I spent the summer of 2000 documenting an endangered treasure of beautiful ceramic portraits at the Waldheim Jewish Cemetery, in Forest Park, IL. The large, Chicago-suburb cemetery has thousands of the ceramic portraits called "Dedos," which are images that are rendered with ceramic pigments and fired on a porcelain-covered copper plate beneath a protective transparent glaze. Many of them are more than a century old. Some of the original images are even older, made by the very first photographic processes in the 1840s and 1850s.
These ceramic portraits are astonishingly durable, having withstood a century and more of wind, rain, snow, hail, ultraviolet light, and acid rain that has dissolved away the features of nearby marble statuary. Unfortunately, they do not stand up to the rocks and BB guns of vandals. Many hundreds of these photographic treasures have already been damaged or completely destroyed.
Dedos for cemetery monuments were first made by the J.A. Dedouch Company, of Oak Park, IL in 1893. The family company continued to make the memorial photographic medallions using the founder's closely-guarded process until 2004, when the process and company were bought by PSM in Quebec, Canada. PSM is continuing to turn beloved photographs of the deceased into lasting memorial images for mourners to cherish and passersby to wonder about and admire.
To capture these images without the glare of the sun, I explored the cemetery looking for the most striking and moving portraits. I made notes and a crude map indicating where they were and what time of day would be best to return to photograph them, based on whether they were primarily facing east or west or -- if there were trees casting shadows over them -- when they would be clear of shadows. Here is a slide show of the most beautiful Dedos I photographed that summer.