Weil captures rare moonlit images of Lake View
Cleveland Heights photographer Michael Weil first began to think about making nighttime photographs in Lake View Cemetery almost 10 years ago.
“Lake View was part of my growing up,” said Weil. “As a child I would go with my father to visit the gravesite of his parents. Even as a child it struck me as not the typical cemetery where you’d hold your breath as you drove past.”
That early connection has developed into a two-part photographic presentation, Moonlight in the Gates: 150 Years of Lake View Cemetery in a New Reflective Light which will be on view in a special installation throughout the cemetery from July 22, 2019, through October 2020. Meanwhile, prints from the series also will be on view at Weil’s Foothill Galleries in Cleveland Heights, July 23 through Aug. 31.
Katherine Goss, president and CEO of Lake View Cemetery, recalled the first time Weil contacted her: “I met Michael shortly after I came to Cleveland about nine years ago. I didn’t know who he was, but he called me up and asked if maybe he could camp out in the cemetery overnight and take pictures. We get a lot of unusual questions—you know, paranormal and things like that. I said I wasn’t sure. He asked a couple more times—could he come in and camp out overnight and photograph? He was experienced with the outdoors. It would be fine. I still wasn’t comfortable.”
For Weil, a scholar of photography with a Ph.D. in art history from Case Western Reserve University, the idea was not entirely without precedent. “Having studied photography, I was intrigued by the moonlight photographs of Steichen, and Brassai, who was nocturnal by habit—he was mainly photographing at night wherever he decided to walk. And Steichen’s image of the sculpture of Balzac, looking up at the moon, has stuck in my head from the moment I saw it. So I called the cemetery and asked if I could maybe spend the night there and photograph one full moon. They said, ‘No, are you crazy?’ Like any determined artist, I kept trying. It got as far as ‘maybe,’ but then the idea went away for a while.”
Goss also moved on to other concerns, including planning for the cemetery’s upcoming 150th year. “But then, tragically, in 2015 Michael’s son Josh was killed in a car accident. I spent a lot of time with the family and really got to know them,” said Goss. “After some time had passed, Michael began to ruminate again about the photography project, and this time I thought, maybe this needs to happen.”
“After Josh died," said Weil, “I thought about how he had known that I was looking into this idea, and he thought I was nuts. It just kept in my head. So I talked again to the cemetery and they said, ‘You know . . . we’ll get you a key.’”
The first full moon of 2018 was Jan. 2. “It was 4 degrees,” Weil recalled. “I photographed for a few hours and was totally intrigued. I went with a little trepidation as I think anyone would, locking yourself in the cemetery, but then I experienced how bright and quiet it was. There were two full moons in January, so I went back at the end of the month, and that turned out to be another beautiful, intriguing experience. When I began editing those images I realized this was going to be a really cool project.”
Goss was intrigued as well. “He began sending me these photos showing what looked like moon-bows—effects of the moonlight in the sky—and they were just astonishing," she recalled. "I felt there was something spiritual going on. I get a little choked up now thinking about it. Anyway, that decided it for me.”
“I went in purposefully not trying to have a checklist,” Weil explained, “because I was worried that it would become about highlights or the ‘important’ people buried at Lake View. I wanted it to be a reaction to the experience of being there. This is such a huge space, and the moon plays its tricks and does its magic on every single object, so the hardest part was trying not to photograph the entire cemetery. Depending on cloud cover and the time I went, the color temperature of the moonlight was so different. The mood changed every single time I was there. I kept going back to Steichen’s night photographs that were hand-colored with different tonalities to them, and realized that was probably as much his reaction to the mood of the night as it was his attempt to replicate it.”
After 12 full moons and hundreds of images, Weil edited the cemetery presentation down to 45 photographs.
“What we’re going to do,” he said, “is put these on metal framework that Ken Roby, a talented blacksmith out in Chagrin Falls, is making. They’re rather elegant in their simplicity, and they’ll hold the 4-foot images, which will be displayed throughout the cemetery.
“Also, on July 23 at Foothill Gallery I will open a show of a selection of these images. For the last six months I’ve been listening to a playlist of moon songs ranging from Beethoven to Chopin to the Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker. I feel like the Brassai werewolf. My entire schedule last year revolved around the full moon.”
To Goss, the project is the right thing at the right time. “I think the display of these photographs in conjunction with our 150th year is really perfect," she said. "It’s a local artist, with a personal and family connection to the cemetery, who is a resident of the community, and the photographs are just beautiful and depict this place in a way that no one ever sees it. I hope it will help people appreciate Lake View today and make it a part of their future.”
“Of course I hope people appreciate the photographs as my artistic expression,” said Weil, “but what has been really special about this project is how my personal desire to photograph this space at night has become a celebration of Lake View Cemetery for our community. Cemeteries like Lake View were built around the same time, with a Victorian notion of embracing the reality of death—while also enjoying a beautiful park-like space. For me, it has been very special to be able to present this unusual perspective on Lake View. I hope people will both appreciate my photographs and appreciate how unique this cemetery is. Ideally, they’ll see it in a new light.”
Greg Donley is a longtime Heights resident and photographer.