Visible at 60- a book you must have
In a world increasingly populated by the E-Book, you have to wonder about the place of the Hard copy book. I mean, logic dictates that an E-Book should be much more practical. You can put a whole library onto your Kindle/Kobo/whatever and haul it around without needing a container shipped with you.
Except it isn’t a book.
A book is an object. A book has substance. You have paid for (or stolen) a thing of value. Perhaps this is why, after the initial flurry of enthusiasm, E-Book sales have plateaued, and, in fact, sales of “real” books are, if anything, growing. I am not sure about you, but Kindle is perfect for those times when I want to read the latest Reacher, or Michael Connolly, books I consume only once. Shelves are for treasured books, tomes I want to keep for ever, books I want to line the staircase of my life.
I was reminded of this a little while ago, when I decided to go through my library and shrink it down to the books I really wanted to keep. Out went my Complete Guide to Lighting/Landscape/Portraiture/Glamour photography. Out went my darkroom manuals and the books on large format theory and optics. I donated them to a local Fundamentalist Christian church (along with books on alchemy and occult symbolism!). What remained were books I treasured, exemplars and inspirations.
Including this one.
Part of the attraction of this book was that I was there at the beginning, for a day. Jenny made contact with me one day, and we promised to meet the next time I was in Wellington. When I arrived at her studio in Newtown, she proceeded to show me the 20 people she had photographed, and we discussed the project and where she might take it, how far it might go. Then we lost contact, until we met last year and I saw the finished book for the first time.
Technique books have a limited shelf life (how many of you still have a copy of the Lightroom 1/2/3/4 Handbook?) but bodies of work like this have a longer shelf life, a durability which extends beyond immediacy, and this is one of those…timeless books.
Visible at 60 focuses on 60 women and their experience of being 60, an age when the mother becomes the wise crone. In that sense it resonates eerily with the project begun by the photographic icon, Imogen Cunningham, who, at the age of 90 (and still working professionally), set out to produce a body of work on women aged 90. Sadly she never completed it. This work falls into a familiar genre, and yet it has its own uniqueness and originality. The photographic style is very much formal studio portraiture in the style of Snowdon or Irving Penn (mainlight and fill), and there are echoes of the work of the 19th Century photographers with their daylight studios. Technically the work is flawless and sophisticated, to the point where it gets out of the way and allows us to focus on the narrative, on the conversation taking place in the studio. Good portraiture is a fine record of the sitter; great portraiture recognises that what is to be documented is the conversation, the shared experience floating in the space between sitter and photographer. And this is what is on show here. Jenny, being 60 herself when she made this work, clearly understands this time in a way that a younger female or male would struggle to comprehend. Her empathy and awareness shine through in every portrait.
The text helps but doesn’t overpower, selected carefully, concisely and accurately. It adds to the narrative, rather than seeking to subsume it. These are wonderful women, proud women, women who have travelled the river of life, and fallen out of the raft at times. These are women who have lived, suffered, cried and celebrated and yet are still in love with Life. There is an overwhelming sense of joy, intelligence and compassion here which is uplifting. And of course a tribute to the skill and commitment of the photographer.
Great portraiture has the ability to empower and ennoble, not only those on the outside, but the sitter her/himself. I chuckled to see the portrait of Liz Bowen-Clewley, who was a colleague at the same high school where I began teaching and who left for other career pastures. We lost touch, until recently. There she was, as Liz as ever, as Liz as I remember her, sitting on a stool with one of her beloved dogs, the Liz I remembered, with her endless positivity and amazing intellect, the Liz I remembered entrancing the slow learners she taught. We caught up recently at a party at her place, and she was proudly telling us all about the experience and the wonderful likeness Jenny had made of her. It is a glorious thing when a portrait of the sitter allows the subject to see how beautiful they truly are and adds to them.
There are books which I treasure, which bring me back time and time again to reflect and consider the nature of the human condition or the sheer insight of the photographer. These are books I will never lend, books which include Raghubir Singh’s River of Colour, Robin Morrison’s South Island From the Road, Constantine Manos’ American Color series and Chaos by Josef Koudelka, along with Takashi Komatsu’s epic Japanese Rivers in the Four Seasons.
And now there is another one, sandwiched between Irving Penn, Arnold Newman, Lord Snowdon and Jane Ussher.
Visible at 60 really is that good.