When I look at Pamela Williams’s photographs of sculptures, I feel I am seeing real people.
This photo, which she calls “Glance,” was taken in 2010 in Passy Cemetery. It is so realistic, one almost does a double-take.
The once-lustrous marble has weathered so that it looks like skin with pores. Over the years, dust and pollution have added highlights and emphasis to parts of the face such as the nose and lips. Alas, since this photo was taken, the statue has been cleaned. The last time Pamela saw it, some of the magic had departed with the dirt.
The Toronto-based photographer has spent the last few years capturing the poses, expressions, and emotions of sculptures in cemeteries in Paris, Rome, Milan, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Havana, and Buenos Aires.
Why cemetery sculpture? Years ago, a friend gave Pamela a copy of the book Permanent Parisians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of Paris.* Pamela, who had studied fine arts at York University in Toronto, suddenly saw sculpture in a new light. Instead of being captured inside a museum under controlled light and climate, the works of art were outdoors, exposed to weather and pollution. They changed over time.
She had already been drawn to realistic sculpture. As she explains, “I am able to photograph the work from angles so that I can make it appear human.” She photographs using natural light, without reflectors or flashes and uses traditional film to create portraits of people who just happen to be in stone or bronze, rather than flesh.
The weathered bronze she calls “Repose” is in Montmartre Cemetery and dates from about 1880. The elongated figure was hard to photograph. It was hard to find the right angle, and Pamela had to wait some time for the right light to “make it appear human.”
“Repose” graces a family tomb and is intended to be decorative rather than a portrait of either the deceased or the bereaved. It might signify beauty, grief, or the grace of a dancer at rest. Or all three.
When Pamela returned years later to see how time had altered it, the area was closed off so that the authorities could spray for weeds. Such are the hazards of pursuing outdoor sculpture.
“Lament” is a poignant bronze sculpture, also in Montmartre Cemetery. It expresses the grief of a mother who in 1910 lost her 20-year-old son, Robert Didsbury. Exposed to the elements, the bronze has oxidized to a variegated green and the white splotches and tracks from water add to the dramatic sense of suffering and loss. The sculptor was Robert’s mother. Her anguish is real and time has only added to it.
With digital cameras, we see an image immediately. Traditional film photographers are often surprised when they develop the film and print their contact sheets. Pamela found this sculpture in a partially protected alcove in Père Lachaise; it ends below the shoulder and at first seemed rather ordinary. It was only when she took a closer look at the print that she found it increasingly interesting. She calls it “Cameo.”
Pamela Williams’s photos have appeared in many publications. In 1998 McClelland and Stewart reissued The Stone Angel by the late Canadian writer Margaret Laurence, first published in 1964. In search of a suitable cover illustration, the art department contacted Pamela and asked her to bring in all of her angel photos. None were used. The reason? Editorial insisted that an angel would be far too literal. In the end, the cover featured “Cameo.”
In a short essay in a collection of Pamela’s photographs called Death Divine: Photographs of Cemetery Sculpture from Paris, Milan, Rome, Randall Robertson writes, “Sensational monuments from the late nineteenth century fill Parisian cemeteries. The dead may be invisible, but their memorials definitely are not. For those with money, memorial sculpture was the most accepted, even the most expected, way to commemorate the family—to proclaim the private in a public cultural space…. Wealthy families hired the best sculptors…[and] in virtuosic depictions of hair and skin, these artists created faces and figures so lifelike that one comes to believe in their existence.”
Although many funerary sculptures were unique pieces, there were exceptions. Some forms were used more than once by the sculptor and some were copied. The image that Pamela calls “Cherub with Broken Foot” is a marble sculpture in Père Lachaise. She has seen copies in other cemeteries, including one in bronze.
A few years ago, Pamela was contacted by a widower who wanted photos of a particularly beautiful angel. To honour his late wife, he wanted to commission a sculptor to create a copy. Pamela sold him some of her photographs. She later found out that the widower had hired a sculptor to go to the European cemetery to study the original and make a copy one and a half times the size of the original sculpture. Pamela said the original sculpture was so popular in its day that she could have directed the widower and the sculptor to good copies in American cemeteries.
Pamela returns to Paris from time to time to continue her photography of sculpture. Recently she has taken small groups of private students. Yes, they visit cemeteries, but also galleries and museums. And she has rediscovered the joys of photographing sculptures inside museums and galleries. She calls the image below simply “Paris Statue.”
I have seen other other shots of the same statue, but in hers I could see what she had told me earlier about searching for the angle and the light to make it look human. The one shown here is bathed in light from a skylight and captured by an artist so that it looks like a real person.
One might say the same about the image below, a painted wooden sculpture in the Petit Palais.
We own one of Pamela’s prints, called “Herald.” It shows a stone angel from a Vienna cemetery, taken at an angle that emphasizes the powerful wings and the back of the angel’s head. Although it is not from Paris, it makes us think of our strolls in Paris’s cemeteries and the amazing sculptures that continue to inspire visitors and artists like Pamela Williams.
Text by Norman Ball, photographs by Pamela Williams. Many thanks to Pamela Williams for her artistry, patience, and co-operation.
*Judi Culbertson, Tom Randall, Permanent Parisians: An Illustrated Guide to the Cemeteries of Paris, Walker and Company, 1996.
For another view of Paris cemeteries, go to “Stained Glass Less Seen.”