A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In this article, Healy fulfills a promise made last year to fellow Lomographer @sirio174 by writing about Argentina’s most famous cemetery, along with her most recent images.
Last August, I published an article in the Lomography Magazine about the biggest cemetery in Buenos Aires, known as La Chacarita, which I consider a great place to photograph. Fellow lomographer and magazine contributor @sirio174 then asked: "Well what about the most famous cemetery in Buenos Aires, La Recoleta in the Barrio Norte, the posh Northern district of the city?" It is certainly the one every tourist wants to see, especially to visit the family vault of the most famous Argentinean celebrity resting in La Recoleta: Eva Duarte de Perón, Evita.
Davide was right to ask, of course, and I had to confess that I could not find a single image taken in la Recoleta. I had not been back to photograph it since my days learning basic photography in Buenos Aires. So I promised that I would make a pilgrimage on my next trip, and shoot the place with every camera at hand. This past February, accompanied with one of my intrepid goddaughters and her many cameras, I braved the insanely hot temperatures of the southern summer in order to fulfill my promise. Because I cannot really help myself, I also thought I’d do one of my little unscientific experiments and shoot the same image with different cameras and film. You have to wonder from where my goddaughters get it… Hours later, while sitting down under the huge ombú tree across the square from the Cemetery, soaking up some much-needed refreshments at Café La Biela, Fía took an image of our cameras on the table with her phone and immediately posted it with the explanation: “They are all necessary.”
But let’s do a recap of the history of the Recoleta, something I touched upon in my previous article. The cemetery is built on land originally occupied by the Franciscan monks of the sub-order of the Recoletos and a church, Our Lady of Pilar (Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Pilar), built in 1732. The order was disbanded in 1822 and the garden of the convent was converted into the first public cemetery in Buenos Aires, with the layout and general design done by French civil engineer Próspero Catelin. The area was fairly uninhabited in 1822, but with cholera and yellow fever epidemics hitting Buenos Aires hard in the 1870s, well-heeled porteños moved from the more southern areas of the city (up to that point, THE place to live) to the Recoleta area, which was on higher ground and considered better ventilated, and therefore, healthier. To this day, the streets surrounding the Cemetery remain lined by lovely old trees and breathtaking mansions, as well as stately apartment buildings built in the 1930s and 1940s. The real estate surrounding the cemetery and the church is so valuable that you can look up from the angels atop the vaults and see modern buildings right beyond the brick fence. The neighborhood has surrounded the cemetery completely.
In some cases, the contrast between the modern surroundings and the classic statuary is quite surprising.
Having been founded barely six years after Argentina became an independent republic, Recoleta Cemetery became the resting place of many celebrated soldiers and patriots as well as of the early millionaires of the young country. If some of the vaults look like they have been around for almost 200 years it is because they have. Here is one of them, seen with three of my cameras, Holga pinhole, LC-A 120, and Holga 135BC (with some cropping). You can see in the latter one, close-up and in color, how much deterioration the building shows.
Known by its lovely statuary, la Recoleta is a showcase for classic religious art—not just on the outside of the vaults but also inside, in the form of stained glass, religious carvings, and even some of the wrought-iron grilles that operate as doors. Like I mentioned in the Chacarita Cemetery article, a great many of these vaults have been abandoned. No upkeep means broken windows, and for photographers, that means a chance to peek inside, even to slide the cameras through windows and grilles to capture the peeling paint and decaying religious artifacts.
You cannot have such an old cemetery without ghosts and spirits, and I think my pinhole caught a few that Monday.
In spite of the heat and of it being a public holiday (Carnival Monday), there were masses of tourists roaming the narrow alleys of the Recoleta that day. Fía and I lost track of how many times we were asked whether we knew where Evita’s family vault was. We knew, we sent them to the correct quadrant (It is sheer impossibility to give accurate directions in a cemetery… “Make a sharp right when you get to the white angel”?) and suggested they follow the rest of the crowd once in the general area. And then we ourselves went so that we could shoot a few images for the purposes of this article. The Duarte family vault is an example of mid-century black marble restraint. If it weren’t for its famous occupant, and the constant homage of flowers and candles left by the many who loved her, it would be impossible to single out.
In a way, I owe my very existence to the Recoleta Cemetery. My maternal grandparents first met while each was paying their respects to deceased relatives on the Day of the Dead in 1924. My grandfather was still in medical school, so they had to wait a few years until they were able to get married next door, in our Lady of Pilar Church, built by those long forgotten monks, the Recoletos.
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.