Ecstasy (detail), 2023, by photographer Bethany Jacobson
Ecstasy (detail), 2023, 16”×20” Inkjet print, paper pulp, natural inclusions. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Ode to a Cemetery, July 7–28, 2023

An interview with artist Bethany Jacobson, whose recent solo show at EV Gallery pays homage to Green-Wood Cemetery, while examining mortality, nature and female solitude.

Bethany Jacobson began her career as a photojournalist and video artist in the 1980s. Her three channel video installation, Raw Zones, filmed by Babette Mangolte was exhibited at P.S.1, NYC, in 1987. Bethany’s photographs of Iggy Pop, Wim Wenders, David Wojnarowicz, and Chantal Akerman were published in numerous magazines. Her essay, A Native’s View, and photographs were included in the anthology, City Primeval: New York, Berlin, Prague, a journey through the zeitgeist of art and culture from the 1970s to the present. Subsequently, Jacobson pursued a career in film; writing and directing multiple projects that were aired on television and at film festivals, but never lost sight of her love for photography. 

A photography book related to Ode to a Cemetery will be published in 2024 by Hirmer Publishers, with written contributions from poet Cole Swensen and the VP of Special Projects at Green-Wood, Art Presson. Bethany has taught filmmaking courses at Pratt Institute, Long Island University, Hunter College, NYU’s Graduate Film Program and currently teaches film production courses at  Brooklyn College. Coinciding with Ode to a Cemetery, Bethany’s photograph of Jean Michel Basquiat at Area Club, 1986, 2023, was recently in a group show Luxe, Calm, Volupté at Candace Madey Gallery.

Clare Gemima: Bethany, thank you so much for letting me interview you about your recent exhibition, Ode to a Cemetery at EV Gallery in New York City. Is this the first time you have shown this work, and how did you find the experience overall?

Bethany Jacobson: This is my first exhibit of this series, and EV Gallery was the ideal intimate space to exhibit these fifteen photographic works on handmade paper. The overall response to the show was very positive; people expressed how it moved them and that the handmade paper brought a tactile element to the work that was unique and beautiful. Many New Yorkers are familiar with Green-Wood, a national historic landmark, the first rural cemetery built in 1838, and known for its landscaped beauty. Keri Lindstom and George Hirose, co-directors of EV Gallery were excited by the one-off hardcover photography book that I created for the exhibit, which is a facsimile of a book Hirmer Publishers will publish in 2024, related to this series.

The decision to create work with an intimate scale was based not only on practical matters, but a desire to capture both the physical and spiritual aspects of this place.

CG: Who are some of the more notable figures that are buried in the cemetery, and do  you have a special interest in any of them?

BJ: There are many notable people buried at Green-Wood, including Leonard Bernstein, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Boss Tweed amongst others. However, I chose not to concentrate on this aspect of the cemetery, but rather the overall sense of the cemetery as an oasis in an urban landscape.  

CG: How has your acclimatization to Green-Wood changed over time?

BJ: I moved to an apartment across the street from the cemetery over a decade ago, and have been photographing it ever since. Initially, I simply enjoyed getting lost there and enjoying its beauty, but when the pandemic shut down New York City, Green-Wood Cemetery became a refuge. 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.  

Baby, 2023, by photographer Bethany Jacobson
Baby, 2023. Image transfer on handmade paper. 24”×30”. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

CG: Did you have a particular thematic approach to photographing Green-Wood cemetery?

BJ: Initially, I was drawn to the overall beauty of the landscaping. Its extraordinary hills and dales were created by the glacial moraines. It has been called Brooklyn’s first public park by default long before Prospect Park was created. Green-Wood was built in the 1830s and David Bates Douglass designed its curving road system and plantings, and these elements give its terrain variety and wonderful vistas. As I became more familiar with the cemetery, which I photographed throughout every season, I found myself attracted to the Christian statuary. The worn surfaces of the gravestones expressed a dimension that transcended their religious purpose. Seasonal elements left their markings, inscribing a silent history.

I am a huge admirer of how craft informs content, in particular the Japanese culture has inspired me with its approach to materials, whether it be an ink drawing or a bamboo basket.

