Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Interview with John Thomas Grant, author of Final Thoughts

The other day I posted a book review of Final Thoughts: Eternal Beauty in Stone over on my other blog, Marian's Roots and Rambles.

Now I have the pleasure of following that up with an interview with the author, John Thomas Grant.  John fills us in on his source of inspiration and what he has planned next.

How did you first become interested in photography? When did you first start taking pictures?

Oddly enough, I did a little photography in the mid 80's, and won a couple of local contests in New York where I was living at the time. There was no particular reason for the interest. My sister got a new Mamiya NC1000 35 mm (film, of course), so I borrowed it and went shooting. Reminds me, I do have to return it. Anyway, it seemed, even then, that I had a knack for the lens, but thought nothing of it as I was so well entrenched in the music business. Music is what I knew, and I wasn't about to start another journey. It was a pleasant pastime only, to be sure. BTW, the subject matter of my photography had nothing to do with cemeteries. That wasn't to come for some 20 years.

What was your career before becoming a professional photographer and what made you make the switch and why?

As I mentioned, I spent most of my working career in the music business. First as a musician (bass), then a recording engineer in New York City, capped off as an international manager. It was lovely until the 90's hit. With the new World Wide Web (internet), fear replaced fearlessness, and the industry imploded. Essentially, they lost control of the process of making and selling music. Second, with the advent of digital equipment, everybody started to record wherever they wanted. Living rooms became studios, and if they needed a little reverb or echo, they'd set up in the bathroom. Studios were crashing left and right, along with the rest of the industry. So I retired. There was no further need for me, and it was getting just too insane.

For a few years thereafter, I stumbled around looking for something else creative to amuse myself with. I had forgotten my earlier days in photography, but advanced toward it on a more circuitous route through genealogy. It was time to figure out where I came from. Who should I thank; who should I scorn!

Who or what has been the biggest influence on your artistic creativity in photography?

Simply, the passage of life. Life is the packaging of increments of time. The associated emotions in that time are what I document in my work. I've always been a curious and observant person; a very shy individual in my younger days, I might add. What I couldn't say, I thought; what I thought, would make my art of today. Art is, after all, the packaging of character, experience and knowledge. I apply each to every shot.

What made you decide to start photographing gravestones and cemeteries?

Again, genealogy made me do it. I bought my first digital camera 10 years ago, or so, to photograph my dearly departed family, and sell stuff on eBay. Guess which one I'm doing better at? Anyway, what the living wouldn't discuss, or couldn't remember, the dead were more than happy to oblige; so off I went to the cemetery with pencil, paper and camera in hand. It was Calvary Cemetery in Queens, NY, where most of my family resides, that I had my epiphany. I'd finished paying my respects, and began to wander aimlessly from section to section, stone to stone. Reading names, dates, poetic little sayings of remembrance. Between the birth and death dates was a life. It was, and will be no different for me. It all became crystal clear to me right then and there. I truly realized that one day I will experience death, and that little thought caused me to realize life! That might seem silly to most, but most people are in denial of death. They believe that, somehow, their spirit, if not their life in some way will carry on. For their sake I hope they're right! I carry no assumptions though. I just don't know ... nobody really knows. In the meantime, I choose to do what is right and good in that which I know ... my life.

What do you look for when you are photographing a cemetery? What sort of thing will capture your attention and cause you to photograph it?

I'm as happy as a clam at high water whether I'm in a small roadside, pocket burying ground, or a lush garden variety rural cemetery. For the most part, my photography is rather intimate in execution. What captures my attention is what most folks would probably pass by. For instance, my husband and wife shot. The wife stone stands erect while the husband stone is leaning gently against her. One ... it's intimate; two ... it's emotional; three ... it tells a story from life...Eternal Love. Some people will look at that shot and see their own life, or, the love of their parents perhaps. Others will look at that same photo and see only despair, or hope lost. But everyone will see, and feel, something. That is what I try to capture in my work. Yes, I do shoot the pretty panorama, but the quintessential 'Grant' is the 'life' shot. Additionally, my audience sometimes tells me that they feel a presence when viewing my work. Love when that happens. That 'presence' is unquestionably themselves :)

What was the most difficult photo shoot you've ever done and why?

Can't say as there was one insurmountable event in my short and illustrious career, but there have been occasions when I was less than thrilled with the results, and have had to return time and time again to complete the mission. Perhaps the sun was not just right, or even the wrong time of year. There's one form Green-Wood in Brooklyn. It's the shot of the female sitting on the sarcophagus with a celtic cross in close proximity. It's quite popular now, but it took me forever to get the composition right.

Another was taken in Forest Hills Cemetery in Boston. It's the photograph of the young man with his guardian angel. I had to wait, once again, for sun to strike it just right. Unfortunately for me, adorning the grave of the young man was a large plot of overgrown ivy. I had to stand in that ivy for quite some time waiting. I could feel creepy little things checking me out. I now carry two thick rubber bands for just such occasions.

Also, winter scenes, though beautiful, can be treacherous. I've gone down on a number of occasion because of hidden sinkholes or ice. Got some of my best work out of this condition though.

What is your favorite cemetery to photograph in?

As I mentioned earlier, the cemetery doesn't matter to me. It's the story from life and that can be captured anywhere. But my favorite cemetery is unquestionably Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. Not only was it one of the first to influence my work, but it was my oasis in Brooklyn. The distant din of the metropolis, the song of birds, the peace, the expanse, complete with the occasional flyby 'howdy' from Junior the red-tail falcon. Green-Wood has character, it has a personality, and it speaks to me.

For all intents and purpose, I disappear. It was, and continues to be, my Neverland.

What do you hope to achieve or what legacy do you want to leave behind with your cemetery photos?

A couple of things. I'm reminded of the tribal belief that you’re not truly dead until the last person who remembers you has died. I plan on being around for a thousand years...

Also, Ben Franklin once said, "Show me your cemeteries, and I'll tell you what kind of people you have." Despite what history may decide about us, I would like them to think that, at our core, we were a decent people. Perhaps still a bit primitive, but having the capability for compassion and virtue.

What projects or books do have planned for the future?

Well, I have 9 more working titles in the CemArt genre. I've started on the 2nd already. I'm currently compiling and editing a book of Civil War Letters due in June. I will return to another Civil War title I started quite some time ago called "Clarry." A young adult historical fiction about the first mortal casualty from Brooklyn City, New York. His name was Clarence McKenzie, the drummer boy of the 13th Regiment Co. D, and he died in June of 1861. He was 12 years old. Clarence is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. And, yes, I'm working on a 'ghost story'. Happy now Everyone?!!


  1. Wonderful interview, Marian, with a fascinating person. Now I MUST get a copy of his book, he's tweaked my interest in several of the photos. Thanks for posting this very intriguing topic. Think I'll be around for a thousand years too!

  2. What a wonderful interview! I have loved his work, and now I love it even more. Thanks for opening up some insight on this good man and his great talent.

  3. Lovely interview. I love John's work and seeing his work got me to go out and take photos. I'll never be as good as him but it really gives me joy to get out in the cemetery and look for the beauty.

  4. Hi,

    Thank you for your nice article on symbolic past. It will help me.


  5. What a wonderful article! Congratulations!!
    I am forever proud of you and your art John honey and I cherish spending every moment of my life with you...

    (It was because of John's photograph of the Mourning Angel in Green Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn NY that we met almost two years ago. :)