Americans have a hard time confronting old age. This point has been brought home in the last year and a half of COVID quarantines and disproportionate deaths among the elderly. Our initial reaction to the pandemic was to protect the vulnerable older population by isolating them, sometimes for extended periods, and even in our more insensitive moments to dismiss the high mortality of the virus because it mainly afflicted the elderly and infirm. Behind all this lies our discomfort with old age. Life, for us, doesn’t end at death, but at a point when we can’t fully participate in society or continue the activities we once enjoyed. We are propelled ever more quickly toward that time we dread, especially as we see our grandparents and parents pass through old age and anticipate the same journey for ourselves. In After Ninenty, Imogen Cunningham, then an old woman herself, looked old age straight in the face.
Cunningham had a photographic career that spanned most of the twentieth century. She worked continuously from her college years and her postgraduate studies in Dresden, to her early career as a successful studio portrait photographer in Seattle, through her children’s youth and her participation in Group f/64, all the way into the decades after her divorce. At the ripe old age of 92, still living and working independently in her modest home in San Francisco, she embarked on one more photo project: creating portraits of other old people. She died at age 93, and After Ninety was published posthumously in 1976. But she had a hand in selecting the images and composing the captions.
While there are a few images in the collection from earlier in her career, including three of her parents, Cunningham took most of the photos after turning ninety herself, when every subject reflected to her how she would have appeared to anyone who did not know of her own experienced sense of youth and vigor. Blessed with longevity and health inherited from her family (her parents and sisters, like her, lived into their late eighties or beyond) and accustomed to a simple and hardworking life, she didn’t feel her age. In her introduction to After Ninety, Margaretta Mitchell writes, “The Imogen Cunningham reflected in the eyes and remembrances of her ever widening circle of friends was not an old person. An old person – in the view of so many in our society, including Imogen herself – was alone, lonely, dependent, passive, and dull. Since in no way did she want to be that kind of person, she could not think of herself as old – even if she looked it.”
Cunningham may have shared society’s stereotypes of senescence, but she set those aside for her After Ninety project, photographing each subject as an individual and rarely extrapolating any person into a symbol of old age. “For Imogen,” Mitchell writes, “it was important that she photograph the old people for After Ninety to learn something…This final project is a humble one, completely in keeping with the direction of her lifelong creative interest in the particular, in the human core of a person, and it reflects her acceptance of her own aging…There is just courage, courage to look through the lens and see herself mirrored in others, always looking with a childlike curiosity, learning from another’s reality ways to be strong, active, interesting, and useful.” In her subjects, then, Cunningham saw some like-minded people who were determined to live full and active lives for as long as they could, and others who despaired when they weakened and were consigned to long term care.
What the photos have in common is Cunningham’s lifelong honesty, which she expressed both verbally and photographically. She lights and prints her images beautifully, but makes no effort to conceal the effects of age on her subjects’ bodies and characters. All the images are compassionate but frank portraits. Her captions are also blunt and sometimes snarky. She included two images from a session of photos of her ex-husband, Roi Partridge, noting on one, “the one he liked the least was with the cow’s skull, so I decided to include it.” She gave each subject a print of the image she made, and one chemistry professor sent her in return his article on the viscosity of liquids, to which her response was, “It’s wonderful, but what do I care about the viscosity of liquids?” (All the more ironic because she majored in chemistry!)
Here in this article I’ve selected a group of images from the collection that display Cunningham’s photographic skill along with her wit and her fascination with the personalities of her subjects.
Cunningham’s caption for this striking photo reads, “She was a famous pianist, and she’s ninety-some. She had just undergone an operation for cancer, and she refused further treatment. She said, ‘I might as well die when I’m supposed to,’ and I said, ‘You’re right.’” Musician Martha Ideler gazes straight into the camera (and at Imogen) with her head held high, more certain than most of the other subjects of the imminence of her death.
The three ages of woman, on Fillmore Street
This is apparently an anonymous street portrait, unlike most of the images in this collection, and captures what seems to be the coincidence in the image of an old woman in the forefront, with a younger woman and a little girl over her shoulder. The subject appears to be unrelated to and perhaps even unaware of the two figures in the background, but Cunningham links them together to speak in a fleeting moment about the older woman’s past and the younger people’s future.
Young Lym Wong
This picture intrigues me because of its mix of Eastern and Western elements. Young Lym Wong sits in her kitchen knitting, looking just ready to rise and prepare a meal for her photographer/guest. The light subtly highlights the cross and jade bangle she wears. Cunningham describes the domestic scene: “She was knitting a red sweater for her granddaughter because red is good luck to the Chinese. I stayed for a Chinese lunch, but it was too elaborate.”
Irene “Bobby” Libarry and Dr. Eleanor Bancroft
I’m cheating here a bit and counting these two as one photo, because these images are among several interesting juxtapositions in Cunningham’s collection. The image on the left is of a woman who had spent her life in a carnival and whose upper body is covered in tattoos – Cunningham’s caption says, “It looks like lace, doesn’t it?” On the right is an image of Dr. Bancroft, whom Cunningham describes as “a physician in a women’s college and very religious.” Actual lace covers her hair and wrists, and in her hands, folded in prayer, she holds a rosary. Dr. Bancroft, photographed in 1951, is in turn juxtaposed with several successive images of aging nuns photographed in a convent in the 1970s, most wearing crosses and the last, very old, bent in her wheelchair over her rosary. Her attitude of prayer in extreme advanced age, though less deliberate than that of Dr. Bancroft, is no less sincere.
Cunningham was not religious herself (asked on her deathbed by a preacher what her religion was, she replied, “Haven’t chosen one yet”), but these images show her respect for the religious women she photographed, and an equal amount of respect, perhaps even reverence, for the tattooed woman from the carnival.
My father after ninety
Cunningham included two photographs of her father and one of her parents together. The last image of her father, and of the entire book, shows her father in profile, facing a bright and focused source of light, looking almost patriarchal with his long white beard in which every hair is illuminated. Cunningham was close to her father, a freethinking autodidact who formed her mind and character from childhood, and her photos show the love and respect she had for him in his old age. It was the energy, independence, curiosity, and compassion he passed on to her that made her the photographer who could bring After Ninety to life.
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