Monthly Archives

January 2017

Mission San Juan de Capistrano

If I were the praying kind, I’d say my prayers have been heard with last night’s Alabama election results. Maybe where they would have been uttered would have given them extra clout: at the oldest mission in California, San Juan de Capistrano.

That place has a colorful history, and is actually beautiful to visit, as half a million annual visitors can attest to, coming from everywhere to practically nowhere, a small spot along the Pacific coast. The grounds are beautifully maintained, the exhibits accessible, with quite a bit of attention given to the history of the Acjachemen, the native tribes who were converted in droves.

For the full recoding of the history, you can go here

The short version is one of religious zeal to make it happen (the name is no fluke: it honored an Italian “warrior” priest.) The mission was founded for a short year in 1776 until the missionaries were attacked and killed by the Indian tribes who knew a bad thing when they saw it… so many decimated by European disease in years to come, so many proselytized from the beginning.

But the friars returned, built a stone church, the only and oldest of its kind and tended the first vineyard in California with the Criollo grape. A 7.5 magnitude earthquake during Sunday services that killed everyone in it did not deter them, nor did the 1818 day in which French pirates came to shore and sacked the mission. Flooding came later and destroyed parts of the compound; eventually the Franciscans left and the place declined, only lately restored to some impressive historical monument.

Last weekend they celebrated the upcoming holiday with a creche in the ruins, baby Jesus looking suspiciously like a space alien.

I will perhaps return around my birthday; apparently March 19 is the day the swallows used to return en masse to nest in the eves of the ruins.

The American cliff swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) is a migratory bird that spends its winters in Goya, Argentina but makes the 6,000-mile (10,000 km) trek north to the warmer climes of the American Southwest in springtime. And perhaps they will feed on these bees…. IF they come back.

Climate change, build-up of the surrounding marshes, as well as repairs to the mission church have had an impact. But before we get all gloomy – we have a democratic senator from Alabama. Let’s take the joys when they come!




Orange County

Known for Disneyland and surfing, Orange County south of LA is often mistaken for the stereotype of liberal California. Which turns out to be wrong. It is one of the most conservative places in all of the US according to recent census data (altho it did vote for Clinton last year, the first time a Democrat won since 1936.) The survey  listed three Orange County cities as among America’s 25 most conservative, making it one of two counties in the United States containing more than one such city (Maricopa County, Arizona also had three cities on the list.) 

It is not only extremely white and wealthy but also home to large numbers of Latinos and Vietnamese, who have joined the ranks of the Republicans.

It is filled with gated compounds, some accessible by typing in a code at the entrance box, others only with gate guards who you have to explain yourself to. Some on top of the hills remind me of castles along the river Mosel.

The landscape around here is beautiful, arid,

until you hit one of the frequent golf courses;

the beaches are stunning. I hiked to Dana Point yesterday.

They are good for tree poses,

automatic garbage disposal,


and above all surfing.

They sport  the young.

The fast learners.

The pros.

The ex surfers.

And those advanced to owning a yacht.

Afterwards you can retire to one of the posh hotels, (here the Ritz Carlton) and rejuvenate at their Spa – see price list before you faint when presented the bill… facial, anyone?

And then you can be floored by the beauty of the sunsets.

Orange, indeed.  (This was Laguna Beach, Catalina Island in the background.)


On my way down to California this weekend I sat next to a chatty guy on my right and a video-playing guy to my left, who, in response to my request to photograph out of the window if we saw fires, closed the shade so he would not have the reflection on his game screen.

The guy on my right turned out to be an interesting character. He was born on an island in Alaska, to a Finnish father and first nation mother, dropped out of high school and build an empire of crab fishing boats. Girls of his mother’s generation still were not allowed to go to school beyond 5th grade – all hands were needed to prepare food (salt fish, can it, etc.) and raise gardens, so they would not starve in the winters. I also learned that many of the Louisiana crab fishing boats went to Alaska when their grounds ran dry, with their crews now dying in deadly accidents because their boats only go 4 feet deep in the water, double that is needed to face Northern storms.

