When I was in art school a friend of mine shared a story from one of her classes that shocked me. The discussion had turned to the idea that at a certain point a photographer has nothing relevant to say and should just stop. The room full of 18-22 year olds and a teacher who had effectively lost their own drive to shoot collectively agreed that the age of expiration was about 30.
As a 29 year old returning student this made me want to scream into their faces and shake the sense back into them. Ageism haunts all of us in various forms, albeit women sooner, on more fronts and more dramatically. The field of photography is no exception. It already has an issue with sexism. Sixty-one percent more women than men are graduating from photography schools, but galleries represent anywhere from less than 20% to around only 40% women artists around the world. Only 13% of living artists represented by galleries in Europe and North America are women.
But these numbers, we know, don’t represent the talented, prolific and creative female photographers toiling away regardless of any hope of real recognition. Isn’t that the mark of a true artist? That drive to create for the sake of creating and saying what it is you need to say regardless if it falls on deaf ears? Age seems to fall into this category. Perhaps it is the general fear of getting older that is reinforced by billions of marketing dollars every year, or the unspoken understanding that if the subject of your photo isn’t under 25, dewy and pouty your photo will be scrolled past. Perhaps it is our unhealthy obsession with a very specific sort of beauty that is directly related to our underdeveloped understanding of sexuality and desirability that taints our ability to attach the appropriate value to people of a “certain age”. Luckily not everyone buys into the idea that we should hail the youth and drop the aged like a moldy sandwich.
Between 2002-2011 photographer, book artist and educator Ellen Wallenstein developed the series Respecting My Elders: Age and the Creative Spirit.
As we get older time seems to go faster: there is less ahead than behind us. I decided to photograph my elders after I myself turned fifty. I was interested in paying visual attention to people I had grown up admiring, who had influenced me artistically and intellectually. I am grateful for their time, attention and wisdom, and hope I have done them justice.
The resulting book is a collection of color portraits of creative persons over the age of eighty that dedicated their lives to book making, poetry, painting, photography, theater and performance, as well as important breakthroughs in education, philanthropy and the sciences. Wallenstein was driven by a desire to capture their spirit and beauty as well as honor their valuable contributions to their fields and future generations. Her photographs are bursting with a tender love of her subjects and are as playful and as individual as the subjects themselves.
Isadora Kosofsky is a documentary photographer, photojournalist, and filmmaker based in Los Angeles who focuses on “an immersive approach to photojournalism, spending months and years imbedded in the lives of the people she shadows.” Her project Senior Love Triangle is a “long-term photo documentary that shadows three aged individuals in a romantic conflict. They view their connection as a shield from the loneliness of aging. Through their relationship, Jean, Will and Adina challenge socio-cultural norms projected about the elderly. Jeanie, reflecting on her life, confides, “I do not wish to assume all the garments of maturity.” Jeanie seeks empowerment, reiterating, “I want to be free.”
For these individuals, aging is paradoxically a form of both loss and liberation.” Senior Love Triangle is at its most basic, a human story. No matter how old our bodies inevitably get we are the same people with the same needs, hopes, fears, excitement, ideas, passions and skills we’ve always had. Kosofsky does a brilliant job sharing this truth with us and honoring her subjects. Her new book of the project is launching this fall.
I am going to end this on discussing a refreshing, positive changing trend in online fashion photography. In the mainstream fashion industry the average age of a model is 16-18 with some starting as early as 13 and some agencies not accepting new models over 21. If one considers who these models are being used to sell to, the numbers are obviously absurd and severely lacking in true to life representation. Like most social issues we discuss, accurate representation is a key factor in changing general attitudes and ideas. This is one of those few moments where we can all be thankful for social media, because it has created an easily digestible place for some amazing women challenging the age gap in fashion and our preconceived notions of mature representation. Some of my personal favorites are Helen Ruth Elem Van Winkle (@baddiewinkle), Lyn Slater (@iconaccidental), Sarah Jane Adams (@saramaijewels), Yasmin Furmie (@yasminfurmie), Mel Kobayashi (@bagandaberet), Arlinda (@funkingafter50), Fanny Karst (@fannykarst) and couple @bonpon511.
Each of these women has a unique approach to self expression and empowerment through fashion. They effectively buck the idea that women and artists are supposed to fade into the background at a “certain age”. Their approach is a celebration of life, creativity and individuality instead of a slow mourning of what was, as we are often taught. These women have no desire to fade into the background and remind us that we never should. Like fine wines and cheese, we get better with age, so flaunt it celebrate it and share it with the world whether it's through self expression, art or how you live your life.