My final choice of theme for this assignment was actually an instant reflex thought when I first read through the assignment brief, but I played around with a number of ideas for the images whilst considering completely different options (including the racism idea). I returned full circle to this idea and eventually settled on a quite specific series of images.
The idea is that women become invisible as they age. They are ‘unseen‘. Preposterous I know! But there are many articles written on the subject and I read around a few to get a sense of what it was all about beyond the obvious loss of a ‘youthful look’. One article written by Kate Braestrup, a writer from Maine, USA and serving chaplain on search and rescue missions, specifically caught my eye as it put a number to the change – 50 – an age I am all too rapidly approaching. The article, ‘Why Becoming ‘Invisible’ After 50 Can Be a Good Thing’ is about a conversation she has with her mother:-
“At the age of 50, my mother vanished. “A woman becomes invisible in middle age,” she said. I replied with sympathy. “You misunderstand,” she explained. “It’s liberating.” For the first time since puberty, she said, “What I am on the outside is less of a distraction from who I am on the inside. Now, women trust me, men trust themselves around me, and every conversation can be purely, completely human.” ……. It’s true, I’m not seen as I was when I was younger. But being seen isn’t nearly as conducive to spiritual growth as seeing. Invisibility may be imposed on aging women, but transparency can be welcomed. That’s because authentic spirituality begins by embracing what can’t be avoided and letting go of what will be stripped away”
I suspect that many other 48 year old women, like me, might start to furiously refute this ridiculous notion but we would be standing up to our kneecaps in denial. The brutal truth is that I belong to a tribe of females who, whilst we don’t want to openly admit to being a little bit vain, still dye our hair, stick on the ‘slap’, and honestly can’t recall how life was before hair-straighteners, and let’s face it, approaching 50 does chafe a bit! And the fact that there could be wholesome reasons why hitting 50 could have its benefits is not something we’re overly focussed on…
One very memorable series I remember watching on TV which discussed various age-related issues, is the Real Marigold Hotel, where a group of famous celebrity pensioners go on a retreat to India for 3 weeks, a reality TV version of the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Conversely, they discover that far from being invisible after a certain age in India, the elderly are venerated.
Jasper Rees, writing for the Telegraph about the series (Rees, J. 2016), regales that Miriam Margoyles (aged 74 who played Professor Sprout in the Harry Potter films), ‘professes herself thrilled to be part of a television series that focusses on pensioners. She declares:-
“We are invisible. An old woman is just utterly invisible. Luckily I have a very loud voice. I can’t explain why we are not respected because I think we should be. We are wiser than younger people. That is just a fact.”
I remember that she later spent much of the series being outspoken (from every orifice of her being!) and upon reading more about her for this assignment, I resolved that I needed to meet her and take some photographic portraits of her. To me, she became the epitome of what I wanted to be in old age – plain talking, vigorous, and at aged 74, not in the slightest invisible. Maybe it was slightly optimistic, but I emailed all 3 of her agents to ask if this would be possible, but sadly got no reply. On reflection I’m sure I was one of a long queue of fans wanting to meet her. Maybe I should have tried a less direct tact and attended a Harry Potter convention…
I then went through various iterations of possible individual photographs to represent the invisibility of older women, which together, would make a series suitable for the assignment:-
- My first idea was to take a photograph of a middle-aged woman standing on the pedestrianised area outside Norwich market on a busy Saturday morning, with shoppers busily rushing past her… I intended to use an 10x ND filter on the lens to blur out the passers by so that effectively, the woman became much more visible while the multi-aged passers by blended into the background in a sea of blurs. The effect I was looking to recreate was similar to the image below:-
- My next idea was to ask a Chinese female friend of mine to round up all the generations of her family (knowing that age is also far more respected in Chinese culture) and gradually fade out the younger generations behind the oldest female.
- Another idea I had was to use the theme from the another TV series 10 years younger where I would apply Photoshop techniques to portraits of a number of middle aged women, and then ask them to hold up the colour print of their younger, digitally-enhanced selves and I would then de-saturate the photograph around the held up colour print, to black and white (their ‘invisible’ self). This all felt rather depressing however; I think I needed to find something more uplifting.
I felt that all these individual ideas didn’t really make up a coherent series (although maybe for the 10 years younger one I could have taken a number of images of different women), and I wasn’t really satisfied with the ideas so it was back to the drawing board.
