Spectres and splattered bugs

We had plans to do the whole downtown Savannah thing again this trip, and spent one day and one evening down there. The Girlfriend wanted to do a walking ghost tour again, taking The Younger Sprog with her, but I decided to skip that and do a self-guided tour, starting with Colonial Park Cemetery.

I’m not going to go into the whole history of the cemetery here – there are more than enough places to find it online – but I will say it’s a fairly classic old graveyard, nicely peppered with aged tombstones and twisted trees dressed in rags of moss, but it’s just a little too well-kept to fit the bill for really spooky images. Sunset was at seven-thirty and the gates closed at eight, so I had a small window of time to work with nice moody light, but it was limited. And there was no way I was going to chance getting locked into the most haunted place in America!

Okay, if you’ve read much else on this blog, you know I’m not too affected by that, and even if you want to get those feelings, the cemetery is in the center of town and far too busy for creepy chills. Most noticeable is that it seems, as the top image conveys, too empty to be very old. This is part of the history, since during the Civil War, occupying Union soldiers knocked down (and altered) countless headstones, so while the cemetery is full to capacity, a large percentage of the graves remain unmarked. Some of the markers were gathered up afterwards and affixed to the east wall, where they remain today.

I aimed for some artsy compositions and select vantages, playing with the conditions a bit, slightly hampered by my decision not to lug the tripod around – I just didn’t want the weight, and was glad I did so, because the evening was hot and humid and just the camera bag was taxing enough. But it did mean some of the things I attempted could have been much better with a firm support for the camera.

As the gates closed, I went to the darkest corner of the cemetery and purposely overrode the exposure meter to produce a dim, moody effect, bracing the camera against the bars of the iron fence. Regrettably, the lights therein were not the classic gas lamps visible in many other parts of the city, which would have done so much more for the effect, but I’m guessing the police want to see who’s trespassing in the cemetery after dark (I imagine it’s a common activity.)

After leaving Colonial Park, I wandered the streets a bit, looking for opportunities. A property posted with a “Consideration of Appropriateness” poster caught my eye, in too dim light to photograph. Since Savannah depends on its historic sections, any alterations to buildings within these areas is subject to committee approval – buildings must look as they did in colonial times, or as close as possible. As we found out on a later trolley tour, homeowners just outside of the border sometimes go for more flamboyant exterior colors, just because they can – an almost teenage defiance, though I imagine trying to operate a business in the historic district can be frustrating at times.

I eventually got down to the riverfront, the big draw of Savannah – classic buildings overlooking the slow river and usually forming the barricade along the two-story drop between city streets and docks.

I have to say I’m not too concerned with how a city looks, whether it’s historic or not, or whether the style is fashionable or whatever – it’s a city, and thus not very attractive to me. I did a few obligatory images, as much for the practice, braced against lampposts and atop walls – usually a few attempts, hoping to get at least one usable image without twitching the camera during exposures lasting as long as three seconds. I will say, at least, that Savannah has kept the tourist-trap, unbelievably schlocky stuff to a minimum – if you really need a sand dollar painted with glitter as a memento of your visit, it can be found, but you have to look for it. Restaurants, however, you can find easily.

VoodooHouseEventually I met up with The Girlfriend and The Younger Sprog, who’d enjoyed the ghost tour – a different one than last time (there are perhaps dozens of ghost tours available in Savannah.) Their guide was quite good, very animated, and they had decided I needed to see a couple of the buildings they’d gone past. Seen here, the Voodoo House, or its companion (I was getting the info secondhand and websearches on haunted houses in Savannah have given me a headache from facepalming) is one of many with its own sordid history, and of course during a ghost tour at night there’s plenty of atmosphere (that’s a joke, but you have to wait for it to develop.) The house sits back from the street and is completely shaded from streetlamps, rendering it almost totally invisible at night. Some of the people on the tour, taking flashlit images of the house with their digital cameras, had produced the “orb” effect so dear to the ghost chaser, and the guide had imparted some wisdom regarding what the details meant – The Girlfriend couldn’t remember exactly how it went, but it was something like, dust would produce solid orbs, uniform throughout, but those with more halo or edged effects were “something else.” Since The Girlfriend was using a DSLR, both with and without a shoe-mounted flash, I felt sure she wouldn’t be seeing any orbs through her camera, though it occurs to me as I type this that I never saw The Younger Sprog’s pics, taken with a little point-n-shoot – she may have been luckier. Glancing down, I saw the loose dirt in the crevices of the sidewalk was fairly laden with mica, so I scooped up a handful and instructed The Girlfriend to trip the shutter exactly when I told her, making sure the camera was using its little popup flash this time. I counted down and hurled the dust into the air in front of her camera just as she tripped the shutter…

TheyreEverywhereIf you wanted proof that Savannah is the most haunted city in America, there you have it – the little spooks inhabit every grain of sand. I’m sure if you look hard enough you can find whatever kind of shape or face you want – I myself see an owl monkey, and a Tusken Raider (it’s subtle, but the joke is in there.) This is, of course, a simple optical effect, the flash’s light bouncing from reflective objects too close to be in focus, made more distinctive by a dark background – in optical terms, these are ‘circles of confusion.’ I’ve personally done it with mist, corn starch, soap bubbles, and now with glittery sand, and it’s more pronounced when the camera flash is very close to the lens (when the flash is further out, the sand/dust/whatever directly in front of the lens doesn’t get any light, since it passes above, and by the time they’re far enough away to be in the strobe beam, they’re in focus enough to be a tiny speck that’s usually ignored.) Focusing further out helps the effect, too, since close objects are further out of focus. Those that captured orbs on the tour might have caught dust, humidity, and possibly even something the guide provided. So yeah, “atmosphere…”

Our trip coincided with the appearance of the lovebugs – no, not sassy little anthropomorphic VW Beetles, but a species of insect all too well known in the southeast, Plecia nearctica. A little smaller than fireflies, black with red ‘heads’ (actually their thorax,) at times of the year they swarm in vast numbers, mating while in flight, and one ends up driving through clouds of them. It was my duty to clean the windshield, which was necessary every time we refueled. At one point during the daylight tour of downtown, they were so thick they were clustered on the building walls, and we had them walking on us. They’re harmless, and clean off easier than many bugs, but the numbers have to be seen to be believed. As we started down the road one day, a mating pair on the windshield made a valiant effort to stay put; the female was eventually clinging desperately by one leg and vibrating madly in the wind, while the male, facing backwards, was nothing but a blur anchored by his genitalia. Impressive, but I walked gingerly in sympathy for a while after that.

I didn’t do many photos downtown during the day – been done to death, really. Meanwhile, where else are you going to go for images of slug sex? That’s right. Anyway, I’ll leave you with a big version of one of my favorites from the cemetery tour. There’s an instrumental from the Simple Minds album Street Fighting Years called, “When Spirits Rise,” and that’s what came to mind even as I was framing this. It’s faintly spookier in grayscale with the contrast boosted (isn’t everything?) but I like the color version best.

And if you look hard, you might see the ghost of Cousin It…