Women & Aging

by Nels P. Highberg

Women and the Representation of Aging: Gay Block, Anne Noggle, Joan Myers, and Elise Mitchell Sanford at Firehouse Gallery, March 12-April 9, 1994, presented by Houston Women’s Caucus for Art. Nina: Portraits by Herlinde Koelbl at the Goethe Institut – Houston, March 19 – April 15, 1994. Both exhibitions were presented in association with Houston Center for Photography.

Carolyn G. Heilbrun writes, “[T]he last third of life is likely to require new attitudes and new courage.”1 In Writing a Woman’s Life, Heilbrun reflects upon these challenges and points out that there are few outstanding women available for women to look to for guidance as they age. One example, May Sarton, began a new journal on her 70th birthday and later published it as At Seventy. In it, Sarton discusses her attitudes towards aging.

What is it like to be seventy? If someone else had lived so long and could remember things sixty years ago with great clarity, she would seem very old to me. But I do not feel old at all… I suppose real old age begins when one looks backward rather than forward, but I look forward with joy to the years ahead and especially to the surprises that any day may bring.2

For “Photography Houston/Spring ’94,” two exhibitions displayed photographs by give women that dealt with the representation of aging. Like Sarton, these photographers, Gay Block, Joan Myers, Anne Noggle, and Elise Mitchell Sanford at Firehouse Gallery and Herlinde Koelbl at Goethe Institut – Houston, created work that articulated the experiences of older women with clarity and honesty.

A sense of fun infiltrated much of the work, and Sanford’s gelatin silver prints most explicitly expressed this sense of playfulness. In her images, women over 50 from Athens, Ohio, dressed up as famous women including Harriet Tubman, Marilyn Monroe, and Georgia O’Keeffe. At the fourth Women in Photography Conference on a panel exploring “Women and the Representation of Aging,” Sanford discussed how the process of photographing these women revealed a group of strong, tough, independent women who did not fit the stereotypical docile older women who needed to be cared for. Thus, the images expressed more than the fun of dress-up. They also showed how the subjects took on the role and modeled themselves after those strong women from their past.

There was also an interesting sense of lightheartedness in some of the work of Gay Block. In the Type C prints Freda and Marianne, Block photographed each of these women in two ways. First, she photographed them clothed and seated in their homes. A sense of starchiness and stuffiness surrounded these women as they sat upright and formally for the camera. Next to these images were photographs of the same women standing naked in the same setting. Literally stripped of confining clothing and the social expectations associated with them and their surroundings, the women laughed and relaxed.

The emphasis on the real bodies of older women carried over into the work of the other photographers. For example, one print from Anne Noggle’s 1975 series “Facelift” shows the stitches that initially remained after her eye surgery. Noggle looked directly into the camera, confronting both women like her who want such surgery for themselves and women who reject it as a tool that subverts women and makes them conform to societal expectations of beauty. In the photographs, Noggle does not hide from either scrutiny or approval. A similar sentiment holds true in the work of Joan Myers, particularlyMastectomy, (1993). In this image, a woman stands before the camera holding her bra so that it covers one breast while exposing the space left by the removal of the other by a full mastectomy. Again, the woman looks directly into the camera, facing an eye that has for years forced women to hide such bodies from view.

The work of Herlinde Koelbl utilized a somewhat surreal approach towards the body. Koelbl photographed a longtime artist’s model from Munich named Nina. Some of the images are conventional, such as Nina wearing an elegant hat with a veil while holding her poodle. In others, the camera moved closer to Nina’s nude body. These images accentuate the results of the aging process, the wrinkles and softness of the skin. During the panel discussion Koelbl described how these photographs reminded her of a landscape. The use of lighting to create long shadows in a closeup of Nina’s abdomen creates an otherworldly landscape because it is an image so often hidden from view.

Sanford noted that as feminist scholars age, they begin to write and theorize about aging, and this fact is reflected in the recent writings of Heilbrun, Sarton, and others, at least as it pertains to the tradition of white, Western women. The same theory holds true for these photographs, as well. As they age, they present their lives to the camera and the viewer with candor, humor, and, most importantly, honesty.

Nels P. Highberg is a graduate associate in the Center for Women’s Studies at The Ohio State University in Columbia, OH.

1. Carolyn Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life, (New York: Ballantine, 1988): 124.2. May Sarton, At Seventy, (New York: Nortion, 1984):9-10