The Downieville Cemetery
Situated at the bottom of a deep narrow canyon at the confluence of the Downie and Yuba Rivers, Downieville, California prospered from the gold taken from the fast moving alpine rivers and streams. At the peak of the Gold Rush, about 5,000 miners worked extensive hydraulic diggings and deep rock mines in the area. Then, Downieville was one of the largest city in California. Today, about 300 permanent residents enjoy the isolation and beauty of the canyon.
On a steep slope on the north side of the Downie River canyon and about a mile up river from the confluence with the Downie and Yuba Rivers sits the Downieville Cemetery. Founded in the 1876, the Downieville Cemetery followed trends established by the rural cemetery movement begun in the early nineteenth century. Sometimes referred to as the Masonic Graveyard or Pioneer Cemetery, Downieville’s cemetery consolidated graves from two small cemeteries begun near the town center. Like nineteenth-century rural cemeteries, the Downieville cemetery merges styles drawn from a multiplicity of landscape garden motifs: obelisks, miniature columned gates, urns, Gothic inspired wrought iron grave enclosures, angels atop tall monuments, cherubs, and holding hands craved into gravestone reflect the shifting nineteenth-century views on death and the remembrances of the dead.
The rural cemetery served the expanding nineteenth century urban culture as a place of moral improvement and social reform and suggested that death was a presence, a long sleep, and that the graves set in a natural setting would be eternal homes. As nature sanctuary, the nineteenth century rural cemetery is place of memory and beauty, with an emphasis not on death, but on art, hope and transcendence. The American rural cemeteries were founded on the needs for healthy burial grounds placed away from the expanding population centers and on the Romantic movements connections to nature. Based on English landscape garden plans, rural cemeteries were designed as the first public parks and expressed a nostalgia for death culled from classical authors such as Virgil  :
“Then we are sent to spacious Elysium, a few of us to possess the blissful fields. All these that you see, when they have rolled time’s wheel through a thousand years, the god summons in vast throng to Lethe’s river, so that, their memories effaced, they may once more revisit the vault above and conceive the desire of return to the body.” .
Downieville’s historic cemetery exemplifies the picturesque tradition of the nineteenth-century rural cemetery: a ramshackle gate opens onto a place of quiet contemplation and meandering steps and paths lead in no particular direction, and unkempt bushes, vines and tall grasses spread over grave enclosures. Dead branches and trees co-exist alongside new growth, to suggest that death is a natural cycle, and even when the river is low, and like Virgil’s Elysium, the sounds of rushing water filter over the picturesque landscape of death.
Portraits of Gravestones
I arrived at the Downieville Cemetery just as the sun dropped into the top branches of the pine trees at the ridge line. At first disappointed that I had missed the light, I began to wander up the steep hillside over the terraced cemetery grounds. About halfway up the hill, I began to notice a diffused light bathing the gravestones in a soft and even glow. As I began to photograph the gravestones and enclosures in earnest I became fascinated by the uneven placement of the gravestones on the terrance slope. Some of the grave monuments stood tall, while others leaned forward and back creating diagonal and overlapping lines and shapes in the viewfinder. The steep slope of the hill accentuated size distortions generated by the reduced angle of view offered by portrait lens which I selected for this series.
The overlapping of weeds, grasses, gravestones and monuments continue the picturesque intentions of the rural cemetery movement. The soft bokeh generated by the portrait lens speaks the nineteenth century sentimentality of mourning. Nineteenth century gravestones stood as markers for the departed and photographs I created are intended as portraits of those gravestones and monuments left in remembrance of the departed.