I had been mulling over an idea in my mind based on meeting a group of ‘Red Hatters’ in New York. These were retired ladies who had formed a network for socialising. They have a trademark appearance based on the Jenny Joseph poem ‘When I am old’.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat that doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,
And I shall spend my pension
on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals,
and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired,
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells,
And run my stick along the public railings,
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens,
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat,
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go,
Or only bread and pickle for a week,
And hoard pens and pencils and beer mats
and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry,
And pay our rent and not swear in the street,
And set a good example for the children.
We will have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practise a little now?
So people who know me
are not too shocked and surprised,
When suddenly I am old
and start to wear purple!
I finally felt I had thought of a concise idea which could yield a coherent series of images of women who quite clearly could never be considered ‘invisible in old age’. I felt that it didn’t detract from the theme of ‘Unseen’, it just portrayed the rebellion against it.
I contacted the local branch of Norwich Red Hatters and asked to take some portraits of them in their finery. They invited me to one of their monthly lunches at a restaurant by the river in Norwich. Over the course of several hours, I took approximately 30 different women’s portraits. I did several full length photographs but the more successful ones were the head and shoulder shots where their characters popped out from behind translucent and very beautiful skins and shining eyes. The women each had a strong presence but collectively they were an even more amazing and formidable force. Their ages totally belied their appearance and they were without exception, generous of their time and energy.
I used natural lighting for the portraits as I found a convenient pale grey wall well light from the window. There was a raised platform which provided a fabulous plain wall for the full length shots. I encouraged them to be flamboyant and strike a pose which would match their natural glamour. It was great fun!
I promised the Red Hatter ladies that I would put large images of them on the Internet and honour this promise, but this collage of thumbnails gives some indication of the shots I was lucky enough to achieve. I will be emailing my tutor the final selection of 7 – 10 full size images directly as part of the submission for this assignment.
By way of a thank you I took email addresses and sent through the photographs to each of the Red Hatter ladies followed up by some 9×6″ prints. In my email I also asked for their opinion on the notion that women become invisible from a certain age. I had some interesting and funny responses to this and some are listed below. I thought this would provide some supporting narrative to the images:-
Regarding the so-called “invisibility” of ladies our age, bearing in mind that we were the original swingin’, mini-skirtin’, Quant and Biba-wearin’ Beatle Babes, the generation that changed the world, how likely is it that we were EVER going to fade away to invisibility in our sixties and seventies?? We’re not invisible, we’re invincible. As the great Mae West said “You only live once – but if you live it right, once is enough!”
Its good being in the red hats it gives you the chance to dress up and bling up and gets you out of the mould of bring old and invisible and gives you the friend ship and company.
I realise that there are a lot of ladies who simply do not have the personality that would allow them to mix – and who probably do feel invisible. I wish I had the answer to helping them enjoy life more.
As regards being invisible – I think we are not. Although all red hatters I am among seven that go out together often in ‘civvies’ as we call it. However we still dress to make the most of our appearance…. This week on the radio I heard it was not the thing for old people to wear jeans. Obviously a lot of replies about this. Personally I have denim shorts (quite brief). I wear jeans that have sparkles on them and also some with flares. As long as clothes are in good taste and do not make older people look distasteful this is acceptable… perhaps the quote ‘old people are invisible’ applies to some – but you get out of life what you put in. If one chooses to sit at home and not make an effort then I suppose they are not seen.
To help myself choose the images for the assignment, I got them printed as 12”x9” photographs. This enabled me to lay them out to choose the selection and the order of them for the series.
[Photographs added following tutor feedback]
I started with the 14 images that I had decided were good enough potentially, to print and laid these out on a table to see how they looked as a series:-
There were a couple of images which showed two of the ladies drinking. I’m not exactly sure why, but I felt that the wine glasses detracted from the strength of the characters I was photographing, and almost was an unnecessary distraction to the characters themselves. Whilst I liked the hats and feather boas as ‘props’, I felt that the wine ‘took away’ something from the portraits rather than added to them, so I removed the following 2 images:-
I then decided to remove the image of the couple from the series as this was the only one. In all the other images, the ladies were depicted as strong single characters, however conversely, they were also all part of this strong independent female network in which there were strong friendships and shared experiences. The limitation on the number of images to use was the final determining factor and after careful consideration, I took this photograph out of the series.
I then re-ordered the final series of 10 which reflected the day itself (the organiser of the event is shown last, fittingly, after she had rallied all the other ladies to stand in line) and the brave ‘OK I’ll go first then’ portrait starts the series.
