These photographs and the essay below come from “Respecting My Elders,” a book of color portraits by my friend Ellen Wallenstein. The book contains images of 30 artists, musicians, and writers, all over the age of 80. Among them are Edward Albee, Lois Dodd, Milton Glaser, Francine du Plessix Gray, Wolf Kahn, Richard Howard, and Dr. Billy Taylor. Each portrait is accompanied by a quote, and a set of catalogue notes in the back describes each person’s accomplishments and the photographer’s experience shooting the pictures.
Wallenstein raised funds for this project via the micro-philanthropy site, UnitedStatesArtists.org. Over 200 people contributed. It was a great honor for me to write her introduction which follows.
It can feel strange to a writer or an artist to become the subject of someone else’s creation: to have the focus shift from what is inside one’s head to what’s on the front of it.
Some of us chose our lonely pursuits for a reason.
Some of us feel awkward about aging.
Some of us have been using the same publicity photo since we were 35.
Yet Ellen Wallenstein’s project of honoring creative artists over 80 by photographing them and displaying their images in the company of their peers takes us beyond reservations and preconceptions.
There is something riveting in these portraits that is difficult to pinpoint and harder to name. Judith Malina’s smile, Milton Glaser’s eyebrow, Edward Albee’s elegant hands, Ruth Gruber’s cheerful indomitability — these are magnificent, but IT is more than these things. It suffuses the air of the pictures; it is incorporeal.
Ellen and I have been friends since the 1970s, when we were both relative beginners, she with the camera, I with the pen. Now we are have become, if not older artists, younger older artists. We are beginning to see what happens when one has been at the work a long time. When art becomes the way you live, how you cope, who you are. When there is no other way to spend a day. When it is your window on the world and the world’s window into you. Not just second nature, but first.
Perhaps no artist is more truly represented by his or her face than an older one. When youth is gone, spirit lights up the architecture. Ellen’s reverent, precise, exquisitely composed photos teach us what to see in these visages — not just noses, cheekbones, eyelids, and hairdos but irony, amusement, rue, daring, defiance, wisdom, self-assurance, contentment. And something more.
Perhaps it is the ennobling power of devotion to craft. Aged in the bottle, seasoned with time.
By placing the subjects in their studios and homes, by giving them their books, their paintings, their memories, their totems, by infusing them with warmth and color, Ellen’s photos reverse the taking-away that is the toll of growing old. The fading, the depredations, the losses, the weariness. Here instead is the richness of a consciously-created life.
Rosalind Solomon, cradling her Peruvian hat. Editta Sherman, flirting with her dinosaur camera. Francine du Plessix Gray’s poodle, coiffed to match her mistress. Richard Howard in his famous red spectacles.
The paint-box in Sylvia Sleigh’s hands, spilling into the luminous lavender of her dress and blooms. Wolf Kahn, carving from raw color his stance in the world.
Some of the images in this collection represent the last public portrait of a person who has already left us. Other subjects will be seen at their corner grocery stores for years to come. Nobody is going gentle into anything here. These photos vibrate with the energy of the threshold.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.