There are lots of reasons not to be photographed as you enter the sixth decade of your life. Particularly if, like me, you’ve never really enjoyed being in front of a camera. The main one is that we live in a visual culture that fetishes youth and bombards us with images of smooth, wrinkle-free skin (even if it has to resort to Photoshop to do so). At the half-century point you have to acknowledge that, although youthfulness is still up for grabs, youth itself does not belong to you but to another generation. How, in that context, do photographs of women in their fifites hold up?
We celebrate birthdays, but not their side-effect, ageing. The shelves in the chemist are laden with promises: Age Defying, Time Delay, Youth Maintain, Age Reversal, Age Control, Time Resist… But we can’t delay or resist time, because we are temporal beings. And if we learn to dread the future, if we are constantly mourning our past appearance and lost youth, how are we to exist and enjoy life in the present? (Big Pharma doesn’t care about that, it just sells us more face creams.) We know there is more to ageing than wrinkles, that with the passage of years comes a richer inner life, greater self-knowledge, the joys of parenthood perhaps, a sense of the bigger picture, even (if we’re lucky) a degree of wisdom … Can photographs, which capture the external, manage to tell that side of the story, especially in today’s climate?
There are also reasons to be photographed. Until recently, older women have seemed largely invisible in our youth-obsessed, image-led era. But there are signs of hope: the BBC stands reprimanded for ageism, and the age of the highest-earning female stars in Hollywood is going up. To make sure the tide actually does turn, women whose careers are not in front of a camera lens need to stand up and be seen, tempted as they may be to hide away. If we behave as if we are not viewable, if we subscribe to the cult of youth at the expense of ourselves, we should not be surprised if we do indeed feel invisible. We cannot on the one hand complain that older women are overlooked and on the other not be prepared to represent them. So, when Kristin asked me to take part in her “This is 50″ project, I said yes.
Kristin, as I probably don’t need to point out, is a perfectionist, with an artist’s sense of light and shape. She understands the subtle eloquence of images – and therefore also how they can be abused. And she uses her non-verbal medium to ask questions and make us think. Here in these pictures, for example, with the juxtaposition of make-up and artist’s equipment, she nudges us to ponder how we are invited, expected even, to paint away the years with a mask of make-up. The picture of the lipstick marks on the inner forearm hints at the grey area in the relationship between self-harm and the pursuit of beauty. The half-lotus position (if you can call it that) could be a metaphor for the contortions we go through – or are urged to go through – to “maintain” ourselves. And the blindfold seems to ask about what we see and what we choose not to: do we conspire in the invisibility of the older woman? do we fail to see ourselves as we really are?
I went straight from this photo shoot to a life-drawing class, so I went from being the person looked at to the person doing the looking. It felt much more comfortable to be the observer not the observed, to be holding the piece of charcoal rather than looking into the lens. And that comfort, I realised, is what we are up against in ourselves. As we get older, it is easier to be camera-shy than to be visible. Thinking about that, as I sketched happily away, made me glad that I’d let Kristin point her camera in my direction.
Rebecca Willis is Associate Editor of Intelligent Life, The Economist’s bi-monthly features magazine, and writes the Applied Fashion column
Rebecca 1961 | this is 50
2013 July 4