveyards and then there are graveyards . . .
Billy Cone’s Living Statues: Photographies reveres the life within a graveyard. There are those who visit cemeteries to lay their hands and eyes upon a stone and the piece of earth that represents someone loved and lost. There are those who enter the gates of graveyards to learn something of a place, its history. There are the young ones, don’t you remember? The young ones who go there at night to smoke a joint, steal a kiss, and dance to life with the dead dangerously close.
There are graveyards that stick with me. The Scottish Cemetery off old Route 1 just south of Bethune, South Carolna . . . I pass it on my way to my mother’s farm in Boykin, South Carolina and sometimes I pull in and speak with the dead before heading on my way. There’s the graveyard where my great-grandmother Jennings is buried in Westport, its small and shaded by maple trees and the Jennings are so numerous there that I feel as though I am attending a cocktail party with my ancestors. There is the graveyard in Lemon Springs, NC where my husband’s grandfather is buried with his father and grandfather and great-grandfather and great-great grandfather -- it sits in a patch of scrub oak down a sandy road surrounded by soybean fields and it is humble and practically lost. And there is a stone that calls to me in the Old Town Cemetery of Hillsborough honoring the fallen wife of a town doctor, “Her price above rubies.” She passed in the late 1800s and he followed her only two years later. I visit this stone frequently -- why? Because it emanates love, it just does.
But the Americans honor their dead with stone obelisks and urns and mausoleums. The only statuary I have yet to see in my very limited tour of cemeteries seem to be little lambs to honor a lost child or something in the form of chiseled botanicals. Grand statuary is saved for those in much much higher places, no not Heaven, but those who made history . . . think the Lincoln Memorial, and wow, Mount Rushmore!
But you can go to a Parisian cemetery with Billy Cone’s images and raise the dead with your eyes or rather, Mr. Cone’s eye. He walks among the dead, but finds something extraordinarily alive with his lens: the energy of the passed-away emanating from the stone figures that guard their sacred and eternal beds. Says Cone, “ Below are the remains of the day. Above, we put on pedestals the prisoners who live at the mercy of the harsh weathering elements until that day they dissolve and crumble back into the cold earth. Winter cold hard stony barren trees weather-worn and yet alive despite all that work against it. The statue lives.” There is an irony in the idea of replacing our flesh with stone, isn’t there? And Cone recognizes this with his camera -- the flesh is gone, but the stone remains to tell the world, “I once lived, don’t forget me.” And Cone recognizes in his end–piece called Life that the physics of Life cannot be limited to the flesh. Our energy cannot dissipate with the ceasing of the beating heart and an artist's energy infused into stone casts electrons and protons and neutrons out into the universe! The stone carved in our likeness or the likeness of our thoughts, lives on for us -- it carries tremendous light and spirit.
Death is frightening to us, isn’t it? Yet to meditate upon the abandon with which some of the statuary conduct themselves in Cone’s images of Le Père Lachaise, one believes that true emancipation must be the meaning of death. Women are loosed of their garments and men become angels. Plate 19, After the Fall conveys nothing but comfort with sin, frankly. Chastened by life, released by death -- really, this is the energy that jumps from Cone’s photos.
But Cone does something else -- he doesn’t keep to the cemetery. He walks the streets of Paris and photographs mannequins and their painted porcelain faces, like wax museum likenesses of no one in particular, but perhaps no? Perhaps a girl, sullen, who you once knew, so beautiful, so unaware of her beauty, wearing a knitted hat and and a pea coat in the rain during lunch break while in high school . . . she smoked a cigarette on the edge of the school parking lot and if you were a girl, you watched her and wished you were as aloof as her and if you were a boy, you wished you had the courage to ask her to go to the graveyard and get high with you.
Billy Cone’s book is beautiful. It is just what I hope I will see when I finally get myself to Paris. A quiet foggy afternoon spent in solitary with dead French souls who speak to me through the pocked and white stone of their flesh and tell me to quickly take leave of them, “Don’t waste your time with us! Move on and get yourself to a cafe and drink too much wine and order Croque Monsieur . . . delight in being alive!”