I asked about climate change – he has seen it for the last 8 years, started to get real loud in our conversation about how anyone could deny the facts – not listen to science, not look at the reality on the ground with the Alaskan environment and fishing being so visibly affected. I was thrilled to see a multimillionaire so riled. Funny how you take the slightest notion that there are still rational, decent people out there as encouragement.

Which brings me to the climate effects here. I am staying a bit South of L.A., and although I have not seen smoke or fire, the air reeks, and people are worried. I have written about the fire fighting situation before, but here is the newest bit – since they are running out of inmates to fight the fires, they are now shipping them in from Nevada!

Photographs are of the shorelines in La Jolla, where I was over the weekend, which will also change with rising oceans. But for now they are sanctuary for wildlife and eye candy for the photographer!




Hard to keep up the cheer after this week’s news, from California to Israel, but I am determined.

For the last installment on cemeteries, then, we’ll look at who they provide sanctuary to beyond the obvious.

Well, they are veritable nature preserves; when you have large green spaces in urban settings the birds will come.

Particularly if you provide appropriate bird houses…

If the birds come, the cats come.

If the cats come, the fleas come – or their cousins, as the case may be, lots of little critters.

And finally, this is where I will photograph the next round of birds and cemeteries, 2 weeks from now:

Now there’s a reason to be cheerful!


Some of the things that are left behind in cemeteries have a heart breaking quality. Others are fan fare. And some just lift your spirits because they demonstrate the strength of human faith and willpower.

In the first category was this little toy I saw in an Italian cemetery.

The next photograph belongs to the second category – there are so many pilgrims to so many graves of famous people, this being a good example of devotion.

The third category is amply visible in New Orleans. St. Roche is not only a beautiful place with elevated crypts to prevent damage from flooding; it also has a chapel where many people leave evidence that they were delivered from their afflictions with the help of the Saint. You wonder about the “Thank you, my leg grew back” but rejoice at the many “Thank you’s, I no longer need crutches.”




And then there are the words that linger (this one from Cambridge,MA) echoing my very thoughts since I had a difficult time finding the grave of the “real,” (behaviorist) B.F. Skinner.

And the plain strange.

I like to reassure myself  that a sense of humor gets us through the gravest situations. I even laugh at cheesy cemetery jokes.


Top 5 Cemetery Jokes

Jewish burials


As far as I know – and correct me if I am wrong – an orthodox Jew cannot be buried in the same cemetery as non-Jewish neighbors. She cannot be cremated, and her intact body needs to lie in the ground with a mound of earth on top. His family can visit during strictly proscribed dates, but is encouraged to avoid cemeteries and turn back to (the) living after a relatively short time. If you are a Cohen, one of the priest class, you are not allowed to enter cemeteries unless it is for the funeral and unveiling of immediate family; the place is deemed unclean. Generally you are not supposed to visit cemeteries on holidays that celebrate something; you can go on holidays that are solemn. The custom of leaving small stones on the grave sites is meant to give voice to the fact that the dead are not forgotten.


There are exclusively Jewish cemeteries in the countries I’ve visited. But I have not found a non-Jewish cemetery in Europe that did not have both Jewish and Christian graves, even in Poland; sometimes they are in specified areas still on the same grounds, but often they simply intermingle.  Sometimes the grave stones are not even written in Hebrew. Often the Jewish graves are much more closely spaced since not much land was sold to them, but sometimes they are just as opulent as the rest, crypts and all.


I have always thought that this was one of the facts, just like going to school together or serving in the military together that made so many Jews in Germany dead certain that they were not endangered until it was too late – they felt no different, really, from those around them, particularly if they did not lead religious lives.


