Photograph Collections of Mount Auburn Cemetery

March 27, 2012

When photography burst upon the scene in 1839, the medium provided a new way of documenting and remembering Mount Auburn’s sacred landscape. (The earliest visual representations of the Cemetery, founded in 1831, had been rendered in the form of finely drawn engravings.) Today the photograph collections, accumulated for more than a century and a half, offer multiple perspectives of the Cemetery’s rich history.

Housed in the Mount Auburn’s Historical Collections Department, photographs have originated from a variety of sources within the Cemetery (including business records, superintendent reports, and staff albums), and the collection actively grows through additional gifts and purchases. Over time, noted photographers, staff, and associates intimately familiar with the Cemetery have documented Mount Auburn. A broad range of formats and processes in the collection spans the history of the medium—from early salt prints, stereo views, glass-plate negatives, and lantern slides to 35mm slides, color prints, and digital images. Researchers will be fascinated to find evocative images of Story and Bigelow Chapels, monuments, and mausolea representing the funerary artwork of celebrated 19th– and 20th-century architects and sculptors; seasonal views of trees, horticulture, and landscape design; and intriguing documentary shots revealing the inner workings of the Cemetery, such as maintenance buildings, cemetery personnel, and Mount Auburn programs and events from the 19th century to the present.

In 2011 Curator of Historical Collections Meg Winslow spearheaded a number of exciting initiatives that will bring to light and encourage the use of these extensive visual resources. Consultants Sara Goldberg and Melissa Banta completed a detailed inventory of the photograph holdings. In the process of identifying and reorganizing the contents of more than 110 boxes, they viewed every photograph in the collection. A newly created index of subject headings will serve as a standard classification system with which to organize and access the photograph holdings as well as other collections throughout the Cemetery. Mount Auburn trustee and volunteer Caroline Loughlin is currently cataloguing photographs into the Collection’s database, which will provide ready access to the images through a number of search terms.

The photograph inventory also presented the opportunity to undertake critical preservation measures including removing light sensitive images for scanning; separating negatives from positives to ensure prints are stored separately from their originals; and placing collections in archival housing as needed. Volunteers Frances Pratt and Sue Carlson labeled, rehoused, and filed color Polaroids, which are especially susceptible to fading from exposure to light. Docent Stephen Pinkerton’s familiarity with the grounds enabled him to recognize sites captured in several photographs that were difficult to identify and lacked any documentation.

Original estimates of the number of photographs in the collection hovered around 6,000 images. After the massive reorganization of the holdings was complete, Olivia Tyson, a student from Arlington High School contributing community service hours, began to systematically review and account for every photograph in the collection. Only one third of the way through the files, she has already counted more than 5,700 images!

From sweeping aerial shots of the grounds to detailed views of grave markers, the collections offer ample opportunity for new discoveries about Mount Auburn’s varied and changing landscape and the history of the rural cemetery movement. “I can’t say how thrilled I am that we have accomplished this exciting project,” Meg Winslow notes. “As a result we have created another portal into the extraordinary—and still unplumbed—visual history of Mount Auburn.”

For further information about the photographic resources, please contact the Curator of Historical Collections, Meg L. Winslow at or 617-607-1942.

Selection of Highlights from Mount Auburn Photograph Collections

Bigelow Chapel, c. 1861. George Kendall Warren, Salted Paper Print.

A stunning view of Bigelow Chapel, taken by George Kendall Warren (1824-1884), appeared in an album he created for the Harvard College class of 1861. Harvard students who loved to walk in Mount Auburn referred to it as “Sweet Auburn,” and they often chose to include views of the Cemetery in their yearbooks. Warren used an early photographic technique known as salted paper print, the first negative-to-positive process, to create the image.

Funeral of Austin C. Wellington, September 23, 1888, Cabinet Card.

Cabinet Card photographs represented a popular photographic format from the mid to late 1800s. Prints, usually albumen, were mounted on cards of various sizes, which were widely distributed. This cabinet card offers an intimate view of the funeral of Austin C. Wellington, who served for many years in the Massachusetts militia. The image represents a rare documentary view of a funeral taking place at Mount Auburn.

The Sphinx, c. 1850, Union View Co. Publishers, Stereo View.

