“The photo is never a mirror” Dr. Margaret Morganroth Gullette
After I attended the Lumière Blanche Festival I explored with another member of the Film Group the possibilities of reaching and exposing young people to images of old women. We obviously thought of the caring professions following Dr. Depassio’s example. But surprise! double surprise it is the London College of Fashion that set the trend.
Hannah Zeilig organised the best conference on Ageing that I have attended these last two years: Mirror Mirror: Representation and Reflections on Age and Ageing. This was not academics talking to academics. This event was about changing attitudes and Hannah explains this need in the foreword of the conference document.
The attendance was a wonderful mix of women of all ages. I noted by talking to young women that their perceptions of old women were changing there and then. The old woman was no more mother or grandmother but Ari Seth Cohen’s Woman with Advance Style, the Fabulous Fashionistas, their retired lecturers, the keynote speaker, the film blogger, a singer (Petula Clarke) and a comedienne (Joan Rivers.) But also on a stand outside the lecture hall Kate Munro’s photo album showed the smiles of the unforgotten residents of a care home.
But critical I must be even if this is not about films. When I first saw the flyer of the conference months ago I was horrified. Yes I do express myself in exaggerated terms but I did hate the photo. Yes this woman is beautiful, but there is not a line on her face and the only sign of age is the thin line of white hair that frames her perfect features. Her eyes are shut and her face an expression of private ecstasy. Her dangling earrings point to a bag that she holds passionately in her arms. One visible hand is covered in a purple velvet glove. This to conceal, I suppose a tell tale ageing hand. This was the flyer. The document about the conference reproduced this picture on the front cover.
As I said, I hated the image. It is only when I tentatively communicated my feelings to a woman sitting next to me at the conference that I understood my reaction. She is a retired lecturer (sorry I did not take her name), and she still lectures at the LCF from time to time. She pointed out to me the Coco Chanel logo – the gleaming gold interlaced Cs – on the chain of the bag. I was mortified by my naivety and ignorance. This was not the photo of an old woman, this was product placement. I was shocked and unable to think for a few minutes. Why did I not see this? It was obviously the source of my discomfort. Was this choice accidental or was it paying for the conference? I was really disturbed.
I am not conversant with the ‘brand’ culture and would not recognise most logos so important to the youth. But how many of us old women would have recognised the logo? Certainly not my friends who saw nothing wrong in the picture. But sadly I am sure that fashion students would. And I wonder if in their minds old age, handbag – handbags!!!, fashion and the CC logo would be associated.
It was ironical that Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s keynote talk : “How (not) to Shoot Old people : Changing the paradigms of Portrait Photography”, dealt mainly with the representation of old age in photos. She said photography of people who are recognisably “old” has the potential to change the paradigms of representation. She showed us some wonderful photos to demonstrate this.
Unfortunately the signature photo of this excellent conference does not to my mind reflect this change .