Fort Fairfield photographer casts light on the dead with new book

Posted June 12, 2011, at 11 a.m.
The tombstone of Henry Houlton, the son of Joseph Houlton, who founded the community of Houlton in 1807, is pictured in Evergreen Cemetery in Houlton. The image is pictured in Faded Away, the inaugural photography art table book authored by 38-year-old Fort Fairfield artist Jason Grass.
Photo courtesy of Jason Grass
The tombstone of Henry Houlton, the son of Joseph Houlton, who founded the community of Houlton in 1807, is pictured in Evergreen Cemetery in Houlton. The image is pictured in Faded Away, the inaugural photography art table book authored by 38-year-old Fort Fairfield artist Jason Grass.
Sunlight streams through trees next to a mausoleum in Evergreen Cemetery in Houlton. Jason Grass, a Fort Fairfield artist, has created a 162 page photography art table book entitled Faded Away, which depicts images from eight cemeteries in Aroostook County. He will host a book signing at the University of Maine at Presque Isle on June 17.
Photo courtesy of Jason Grass
Sunlight streams through trees next to a mausoleum in Evergreen Cemetery in Houlton. Jason Grass, a Fort Fairfield artist, has created a 162 page photography art table book entitled Faded Away, which depicts images from eight cemeteries in Aroostook County. He will host a book signing at the University of Maine at Presque Isle on June 17.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A few years ago, Jason Grass felt that everyone he loved was dying.

The 38-year-old Fort Fairfield resident was serving in the U.S. Navy, and distressing news found him no matter where he was.

“It seemed like every other day I was getting a phone call from someone, saying that a family member had died,” he recalled Wednesday. “Both in my own family and my wife’s family, death just kept coming and coming. We spent a lot of time at cemeteries.”

It was among the stones in the burial grounds of Aroostook County that Grass found inspiration for his first book, a 162-page photography table book titled, “Faded Away.”

Grass, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Maine at Presque Isle, will hold a book signing 1-3 p.m. Friday, June 17, at the college. The signing will take place in the Owl’s Nest in the Campus Center.

“As I spent more and more time in these cemeteries, I began to notice the names on the stones and the conditions of these stones,” said Grass. “Some of these stones were so crumbled and decayed that you could not even see who was buried there anymore. And I also found the gravestones of some of the founders of these communities, and some of their graves weren’t in very good condition. I just decided to start taking pictures, to capture these graves and statues and the other landmarks in these cemeteries before time eroded them even further.”

Grass found that he had a talent for photography in the mid-1990s, when he studied for his private investigator’s license. He had to purchase a state-of-the-art camera and accompanying equipment to perform some of his duties. He found that he loved taking pictures and decided to make it his career. He secured his degree from UMPI in 2009 and also studied at the New York Institute of Photography. He now teaches photography privately and also for the Fort Fairfield Adult Education program.

“I think that some of the premise for ‘Faded Away’ was that I hoped that people would be inspired to do something about the condition of these stones,” he said. “Most of these stones were erected in the 1700s and 1800s, so there aren’t always family members left to care for them. The churches and cemetery caretakers don’t always have the money, either. But I wanted to memorialize these resting places while I could and make sure that loved ones are remembered.”

The pictures in “Faded Away” show gravestones covered in moss or riddled with cracks. The lettering on many is no longer legible. Some stones are tipping onto other grave markers. In one photograph, an angel sculpture prays through disintegrating hands.

He also captures a great deal of local history. In Evergreen Cemetery in Houlton, for instance, he took pictures of the stones of members of the family who founded the town in 1807. One photograph depicts the gravestone of Henry Houlton, the son of town founder Joseph Houlton. Henry Houlton’s stone is cracked, blackened and difficult to read. In another snapshot, sunlight filters through the trees next to an aged mausoleum housing the remains of a husband and wife.

Grass spent an entire day in Evergreen Cemetery and also spent considerable time at cemeteries in Fort Fairfield, Caribou and Presque Isle. The book showcases black-and-white photos from eight cemeteries in all.

“In the almost two years’ work of putting this book together, I learned a lot not only about myself but also about those whose plots I was visiting,” he said. “One of the most poignant things I came to understand is that we put so much effort into creating these final resting places, but as years stretch into generations, these places become degraded and worn, and the distant descendants of these departed have stopped maintaining their family plots. My purpose was to then document those forgotten souls so that no matter how much further the stones degrade, we have a record of how they are right now.”

Grass said he is thinking about future books in the same genre. He would like to travel the nation and photograph burial sites at Gettysburg and other Civil War grounds.

Jason’s book is available for purchase online at MonkeyPublishing.com.

For information about the June 17 book signing or about “Faded Away,” contact Grass at jgrass1@maine.rr.com or 227-9653. You can also visit his website, www.jasongrass.com.

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