Photographing autumn traditions: Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) 

Photographers in the United States love fall. Whether it’s football, autumn chill, leaves turning color, family gatherings, or Halloween, it’s a very photogenic time of year. However, for many of us living in the Southwest, The vibrant Mexican holiday of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is also a huge holiday. For photographers, it’s a dream come true, an intoxicating blend of culture, amazing aesthetics, family, friends, color, tradition, history, gathering, and love

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

The rise of Dia de los Muertos

In recent years, this holiday has gone mainstream here in this country. Years ago, I had to explain this holiday to my friends in the Midwest or the East Coast. Not so much any more. Indeed, with the 2017 Disney and Pixar film “Coco”, the Mexican tradition has largely been embraced throughout the United States. While “Coco” may not be the most authentic amalgamation of the Mexican holiday, it does indicate how meaningful the holiday is throughout the country.

There are events in most major cities, typically festivals, art walks, concerts, altar exhibitions, food, and more. While customs may vary, traditionally family and friends focus on the memories of deceased loved ones. 

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

The biggest event in Los Angeles is at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Here, face painting and costumes show up in a big way, perhaps a more recent phenomenon for this holiday. And there are many booths that will paint your face so that it resembles a sugar skull.

Sugar skulls (calavera de azugar) figure prominently. People create these skulls for children or as offerings to be placed on altars (ofrendas). They are made of sugar paste and often decorated with colorful icing.

What is Dia de los Muertos?

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

Dia de los Muertos is about gathering families and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died. Traditions include building private altars honoring the deceased, using sugar skulls and the favorite foods, beverages, and objects of the departed. Historians trace the origins to indigenous observances 2500-3000 years ago as well as to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl.

What I find appealing is that when I view altars, I often feel like I sort of know the person. Altars can be sad, sure, but they also can be beautiful, funny, inspirational, and more. Throughout, a genuine sweetness permeates the occasion. I find that utterly appealing. 

I love the aesthetics and sentiment of the holiday. The candles, rituals, altars, face painting, sugar skulls, vibrancy, and love – all of it.

What can I photograph?

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

Really, everything. You may have enough time to photograph everything!

I personally love photographing people. People are happy to pose for photos. Even if you are shy about approaching people, this is one event where you can cast that aside. But certainly, the altars, marigolds, sugar skulls, flags, skeletons, dancing, musical performances, art, graphics, and more will appeal to all but the most jaded photographer. Give your children some cameras and watch them have fun for hours.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Los Angeles, California.

VISIT ME, VISIT ME!

MY WEBSITE:
Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure photos.  My latest book, “Abandoned Southern California: The Slowing of Time” is available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review.

SOCIAL MEDIA:
Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)
Instagram

PODCAST:
Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020

VIDEO INTERVIEW:
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night

ARTICLES:
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols

 

 

4 thoughts on “Photographing autumn traditions: Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) 

  1. Beautiful photographs. I don’t often come across photos of this celebration in black and white because it’s a colorful festival. However, these black and white photos do no ask for color.

    1. Thank you very much, Alessandra!

      There are many photos of Dia de los Muertos that celebrate color. I was interested in conveying a feel of timelessness and sense of tradition. And of course, I wanted my photos to look different from others. I tried this, and it felt right. It also seemed to convey more emotional weight, so I went with it.

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