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Chester Higgins Jr.'s Photographs: A Closer Look at Age 

By: Lyle Rexer 
The New York Times, February 25, 2001 

COMMUTERS hurrying through the subway station at 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue are confronted by images of where they are headed not uptown or downtown but a biological destination, old age. The portraits publicize "Elder Grace: the Nobility of Aging," an exhibition of photographs by Chester Higgins Jr. at the New-York Historical Society through next Sunday. It is at once a celebration of aging and a cautionary lesson. These handsome, dignified, larger-than-life images of senior citizens proclaim, in Mr. Higgins's words, "This is what life can be like for those who live it wisely and well." 

In a culture bombarded with images of youth, maturity never looked so good. And just as people are stopping on their journeys to consider Mr. Higgins's mural and moral, a growing number of artists are attempting to capture, if not the wisdom of age, the complicated and ambivalent sentiments it inspires.

The surprise is not that white hair and crow's feet are beginning to show, but that they have been disguised with cultural hair dye and covered with art-world wrinkle cream. America has a graying population, with a demographic profile that turns advertisers' ideal age pyramid upside down. Yet images of maturity appear mostly at the margins, in ads for retirement accounts and embarrassing health-care products. Age is not a place where people want to linger or a time they want to celebrate. 

Age is a problem, "a train wreck," as Charles DeGaulle put it. And this has everything to do with how contemporary artists are representing it. 

For Mr. Higgins, a New York Times photographer who grew up in the small town of New Brockton, Ala., age was a source of inspiration, not dread, and he wants to create positive emblems for it. "I spent a lot of time with my elders, just listening," he says. "They call it `having an old soul.' They wanted my energy. I wanted their wisdom. The first picture I ever took was of my great aunt." 

In his book "Elder Grace" (Bullfinch Press), Mr. Higgins has assembled a gallery of the beautiful, the pensive and the noble, ages 55 to 99, lighting his subjects to emphasize the drama of their physical transformation. White hair glows in these pictures. His wife, Betsy Kissam, interviewed Mr. Higgins's subjects and selected a quotation for each, capturing the fortitude of their thought, which the images only suggest.

Michal Ronnen Safdie has sought an even more extreme end of the age spectrum. The wife of the architect Moshe Safdie, she was photographing in Israel in 1997 when it struck her how differently people "wear" their age. Like Mr. Higgins, Ms. Safdie viewed the bearing of old age as an expression of how lives where lived. She set out on a round-the-world quest to photograph and interview people more than 100 years old. She has a growing archive of human endurance, from Paula Lindberg Salomon, the step-mother of Charlotte Salomon, the artist who died at 26 at Auschwitz, to Shanti Devi, a woman on the streets of India. "They have lived our century, end to end," she says. "They are living vignettes of our history." Another of Ms. Safdie's projects will be on view at Salander-O'Reilly Galleries starting on May 31. 

If age furnished Mr. Higgins and Ms. Safdie a subject for their art, in the case of Dutch photographer Jan Van Leeuwen, it also made art possible. Mr. Van Leeuwen, whose first major New York exhibition was recently mounted at Gallery 24 in Chelsea, began to take pictures so that he would have a hobby after he retired from distributing kitchenware. He creates tableaus in which is own unclothed body, often in multiple exposure, acts the parts of religious scenes. These include his version of the Last Supper and Jesus's supper at Emmaus. Using the simple, one-color processes of cyanotype (the common blueprint) and Van Dyke print (brown), Mr. Van Leeuwen makes of his bald and aging form a symbol of sacramental humility and the acceptance of human frailty, moral and physical. A non-Jew, he grew up in Amsterdam during the Holocaust, and with age has come an urgent desire to make images that transcend the horror and fear he cannot forget. 

In Mr. Van Leeuwen's work, the body's decline corresponds to a spiritual and psychological victory. This is akin to that which Chuck Close found recently when he began to make daguerreotypes of unclothed friends and artists, some of whom, like him, were in their 60's. People were fascinated by these unflattering, if not unforgiving, portraits, and Mr. Close received many requests from people of all ages to pose. "It's ironic," he said in a recent interview, "in the 1960's, I couldn't get anyone to take their clothes off. Now people seem ready to say, `This is who I am and what has happened to me,' and they are comfortable with the fact that their bodies don't conform to social norms of physical beauty."

Mr. Higgins never asked his subjects to disrobe, although he wasn't shy about chasing down anyone on the street who looked interesting and might have a story to tell. He wasn't always rewarded or welcomed. One woman whose mane of white hair attracted him from a distance tuned out to be younger than he was. Others were openly skeptical. "I learned very early on that these people couldn't care less about being photographed," he says. "For them every moment was important, and they let me know that they did not appreciate having their time wasted." His subjects' sense of time's value may account for the gravity and confidence of their self-presentation, two qualities rarely seen in contemporary photographic portraits.

These examples notwithstanding, age remains a subject that provokes artistic unease. This has been the case at least since the time of Rembrandt. His late self-portraits are profoundly moving in part because they express full awareness of the consequences of modern individuality. The Renaissance gave birth to the notion of the secular individual, and the Dutch golden age enshrined it in middle-class luxury. Rembrandt recognized that individuality came at a price. In spite of human power and wealth, not to mention creativity, we confront age and death alone, without the comfort of mythology or the promise of eternity. By the time of Blake and Wordsworth, Father Time was replaced by innocent infants "trailing clouds of glory," as Wordsworth put it in "Ode, Intimations of Immortality." After childhood, it's all downhill, and the physical evidence can be found in art from Picasso's late etchings to Richard Avedon's photographs of his dying father to the late work of Leon Golub, whose retrospective will begin at the Brooklyn Museum in May.

The notion that age is something to be superseded or at best endured has become so ingrained that we scarcely notice it lurking behind such positive concepts as "innovation" and "originality." In this climate, younger artists have discovered age to be as handy a means to shock as religion was in the 1950's or sex in the 1960's. Andres Serrano, who seems to find society's pressure points with shiatsu accuracy, reverses all the assumptions about age-appropriate sexuality and gender roles in "The History of Sex: Antonio and Ulricke," a photograph in which an old man looks pleadingly up at the breasts of a naked woman who seems to be gazing fiercely toward the future. 

Erwin Olaf takes the idea of age reversal several steps further, or perhaps backward, in his exhibition "Mature," now at the Laurence Miller Gallery in midtown Manhattan. Mr. Olaf photographs older women in the poses of soft-core pinups and titles them with the names of supermodels like Christy T. (Turlington) and Cindy C. (Crawford). His stated intention is to question stereotypical ideas about age and female sexuality, but the images just as readily reinforce a prejudice that sex is the prerogative of youth, and passion in maturity is monstrous. Such reverse prudery may be the deepest generation gap ever.

Not for Mr. Higgins. His portraits are calculated to appeal. And where most subway images sell products, he sells time. By lavishing attention on his subjects and by seeking to apprehend what he calls their "shine," or inner light, he captures qualities that continue to make them physically attractive into late age: humor, elegance and dignity. He sums these up in the single word "grace." It's unabashedly romantic propaganda that seeks to overturn stereotypes not through parody but through affection. "I want people to see my pictures and ask, `How can I look like that when I get to be that age?' " he says. "You can't deny the next day, so accept it, embrace it. God give us age, but we have to make the decisions about how to use it."