'After Life': Lively look at a graveyard

Old cemeteries are popular subjects for photographers and other artists, and Jonathan Clark made a particular study of London's Victorian-era Streatham Cemetery for a period of two years. The result of his self-assignment is After Life - and while images of graveyards aren't exactly rare on the Internet, there's a little something extra which visitors will notice upon loading the Clark's home page. Streatham Cemetery is alive.

Which is not to say that there's anything supernatural going on, but in his capacity as webmaster, Clark has added tiny Flash animations to the still images to give the appearance of an almost frozen moment in time. (Picture a typical still life of fruit on a table, but with an animated fly buzzing around the canvas.) On first encounter with one of the rotating home page images, the visitor may not even notice some of the more subtle Flash effects. The crows flying by the church are hard to miss, but a few stocks of gently swaying grass may take a few seconds to register, and an image of late afternoon light on wooden doors didn't seem to do anything at all. In addition, certain effects occur automatically, while others wait for the coaxing of the mouse pointer.

Regardless of which home page image the visitor encounters, the main exhibition's first photograph will reveal a sample of all three types of Flash enhancement used onsite. The first addition to the image is sound, as the page plays a loop of birds chirping with respectful decorum in the background. Next, wildflowers in the foreground spontaneously sprout new stems and blossoms. And finally, 'client side' manipulation allows visitors to remove the animated flowers and then watch them rise again. Not all images employ all three options (though sound is always present), and some shots may appear to be completely static until you start poking around with your pointer - so each photograph merits close inspection.

In an odd way, this search for 'easter eggs' (a Web term for special "treats" hidden in program) actually encourages a more thorough examination of the photographs. Rather than a quick perusal and click to load the next image, visitors will want to probe and prod to be sure nothing has been missed - and so, see the image more completely. The photography itself is entirely capable of standing on its own merits, shot (with two exceptions) in a single cemetery, and all between dusk and dawn. Which is why you'll see few distinct shadows, and so much of the winter statuary is covered with layers of hoarfrost.

In addition to the type of atmospheric mood shots to be expected from the subject matter, there are some interesting 'narratives' as well - such as an image of a praying angel whose hands had been broken off, which almost had me feeling sympathy for a statue.

Some effects are better than others (the swaying grass and flowers seem to blend into the image better when they're either slightly out of focus or in the background). Some become repetitive (when you've seen one statue with human eyes, you've seen them all), and occasionally, the extras may actually detract from the photograph. That said, the collection still represents an interesting step between still photography and full-motion video. (Given the recent introduction of LCD-filled picture frames, it's not difficult to imagine some of these images hanging on walls in the near future.)

Perhaps the only caveat about visiting the site relates to pacing. In one sense, After Life can be like a book of comedic short stories. No matter how good the stories are, you're well advised to fight the temptation to read the entire book at a single sitting, because fatigue will reduce the pleasure of the later narratives.

The images at After Life are exceptional, and the Flash effects are an entertaining addition, <i>but</i> (and especially if you're waiting for downloads on a dial-up modem), watching too many variations on a limited number of themes can introduce the fatigue factor, and you may be best served by bookmarking the site and limiting yourself to a single season, or a set number of images, per visit.

After Life can be found at http://www.jonathan-clark.com/afterlife/cemetery.htm.

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