Some thoughts about a workshop I attended in the context of Sukey Parnell’s new project. (see my post on http://www.oldwomaninfeaturefilms.wordpress.com). 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 (advancedstyle.blogspot.com/), 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 (http://www.meisstudio.gr) 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.