[Photographs added following tutor feedback – end of revision]
It also allowed me to think more about the different personalities within the portraits and whether I could provide a suitable caption for the image. It was tempting to use their ‘alter ego’ names which appear on the ‘Norfolk Broads’ Red Hatter website – Queen Jude, Baroness Bossy Boot, Silver Lady, Lady Poppy, Princess Anne Liz, Dame Susie D’Boozy, Madam Shiraz, but unfortunately not all the women in my photographs had such a name, so this wouldn’t really have worked as titles. I couldn’t help think that Red Hatter 7 (below) should be ‘The Matriarch’, Red Hatter 9 should be ‘The Gypsy’, Red Hatter 6 ‘The Queen’ and Red Hatter 3, ‘The 60s Swinger’, but applying my own labels to these strong women didn’t seem appropriate – it made sense for anyone viewing them to devise their own names if they wished.
Lighting was tricky on the day. I had fantastic natural light over the lunchtime period, but as the afternoon wore on, it got cloudier and subsequently my ISO rating had to be adjusted. I really wanted to maintain the quality of the images and avoid too much noise, so I decided to deliberately underexpose images so that I could change the exposure in Lightroom afterwards. One of the reasons I was not completely happy with the series was that the backgrounds appear as slightly different shades which I think impacts how the different portraits work in the series. Ideally of course I would have been set up with an artificial lighting kit which would have enabled me to standardize the light across the series of images. I did discover that with such a range of complexsions too, I couldn’t apply the same settings to all the portraits. I didn’t have time to adjust the settings within the camera, but I did do quite a lot of exposure changes to the final images within Lightroom for that reason also.
There was a certain amount of pressure to the shoot too – the women were queuing down the corridor and I didn’t want them to get annoyed with waiting, so I only took 3-4 images of each lady, in both head and shoulders and full length. Some of my compositions failed for that reasons too I think. I have written further about this in my written submission.
All in all I am really pleased with the results of the shoot. It was a once-only opportunity so there would have been no option to go back and retaken the photographs. I think that would have taken advantage of their generosity somehow. Luckily I think I had sufficient images to choose from to complete a coherent series of shots.
Summary and Self-Assessment
Demonstration of technical and visual skills
I think I’ve improved with some of my portrait shots over the last year and I was really pleased with the quality of the images I achieved. Moving to a full-frame camera has definitely helped and ensured that I can use more available lighting without too much concern about high ISOs. 3 / 5
Quality of Outcome
I also think I’ve achieved a consistent set of strong portraits and maximised the opportunity to bring out the weight of the strong personalities in the photographs. I did manage to engage quite easily with the women. It was easy; they were fun, confident and positive and I didn’t have to ‘draw’ anyone out of themselves particularly. 3 / 5.
Demonstration of Creativity
I tried to come up with a different slant to the brief in terms of photographing the ‘unseen’. I did read almost through to the end of the David Hurn book as suggested by my tutor following assignment one. I found this very enlightening, particularly regarding his approach to being fully interested in a subject as a necessity in order to take a good set of photographs. The subject, being quite close to my own reality, had an instant appeal and it was enjoyable to research and consider the differing viewpoints. And portraiture is also where I feel I can create good images. I often spend time looking at portraits from other photographers because of this fascination and I think this helps develop a style too. The series itself was not creative in terms of each image being substantially different to the next – in fact it was the women themselves that provided me with the variation. I am however pleased with my interpretation of the brief. 3 / 5.
My blog/url https://mary513255cn.wordpress.com/ has recently been updated with a few of the exercises as part of Part 2 Narrative coursework. I thoroughly enjoyed researching the Sophie Calle’s ‘Take Care of yourself’ exhibition. Also I got on a train to Thetford and back to take images for the poetry exercise (choosing John Cooper Clarke’s ‘Network South East), and these have been added to my blog. I am still, as ever, on a catch-up with regards researching outside of the course materials. I am hoping to get a good opportunity over Christmas to rectify this.
Braestrup, K. 2014. Why Becoming ‘Invisible’ After 50 Can Be a Good Thing. At http://www.womansday.com/life/real-women/a8211/invisible-after-50/. Accessed at 7 September 2016
Rees, J. 2016. At http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/01/28/the-real-marigold-hotel-old-people-are-invisible-in-the-uk–but/ Accessed at 15 September 2016
Joseph, J. When I am old. http://www.barbados.org/poetry/wheniam.htm. Accessed at 10 October 2016.