Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Age and Experience

The exhibition I had at the National Media Museum in Bradford nearly 10 years ago featured a selection of works from several portrait series; ‘Face of the Century’, ‘Generations’, ‘Babybabybaby’, ‘For every minute....’ as well as some of the early Classroom Portraits. I remember being a bit disappointed that I ended up calling the show ‘Lifetimes’ because it’s just seems a bit of a dull title really, but on the other hand, it so clearly describes one of my overriding preoccupations: Life and time, as recorded by photography.

One of my favourite portraits featured in that show is of Mildred Harrison, aged 99, who I met on a visit to a care home in Northumberland in 1999. She was a tiny, hunched figure, almost bent double in her chair. There were a few other people around but she wasn’t in conversation or attempting to watch the TV. I thought she might be asleep but when I spoke she answered immediately and clearly. She was expecting me and she said she had just been “waiting to have her picture taken.” As I set up my camera and tripod I told her about my Face of the Century project and that I’d been searching for someone born in 1900 for months. She understood exactly her place in the chronology of the series. When I asked if she could please look up and in to my camera she did so, but not enough. Her eyes were looking up but she was facing down. “I’m sorry Mildred, but I really want to see your face properly. Do you think you can lift your head a little more?....Just a bit more please?....Just a tiny bit more.....?” Gradually, with considerable effort, she managed to do it for a few seconds. 

Mildred Harrison, aged 99, 1999. From 'The Face of the Century'

As I was there and made the picture, I cannot see this image as just an image, my feelings about it being inextricably linked to the whole experience of meeting as well as photographing her. But I am sure there is something very profound evident in the portrait. On the surface, there is the realisation that I cannot imagine anyone looking older than her and I am drawn in to considering her as she is and imagining her as she has been in the past. Then there is the physical and psychical commitment she makes to the process of being photographed. The strain and concentration of both looking up and presenting herself to camera, looking so directly into the lens and at the same moment into the extraordinary complexity of her 99 year old inner self.

I keep coming back to these existential themes. I seem to be drawn to making connections between the young and the old. Very elderly people fascinate me as do children and especially newborn babies. Lives that have only just begun and others which are in their twilight months and years.
A few weeks ago, on September 10th, William Cameron and Alexander Ramm, both from the Ashington area (also in Northumberland) had birthdays, Bill reaching the landmark age of 100 and Alex being born. In the grand scheme of things there is nothing particularly unusual about either event as there are now about 14,000 centurians in Britain and nearly 1000 babies get born every day. But for the individuals and their families (and simply in human terms) these are truly momentous occasions and by making portraits of them both I am searching for added meaning by their association. Two people at opposite ends of life’s spectrum. I am contemplating the gulf between their experience, Bill having outlived every one of his contemporaries, Alex being perhaps the ultimate enigma, so new to the world and so newly formed that it seems impossible to imagine the life behind his gaze.

Alexander Ramm, born September 10th 2014

William Cameron, born September 10th 1914