Introduced in the 1840s, stereo views (also known as stereographs) consisted of two prints affixed side by side on a cardboard mount. When viewed through a device known as a stereoscope, the images produced a three-dimensional scene. Millions of stereographs were produced in the U.S. and abroad, and stereo views and a stereoscope could be found in nearly every household parlor. Mount Auburn holds more than 350 stereo views, which were produced and distributed by well-known photographic studios. The three-dimensional scenes astounded audiences then and offer viewers today extraordinary details of the 19th-century Mount Auburn landscape.

Construction of McCormick Monument, Lot 7350, c. 1920s, John F. Peterson, Lantern Slide.

Mount Auburn holds over 110 lantern slides that provide unique scenes of the inner workings of the Cemetery including images of the crematorium in Bigelow Chapel, interior and exterior views of facility buildings, and the building of monuments, such as this view of the McCormick Monument taken in the 1920s.

Louis Agassiz Monument, c. 1905, Glass-Plate Negative.

Introduced in the 1850s, glass-plate negatives were an improvement over earlier paper negatives as the glass base provided a smoother surface and sharper image. Mount Auburn Cemetery holds 38 black-and-white glass-plate negatives. The majority of images show views of monuments and statues. This photograph of the gravesite of Louis Agassiz, professor of geology and zoology at Harvard, shows the Alpine boulder that was taken from the moraine of the Aar Glacier in Switzerland where Agassiz had studied.

Walnut Avenue, Lot 169, Planting and Monuments, 1905, Superintendent’s Report, Gelatin Silver Print.

The Superintendents’ Reports, also referred to as “Estimates of Perpetual Repair of Lots,” represented an important aspect of recordkeeping for Mount Auburn Cemetery. The documents include descriptions of each lot at the time it was assigned to perpetual care along with sketches of monuments or grave markers. Staff often attached small photographic prints to the reports. The documentary images provided a visual reference for the appearance of the lot in its entirety as well as detailed views of monuments and horticulture.

Aerial View, Mount Auburn Cemetery, June 13, 1937, Fairchild Aerial Survey, Gelatin Silver Print.

Intriguing aerial views were taken by the Fairchild Aerial Survey in 1937. This image documents the old Mount Auburn greenhouses, which were formerly located across Mount Auburn Street opposite the entrance to the Cemetery.

Damage from Hurricane, 1938, Gelatin Silver Print.

A number of snapshots taken after what was known as “the Great New England Hurricane” documents the damage done to Mount Auburn. The Cemetery lost over 800 trees at the time.

Winter Scene, c. 1930-1940, Arthur Cushman Haskell, Gelatin Silver Print.

The noted New England architectural photographer Arthur Cushman Haskell created an extensive collection of photographs of Mount Auburn in the 1930s and 40s. Haskell used an 8 x 10 inch view camera and developed black-and-white gelatin silver prints in a darkroom he constructed himself. The photographer’s crystal clear, beautifully composed images offer exceptionally fine details of the Cemetery including some exquisite winter scenes.

Auburn Lake, 2004. Richard Cheek, 35mm Color Slide.

Richard Cheek is a noted landscape and architectural photographer with an interest in recording and conserving the visual history of American architecture and landscape design. His images illustrate numerous publications, and his work been widely exhibited. His subjects at Mount Auburn include Bigelow Chapel, Consecration Dell, the Sphinx, Halcyon Lake, Washington Tower, and other views such as this painterly scene of Auburn Lake. He is currently working on a book of his photographs of the Cemetery, which is planned for 2012.

Perkins Dog, Central Avenue. November 2007. Jennifer Johnston, Digital Color Image.

For over a decade, Jennifer Johnston, Mount Auburn’s Media and Imaging Coordinator, has taken thousands of images and left behind a remarkable photographic record of the Cemetery—from funerary artwork to wildlife. Johnston’s glorious images of Mount Auburn sensitively capture the interplay of art and nature. Her works have been exhibited widely and are featured regularly in Mount Auburn publications.

by Melissa Banta, Historical Collections Consultant


About the Author: Melissa Banta

Consulting Curator, Historical Collections & Archives View all posts by Melissa Banta →

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