Ageing and Photos

Some thoughts about a workshop I attended in the context of Sukey Parnell’s new project.   (see  my post on They are thoughts of a personal nature that occurred to me as a result of the experience of being part of a group of women who commented on portraits of old women.

In my childhood I remember that as the only girl in the family,  I rebelled against being treated differently from my brothers. Whether this extended to the way I was made to dress I cannot remember. But I remember very clearly that when my brother reached his 13th birthday (bar mitzvah age)  he was given among other substantial presents  a Kodak camera. I was 11 and very envious, knowing that I would not get the same shower of gifts on my 13th birthday. I was fascinated by the camera and wanted to handle this wonderful machine. I sneaked into his bedroom and started to handle the camera. I damaged the film  not knowing what I was doing and was thoroughly told off.

In my teens I lived in a multi ethnic country where the veil as well as summer dresses with short sleeves mixed freely. However the display of much flesh – shorts, deep decolletes – were not considered acceptable. I bought myself a camera and shunning the usual snapshots being taken at the time I fancied myself as a superior photographer. This interest faded away when I left the family home. Appearance has never been for me an important part of  my ‘self’. I did wear a little make up but very rarely looked at myself in the mirror. I had enough attention from young men  in a wide circle of friends not to need to strive to attract them. I relied more on the pleasure of sharing activities with them than the pleasure of being looked at  with desire.   I resented the tyranny of shaving legs, plucking eyebrows,  going to the hairdresser (a weekly chore in our circle), the painful high heels (trousers were not worn by women at this time). It is in the 80s that I felt liberated and decided to do away with anything I did not feel comfortable in or wasted my precious time. Now at 78 I only wear inconspicuous trousers and t-shirts or blouses.

This background is  to explain my reaction to the old woman who came to the session wearing a an amazingly beautiful confection of bows and ribbons and other artefacts for a hat.  A skirt and top of many layers, colours and shapes completed what I call the  “look at me” style. I was neither shocked nor intrigued. I often see on the London Tube an old woman who is dressed in pink from hat to shoes wheeling a pink suitcase. I have old women friends who consider dressing  a performance and when I came across Ari Seth Cohen’s site (, I enjoyed the photos but they never touched me or enlighten me. The same occurs when portraits of old women, mainly faces are shown, like Harriet Walter’s exhibition at the South Bank a few years ago. All I can think is yes, great and take note of facial expressions and clothes.

Over the years I have collected images of old women: postcards, magazine covers, calendars and projects by individual photographers. Three images remain in my head: an old woman at market in India sitting on the floor behind a pyramid of guavas. (V.B. photographer); the other a postcard ( is of two Greek old women talking to each other. They carry big bundles of vegetation – flowers?, herbs ? One is seen from the back the other in profile, both are dressed in black from shoes to headscarf  .  The third photos is by Cartier Bresson – Brasserie Lip 1969 – a cafe than I pass regularly when I am in Paris. There are two women sitting at tables.  In the background, an old woman is holding a newspaper, but she is looking at a young woman in miniskirt with her hair hiding her face. The first two photos are beautifully lit and composed.  The third one intrigues me. It would be a wonderful tool to use in  intergenerational discussions  about old and young women.

The three series of  photos of old women are photos all taken by women photographers. Amber Larder produced a small book “Retired Notions” for her graduate project: the portraits within this book are of individuals who represent the social participation of the retired population of our society, a community which is commonly portrayed as passive and dependent . The subjects, both men and women seen in an environment that they chose also provide a statement.  

Olivia Mc. Gilchrist took photos of the members of Older Feminist Network for the Women’s Resource Centre. The women stand straight and look straight into the camera in their everyday clothing. But the collection also show these women socialising around a buffet or in the middle of a meeting.

Rose Osbourne’s photos of  Women in Black in Australia are more dramatic and appeal to me the most. Not specifically about older women, the majority of the peace activists were old. The black and white photos emphasise the message. The women are dressed in black and hold a placard  with a white peace dove sketch.  The  dove and the women’s face are paired: various faces, same dove.

In this reflection on my relationship with photography I try to understand my gut reaction to the photo at Sukey’s workshop. Whereas the images I talked about above stimulated my intellect, that image hit me. I did away with all my critical faculties, I would need more theoretical background to understand this effect. It is the movement in the photo that striked me. The woman as an individual disappeared and all I could see was movement.  But the flowing grey hair and the outstretched arm also signified the ageing body.

Did this photo provide for me a fantasy of free body movement at a time when I feel less nimble than in my youth? For that brief moment I certainly wanted to be her.



I feel encouraged to notice that this blog has attracted the attention of at least one person who keyed in ‘feminist ageing’ on a search engine. I had given up.

I am still surprised to notice how strong is the abhorrence of white hair in women. I am a member of a  mixed gender discussion group. At our gathering this week I overheard two of the women declaring to each other that they dyed their hair and felt much better about their age.. Both of the women consider themselves feminists. It is not that I would like to dictate how old feminist should behave or that I  believe it is ‘wrong’ to dye your hair but I despair that this prime sign of age  is being hidden and disguised. Personally I think that dyed hair looks artificial and makes women look hard.

I despair because it seems that ageing is not much discussed by feminist women. Even in the OFN – older feminist network – the interest is more towards general feminist issues and very rarely about ageing and feminism. How does a feminist age? What are our experiences and feelings?

Has the sisterhood forgotten older women?  is a compendium of essays published by ILC-UK . It remains a publication for scholars of ageing. None of my feminist friends have heard  of it or show any interest in looking at it. It is true that we are very busy women engaged in a variety of campaigns but sometimes I think it would be good to share our experiences.

In a way it is good to see that the moribund film group I had started on my retirement has been revived by younger women and ageing is being talked about in our discussions.