Cemeteries in Germany, particularly in rural areas, remind me of communal gardens. You see flocks of people puttering around, weeding, sweeping, watering, on a regular basis. As in, “It’s Saturday, we need to go rake the leaves…” There are benches to rest and contemplate – and gossip. There is always a flower shop close by that sells season-appropriate plants, and so in fall the place sprouts mums, in spring pansies, and in early summer the planted rhodies bloom. I can just imagine how it comforts you during the process of dying to think of these regular visits by so many of the people you know, bustling around in a place so familiar to you. There is something to be said for these traditions; they, of course, also require that people stay in one place, which has become so rare in our world.

And, of course, if you have to travel by boat to visit the graves, like in Venice, it becomes harder. Cemetery islands were necessary both to prevent graves from drowning and spread of disease from contaminated water.


Hardest of all, though, are for me the battlefields – graveyards of their own kind, as in this photograph from Antietam.


And in case you wondered, yes, Jews fought in the Civil War as in so many others, more than 10.000 of them, on both sides (2:1 for the Union). Anti-semitic forces have always claimed that Jews shirked their patriotic duty in this war – current historical research puts the lie to rest.




Another word you really don’t need to cram into your brain – but it is a term for people like me, who like to visit cemeteries around the world. We are called Taphophiles and defined as “Tombstone tourist (otherwise known as a “cemetery enthusiast”, “cemetery tourist”, “grave hunter”, “graver”, who has a passion for and enjoyment of cemeteries, epitaphs, gravestone rubbing, photography, art, and history of (famous) deaths.”  The term originates in the Greek word taphos, tomb or funeral

My first encounter with graves outside of the cemetery visits for family was when I was maybe 12 years old and shipped off to Cambridge, England during Spring Break to improve my language. I was hosted by an academic family who had a daughter aged 16 or so who was supposed to show me the sights. She dragged me into old cathedrals and churches, supplied me with paper and wax for some serious brass rubbing – and then absconded to see her boyfriend with threats to my life if I would tell.  Hours later, shivering with cold and bony knees covered with black and blues, I would have these brass rubbings of the commemorative plates on the stone floors, showing bishops or whatever, and a sense of tough independence – yes, I could do this, and enjoy the solemn quiet in these places.

These days, it is of course photography that beckons, of a world that lies between our own presence and some unknown state thereafter, satisfyingly crumbling and rusting and decaying – and beautiful –  to serve as a reminder that there is a certain trajectory and we better enjoy and appreciate what we have now. And look forward to peace and quite thereafter.

Yesterday I showed porcelain and terra-cotta flowers; today is devoted to wrought iron and other iron works, all from three different cemeteries in Paris. They are so insanely large that they actually have street signs and maps to guide you around….




Should I have unlimited time and funds per some miracle, I’d take the attached guide and explore other places as well, although I’ve already seen several of the 199 listed….

A Guide to the World’s Most Intriguing Cemeteries

On Finding Beauty in Unexpected Places

“Empty, hollow, thud,” is a phrase frequently heard in this household, muttered by various members of the family.  It is meant to describe one’s emotional status (among other things after listening to the news.) The words originated in a classic 1970s paper in psychology titled On being Sane in Insane Places. Which would also describe the state after listening to the news, don’t you think? Details of the Rosenhan study, placing sane people into psychiatric hospitals with only those words (heard by fictional voices) offered as presenting complaint, and seeing how the fakers would be (in)correctly diagnosed, are described in the link below.

Since the phrase was prominently heard after last week’s tax vote and the decision to remove the US from the UN global compact on migration, I decided that I’ll dedicate this week to beauty wherever I can find it, and if I can’t find beauty I’ll make do with whimsey. Anything to cheer us up.

Now you might think that the last place to look for cheer is a cemetery, but you’d be mistaken. Cemeteries contain tons of beautiful details and many surprises. I was first alerted to this in the 1960s, when adorning myself like all other weekend hippies with lots of bead jewelry. A friend made me bracelets of tiny, tiny glass beads in an array of muted pastel colors in blues, purple, greens. Turns out, she was a grave robber. No joking, either, she took those beads from French cemeteries where they were lying around the disintegrating Imortelles, faded by the impact of the weather.

