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Student photo exhibit pays tribute to those lost to COVID-19 in New York nursing homes

Intimate film photographs of headstones, blooming graveyard flowers and ornate mausoleums ring the third-floor Weitz lounge overlooking the lobby. Through 14 striking images, organized in seven framed pairs, CAMS major Astrid Malter ’23 seeks to portray Brooklyn’s famous Greenwood Cemetery throughout the seasons of 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I spent a lot of time off from Carleton. I was sent home my freshman spring like everyone else, then I went to Denmark, and then I decided to stay home that Winter Term,” said Malter, explaining the origins of the project. “I was figuring out ways to connect with school and thinking about how beautiful the cemetery was on this one winter morning and thought: maybe I could do something with this!”

With funding from Carleton’s Donelson Fellowship, which intends to fund student projects that encapsulate the “spirit of a liberal arts education,” Malter purchased Kodak Ektar 100 film and set out to photograph the vast cemetery. 

New York City emerged in early 2020 as the site of one of the worst outbreaks of the early pandemic. Images of trenches dug on Governor’s Island to bury bodies and corpses lingering in trucks on the street made headlines across the world. According to Malter, Greenwood Cemetery — a 478-acre, 184 year-old cemetery near the Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace neighborhoods of Brooklyn — became a haven for city dwellers seeking solitary time outdoors. 

“I’ve been walking in Greenwood my whole life,” she explained. “I used to walk through the cemetery to elementary school, but other people just discovered it during the pandemic. And I thought it was very noble for them to extend their hours because they recognized their importance to the community. Greenwood is special because it’s one of the only places in Brooklyn where you can walk for miles and not see another soul.” 

By dividing the 14 photographs into pairs, Malter sought to capture how the changing seasons affect the sense of space and the textures of a given place. “I was paying attention to how full an environment can seem when there’s a lot of greenery,” said Malter.

She also wanted to portray themes of life and death during a period of mass mourning in America’s largest city. In one set of photographs, the scrunched faces of koi crowd the camera lense, while next to it brown tips of grass swim in the dusk light. Another set places a row of squat graves alongside an intricate stone carving of Jesus, crowned with richly leafed branches and flanked by Italian-language headstones. 

Malter also created a palm-sized, black-and-white zine with illustrations that visitors to the exhibit are free to take. In laconic but personal prose, the zine introduces the reader to the cemetery, explains its role during the pandemic and explores the artist’s relationship to the place. Its penultimate page celebrates the cemetery that remains “relatively constant in a borough where things are rapidly changing.” The exhibition is dedicated to those who died of COVID-19 in New York nursing homes.

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