In the past five years, my mother and several very close friends died. Green-Wood allowed me a place to express my grief both for personal losses and in a larger sense for the turmoil in society. As I am in my 60s, I became ever more aware of the fact of our common mortality and the fragility of life. On a deeper level, I wanted to explore how time and memory are conveyed  through a “resting place for the dead.” This urban oasis allowed me to meander; to lose my sense of time, to process grief, to relive memories, both joyful and painful. I have Jewish roots, but was not raised in a religious household. The feminine statuary spoke to me with their forlorn and ethereal expressions; gazing outward, upward and downward. I became enamored by the worn aging stone bodies, surrounded by old vines, old trees, tall grasses, and birds swooping across the uncut tall grass with the occasional hawk perched in a tall pine. I relished the solitude. I don’t believe in the concept of eternity, but re-birth is everywhere in Green-Wood’s 478 acres.

CG: Art Presson, the VP of Special Projects at Green-Wood Cemetery, spoke fondly of your work, to quote: “Photographing a place like Green-Wood is like shooting fish in a barrel, anyone can take a good image, … Bethany, however, allowed Green-Wood to get under her skin. It became a long-term passion project open to serendipity and personal imagining. She is reaching for elusive images; Green-Wood is a remarkable place that  Bethany explores in her quest for magic.” How did your relationship with Presson initially occur?

BJ: I met Art when I was researching the background of the flora and fauna at Green-Wood. His landscape design in the past twenty years has been instrumental in preserving and transforming the cemetery. He pointed out that he planted the Redbud (Cercis) tree that I photographed in winter with the gravestone engraved with “baby” under it. He took me on several tours to point out aspects that I might have otherwise overlooked. Before coming to Green-Wood, Art was the exhibitions director at the International Center for Photography in New York, and he collects photography, so we share a common passion. I showed him the photographs for my book project as it was developing, and he offered to contribute an essay.

Reclining Lady, 2023, by photographer Bethany Jacobson
Reclining Lady, 2023. Image transfer on silver Thai paper. 30”×20” Photo courtesy of the artist.

CG: Ode to a Cemetery presents your original photographic images transferred onto various types of paper, including sheets you made by hand. What aesthetic choices and creative processes have been used to create this body of work?

BJ: I tend to discover what the right medium is as I dive into exploring a subject or theme, based on my emotional reality at the time. I am a huge admirer of how craft informs content, in particular the Japanese culture has inspired me with its approach to materials, whether it be an ink drawing or a bamboo basket. I have been teaching the craft of filmmaking for twenty years, and it often involves teaching photographic storytelling, the power of composition, light and scale and how simplicity is the most difficult skill in conveying a subject.

In this series, I discovered how to create an image out of the limited elements; handmade paper and generally a single subject. In this sense, I am still very much a student trying to perfect what is in my imagination. Since this series deals with mortality, aging and nature, I wanted to convey the tactility of this particular landscape, the worn statuary, magnificent trees, changing seasons, and many surreal sunsets of Green-Wood Cemetery. This led me on a journey to learn papermaking. 

CG: How did you learn papermaking and what was the process of combining it with your photographs?

BJ: I took several workshops in New York City, with Katheryn Cameron at The New York School of The Arts, and with Katherine Delamater at Carriage House and Dieu Donne.

The handmade paper in this series is made of cotton pulp, abaca, newspaper circulars, shredded plastic, household cast-offs, and leaves, stems and seeds that I collected on my walks in the cemetery. I made my own large-sized mold and deckle out of stretcher bars and mesh. In my home studio, using a 24” Inkjet Printer, I printed the images onto transfer film, and using Ink Aid Transferiez to coat the paper, I created the transfers. This process involves experimentation, many rejects, and ultimately discovering the right image to combine with a particular paper.

Over the course of the two years that it took to complete the work, I became bolder about taking risks, even if it meant the one-of-a-kind paper might be destroyed in the process. The decision to create work with an intimate scale was based not only on practical matters, but a desire to capture both the physical and spiritual aspects of this place.

