David Matterhorn, an artist who has been in East Hampton since 1987 and now calls Montauk home, did not intend to spend the last four years photographing the dashes on gravestones.
“I had Lyme disease in 2008,” he recalled. “It wasn’t a fun time.”
Mr. Matterhorn was finishing a book, and consumed with the realities of his illness, when he met with a friend at the American Hotel. “My friend told me, ‘Life is about the dash. Do you want to make your life about this illness?’ ”
Mr. Matterhorn’s friend was referring obliquely to a popular poem by Linda Ellis called “The Dash,” frequently read at funerals, about the importance of living your life “in the dash,” that space between the birth year and death year on a gravestone.
“I had never realized how symbolic that space was,” he said. He began shooting close-ups of the dashes on headstones at cemeteries in East Hampton and Sag Harbor.
“I became fascinated with the lichen, the mold, all the meaning behind it.”
“Then I went to Jackson Pollock’s grave.” Pollock is buried at Green River Cemetery on Accabonac Road in Springs — the final resting place of many great artists and writers.
“It really moved me,” Mr. Matterhorn said. “It’s a teeny dash, made of patinaed metal. It was visually impactful, so powerful when you take into consideration his age, only 44, and the person behind it.”
That is what started the Dash Project, which has taken Mr. Matterhorn from Los Angeles to Paris to Seattle, shooting the dashes on the headstones of famed artists, writers, sports figures, and others.
“My interest is music heavy,” he said, which is why he went to Seattle to capture the dash of Jimi Hendrix, to Paris for Jim Morrison, and various other places to memorialize the memorials to his jazz heroes like Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, and Duke Ellington, among others.
Some of the dashes aren’t really dashes, he pointed out. For Charles Bukowski — the hard-drinking poet and writer who died in 1994 — there is a boxer in mid-punch. For Aaliyah, the music sensation and actress who died in a plane crash in 2001, there is blank space set against pink marble.
A show of these images opened on Sept. 14 at the New York City gallery of John McWhinnie @ Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, on East 64th Street. There is also a McWhinnie-Horowitz presence on Newtown Lane in East Hampton. The show runs through Oct. 8.
Mr. Matterhorn admits that the Web site findagrave.com has made his pursuit a little easier. “It’s a cool site,” he said. “If you look up one person, it will let you know if anyone else famous is buried in the same cemetery.”
That was how he was led, when shooting Thelonius Monk’s gravestone, to the grave of Jam Master Jay of the influential rap group Run-D.M.C., who was shot to death in a recording studio in 2002. The golden dash slices through the brown background, but already has streaks of tarnish and mold on it.
Mr. Matterhorn calls it “a great dash — a really emotional one.”
This mission has also led Mr. Matterhorn to create a related iPhone app, which can be downloaded from his Web site, davidmatterhorn.com.
“You enter the answers to 15 questions, and it gives you an idea of your life span,” he said. The app is set against the background of different dash photos.
“We all know what our approximate expected life span is,” he said. “This shows you choices you can make to affect it, like how much sleep you get a night. Even with something as simple as sleep, you can drastically alter your life span.”
In relation to his continuing Dash Project, “Some people have said to me, ‘This is so morbid,’ ” Mr. Matterhorn said with a smile. “But I’m a light person. This isn’t about death. To me, the dash is about life.”