In 1947 America’s most notorious mobster, Al Capone, died after a long struggle with syphilis. The family shipped the casket to Chicago and buried “Big Al” beside the Capone monument in Mount Olivet Cemetery. This headstone displayed porcelain photographs of Al’s father Gabriele and brother Salvatore, both of whom had died in the 1920s. But after Al’s burial, hoards of tourists beat a path to the gravesite, and a souvenir seeker pried the portraits off the tombstone. The family moved Al’s grave to a different cemetery, but the monument remains with two empty ovals that once held portraits—a testimony to a vanishing art form.
The porcelain photographs and their fate are not reserved for the rich and infamous, though. This memorial is most common among the working class and ethnic groups from Southern and Eastern Europe. In the United States, thousands of early 20th-century tombstones display ceramic photographs. “Anyone who encounters these images . . . knows how intimate and captivating they are,” says Gary Collison, editor of Markers, the journal of the Association for Gravestone Studies. “They provide encounters with the living in the very land of the dead.” But the portraits are disappearing due to vandalism and neglect.
Few people seemed to care about their loss until Ron Horne set out to document them with his digital camera. In 1999, Horne was strolling in Colma, California’s, historic Holy Cross Cemetery, when he found the haunting face of Louise Bajada, who died in 1928 at age 11. “I was shocked to discover it was a photograph,” says Horne. “What technology from the early 20th century could produce a photograph that could survive for 70 years outdoors?” After some research, he learned that very little had been written on the subject so he decided to document these artifacts himself.
The result, Forgotten Faces: A Window Into Our Immigrant Past, showcases more than 350 images of porcelain photographs mounted on tombstones. This book—the first in a series covering portraits in Chicago, New York City, and other cities—concentrates on Colma. Ten miles south of San Francisco, Colma houses 17 cemeteries and is the nation’s only incorporated city where the dead outnumber the living by tens of thousands to one. As Horne discovered, it also boasts the nation’s most diverse collection of photo-ceramic portraits. Those from Holy Cross alone date from 1899 to 1947 and portray African Americans and immigrants from at least 28 nations. “As a collection, they tell us two immediate things about American life in the early 20th century,” says Horne. “We were truly a nation of many nations, and times were hard. People died young.” Two-thirds of the Holy Cross portraits depict people who died before age 30.
Memorial portraiture is an ancient art, but before photography only the rich could afford to commission sculptures or paintings of themselves. Photography made portraiture available to ordinary people for the first time in history.
Americans have been attaching photographs to tombstones since the era of the daguerreotype, a process in which light was exposed to silver-coated metallic plates. But enamel photographs proved far more durable. In 1854 two French inventors patented a method for fixing a photographic image on enamel or porcelain by firing it in a kiln. These “enamels” were used for home viewing well into the 20th century, when the more convenient paper photos replaced them. The custom of attaching ceramic photos to tombstones spread throughout Southern and Eastern Europe and Latin America. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Italian and Jewish immigrants brought this practice to the United States. “Ceramic photo portraits . . . represent the first period in the history of gravestone manufacture in the United States when intense personalization became available—and affordable—on a large-scale basis,” says Richard E. Meyer, a professor at Western Oregon State College who has studied American cemeteries for more than 25 years. During the first decade of the 1900s, Sears-Roebuck advertised: “Imperishable Limoges porcelain portraits preserve the features of the deceased . . .” At “$11.20 for a photograph set in marble, $15.75 for one set in granite,” these portraits “competed with the cost of many burial plots.” But the prices were cheap compared to the cost of statuary.
Artisans are still manufacturing enamel photographs, but the process has changed significantly. Early 20th-century craftspeople used chlorides or nitrates of gold, platinum, palladium, and iridium—stable metals that resisted degeneration from heat, sunlight, and other chemicals and gave the photographs a sepia tone. These portraits could last more than 100 years. Contemporary artisans no longer use precious metals, which would make their products prohibitively expensive.
The early 20th-century enamels are vanishing quickly. Located in the poorer sections of cemeteries, which don’t have trusts for their upkeep, the portraits fall prey to thieves, vandals, sunlight, and time. Horne urges us to document these artifacts. Meyer underscores their historical value, “Through them we can track the changing tides of religious belief, immigration patterns, disease vectors, artistic tastes, and a host of other factors. . . . When we gaze at a photograph on a gravestone, a bond is established which no other type of memorial can quite generate. If to know history is to know those who lived it, photo markers go a long way toward making that seemingly unattainable goal possible.”
Lisa Montanarelli is a San Francisco-based writer.
When looking for photo-ceramic portraits, visit older Jewish and Catholic cemeteries and sections of secular cemeteries devoted to ethnic groups from Southern and Eastern Europe and Latin America.
To document the portraits, Horne recommends taking four photographs: one of the entire stone, one of the surrounding area (so you can locate the stone again), a close-up of the epitaph, and a close-up of the portrait. With a macro or zoom lens and a tripod, you can take high-resolution photos that can be reproduced or enlarged. Don’t use a flash. Use a reflector card or white umbrella to reflect sunlight onto shadowed areas for more even lighting. To clean an early 20th-century porcelain photograph, use only a soft cloth and water. Acetone and alcohol-based cleansers will permanently cloud the glaze.—LM