Drifting With Flowers and Ecstasy, 2023, by photographer Bethany Jacobson
Left: Drifting With Flowers, 2023, 16”×20” Inkjet Print. Right: Ecstasy, 2023, 16”×20” Inkjet print, paper pulp, natural inclusions. Photos courtesy of the artist.

CG: Did you use Photoshop or other digital tools in post-production and how do you  decide what type of hand-made paper each image will be transposed onto?

BJ: Some of the images were layered in Photoshop by photographing the handmade paper I had created, and combining it with images of the statuary. Drifting With Flowers is an example of this approach. In contrast, The Hand was made by crafting handmade paper with an irregular deckle and inclusions of stems fused between two pieces of cotton pulp paper. After deciding on the scale of the hand, I printed the image using the transfer method I mentioned earlier. The hand-mind connection is very important to me. I only realized recently when the show was coming together, that this symbol connects to my spiritual journey of the past several years. The hand position is “Abhaya” in Buddhism, and is one of the nine Buddhist Mudras.

The Hand, 2023, by photographer Bethany Jacobson
The Hand, 2023, Image Transfer On Handmade Paper, 21”×26”. Right: Detail. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What is interesting is that the hand I photographed is part of a Christian statue in Green-Wood. Whether by chance or not, there seems to be a universality to this gesture, and for me personally it expresses something very important. According to Robert Jr. Buswell, author of the Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism,“The Abhaya mudra (Fearless gesture) is a way of removing fear from your mind. The gesture is ancient and has a clear body language meaning too. By showing that the hand is empty, the individual shows friendship and peace. In the West, the gesture could easily be confused with a stop sign. And this is important. The gesture stops the pressures of the outside world from entering the mind. It is said that this is the gesture made by Buddha after finding enlightenment. The Buddha used the gesture again when he was about to be attacked by an elephant. When Buddha saw the animal attacking, he held his hands in this gesture and the animal stopped.”

When The Sky Darkens, 2023, by photographer Bethany Jacobson
When The Sky Darkens, 2023, Image Transfer on Handmade Paper, 22”×28”. Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Creating When The Sky Darkens was more complex as it was one of the few colorful ones. I had created only two sheets of this paper, from pulp made from supermarket newspaper circulars mixed in my kitchen blender. I combined this with cotton pulp to create the flecked quality and added shredded plastic elements. I had been thinking about climate change and recycling at the time. Many months later when I decided to combine my Green-Wood cemetery images with my handmade paper, I realized that the back view of an angel against the sunset might work with the paper.

I used Photoshop to adjust elements to give more texture and layers, before deciding on the scale of the image in proportion to the deckled border, and made the final transfer. I wanted the paper to mirror the disintegrating surface of the angel and the overall feeling of ephemerality.

Broken Arm, 2023, by photographer Bethany Jacobson
Broken Arm, 2023, Image transfer on handmade paper, 18”×20”. Right: Detail. Photo courtesy of the artist.

CG: What did you learn about your own work from your artist talk at EV Gallery?

BJ: It made me consider more precisely how the handmade papermaking entered into the overall process and final work. We discussed aging and loss. This made me reflect on the journey of making this work, and how the tactility of the handmade paper added a fragility to the work that when combined with the photographic imagery, mirrored my intention to convey the ephemeral and transitory nature of life.

I mentioned my desire to bring pathos to this work, which elicited an audience member to remark that the work evoked empathy, and reminded my interviewee of the literary work of Edgar Allen Poe, which I had not considered. They pointed out that the statues and monuments were created by the upper class, homages to their self-worth. I responded that I had not approached this series from a sociological point of view, but from a poetic one, and that my filmmaking training had most likely influenced my choice to focus on the feminine statuary and how I framed them in the landscape as solitary, contemplative figures. I explained that I wanted the installation when hung in the gallery to create an overall sense of tranquility and solitude, akin to what I experienced on my meditative walks through Green-Wood.

As the talk came to a close, the conversation turned to a broader discussion about facing death, and the last chapter of our lives. Despite the seriousness of the conversation, we ended by all having a good laugh, aware we were fortunate to be alive and amongst good company.