What is an Imortelle, you ask? They were extremely elaborate weavings of beads and wires that were put on the graves as funeral wreaths that lasted. At least lasted longer than real flowers.  Here is what how it’s described on the web:

The art of making flowers out of beads is many centuries old. Although there is very little documentation on the development of this art, research has shown that the first primitive bead flowers may have been made as early as the 1300’s in Germany, when steel needles and wire were developed …..
One of the reasons that flowers are associated with churches has to do with beads. In the thirteenth century a form of prayer using a string of beads was instituted by St. Dominic. The string, called a rosary, consisted at that time of 15 units of beads. Each unit contained 10 small beads, preceded by one larger one. A prayer was recited at every bead. The word “bede” (sp) is Middle English for “prayer.” Because of the length of the original rosary, it became customary to pay someone, usually a resident of an almshouse, to recite the prayers. These people were referred to as bede women or men, and it was they who made the first bead flowers. ….The French used bead flowers as funeral wreaths. These wreaths were called “Immortelles,” and ranged from 3 feet to 4 feet in height. They would be left at the grave of the deceased. Since they were made on metal wire and were exposed to the weather, most of these items were destroyed within a year, but a few examples remain today. …
Not only are there bead flowers mounted on the frame of the Immortelle, but the frame wires are wrapped in beaded wire as well. Wires strung with beads might have been coiled or braided as well before wrapping onto the piece. The whole surface of the Immortelle would be wrapped over with wire strung with thousands and thousands of beads.
My current take on cemetery flowers focusses more on the porcelain ones that you also find in France (today’s photographs – the other option would have been the flowers made out of fabric and plastic, but I like these better). My take on bead jewelry has changed as well. Still supplied by a friend, albeit a different one, but much improved in provenance – check her work out at, it’s delightful.
Note, on many of these flowers, nature is taking over in form of moss and little plants – the perfect mix.

From the Archives (this century)

Odds and ends today, while I am packing up montages for tomorrow’s event.

Dismay over the damaged prints I have to throw out, the result of a flood in my room this summer from a room-unit air conditioner.

Disbelief over how much work has accumulated over the last 7 years or so.

Decisions about what to take and what to leave at home.


Doubts about pricing, always such a tricky question, when you want people to be able to afford something, but also not undervalue what you have created.

Determination to have this

available for my next opening….. just kidding. For balanced reporting I recommend celebrating people who do good in the world, not just frivolous gestures. Today is the day the Alternative Nobel Prize (for human rights activist who are always overlooked) will be given out in Stockholm. Among the honorees is a US lawyer who fights multinational industries that harm with pollution.

Hope to see you tomorrow.

From the Archives (2014)

I will bring a few prints of the the series On Transience this Saturday to the studio sale. It is more abstract work than my usual montages, but close to my heart, since it was the first leg in the ongoing project on displacement.

I was inspired by the transient nature of the immigrant experience, in place and emotion, to photograph objects in transition. The images of man-made materials found in trashcans, recycling centers, junk stores and shipyards, were to bring to mind the Jewish scrap peddlers from Eastern Europe who began to arrive in Oregon in the early 1900s. Some of these immigrants made their livings by gathering scrap metal that was cast off, discarded, and broken and by peddling it on the streets of Portland and other Oregon towns. A few of these peddlers eventually turned this “recycling” work into successful enterprises such as the shipyard, where I was photographing as well.

The montages emphasize the transient nature of the materials that historically provided some Jewish immigrants’ livelihood: iron, wood, plastic, paper, and steel. Contemporary immigrants too, regardless of how they made their livings back home, sometimes have no other choice than to turn to menial jobs, cleaning or working in the fields. I wanted to provide the viewer a way to contemplate the mobility of the lives of immigrants, from one land to another, from one life to another.

And given that it looks like we are now living in something akin to a banana republic, my thoughts are never far away from the concept of emigration – and the emotional and practical obstacles that are making it so unbelievably hard to leave your country. Then again (for balanced reporting) read this: a beautiful contemplation of two sorts of migration, from one country to another, from one status to another, after coming out. The writer’s experience let to the study of migratory art: