Pere Lachaise by Mark Ballogg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
UPDATE: You can order the book directly from Mark now: http://www.balloggphoto.com/pere-lachaise-book.php
I own many, many cemetery books. This is the most beautiful of all of them.
Mark Ballogg’s photography is a revelation. The range of tones and the precision of focus in his pictures is breathtaking, vertigo-inducing, and gives you a sense that his camera sees so much more incisively than you ever could, even if you were standing right there beside it. These are photos to be studied, to be treasured.
The book opens with a dirty, broken styrofoam crucifix lying amidst some weeds beneath a bouquet of silk roses. I’ve never seen life and death captured so well in a photograph. The sense of time passing, of things dissolving, continues in the photo from Avenue Eugene Delacroix, where the faces of the family have melted away, leaving ghosts in stone behind.
Now and then Ballogg pulls back to give a larger view of the cemetery. Its tombs stand side by side like houses along a street, but there are no people here, no wildlife — not even a leaf on a tree, in some cases. Life has come and gone in some of these images, leaving only the photographer behind to capture what remains.
One of my favorite photos is taken through the cross cut into the heavy iron door of the Morel family tomb. Two stained marble faces stare out of the arms of the cross, while below, a cherub clasps its hands together. I really like the sense of the tomb’s denizens returning my curiosity.
Ballogg is an architectural photographer, so the details of the stonework often draw his eye. The most spectacular photograph is taken on the Avenue Circulaire. It captures the cemetery at its most exuberant: full of solid tombs, filigree metal doors, an obelisk, a truncated column, a muse laying a palm, and a bearded life-sized duelist with broken sword upraised. I don’t know how you could look at that photograph and not want to travel to Paris to see it in person.
If I am so blown away by the photography, why have I only given the book 4 stars? Unfortunately, the text does not measure up to quality of the images.
The introductory essay by Michael A. Weinstein is adequate, despite wallowing unnecessarily in academic artspeak. For instance, “It is only by looking into a photographic print made by a masterful modernist that one is able to experience it completely.” Well, duh. It’s a two-dimensional object. How else could you experience it? Still, I do like Weinstein’s analogy that a well-composed photograph is like a lyric poem, something to be savored and returned to.
Despite the quibbles I might have with the punctuation of its title, I expected “The Pere Lachaise Cemetery–A Nineteenth Century Idealization of Parisian Society” to be a history of the cemetery. Instead, it’s a kind of academic word salad where I couldn’t figure out how one sentence led to the next. I know enough about the history Pere Lachaise not to be thrown by weird flow of time through the essay, but your mileage may vary. A linear progression would have served the material much better.
Luckily, it is entirely unnecessary to read the text in order to draw the maximum amount of pleasure from this book. It’s slipcased, oversized, clothbound, with smooth matte pages that reproduce the photographs in a dense spectrum of grays. This cemetery book is a pinnacle of the subject and will be an ornament to your collection.
Full disclosure: This was the first project I helped fund on Kickstarter. Mark suffered a heart attack soon after the Kickstarter ended, so the book was delayed for years, but I more than got my money’s worth.
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