According to a new exhibition in Doylestown, getting old is not what it used to be. Sometimes, it’s a lot more fun. And sometimes, well, the going gets rough, and for some, even rougher.
In “Aging In America, The Years Ahead,” on view at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, some 50 large-scale, evocative photographs by internationally acclaimed photojournalist Ed Kashi explore the uncharted territory of longevity. In the process Kashi takes us on an intimate, graphic tour of the last decades of life — a moving journey that touches on universal themes addressing the human condition.
More than 10 years ago, Kashi set out with his wife, writer Julie Winokur, to document growing old in an era when the fastest-growing segment of society is people over 85. Traveling back and forth from coast to coast they spent seven years creating a visual document that charts the unprecedented highs and prolonged lows that come with our society’s longer life span. When Kashi and Winokur were done they had created a powerful and realistic portrayal of what it means to age.
“Aging” serves as an introduction to a world we seldom see; a slice of human drama in which we get to meet an occasionally entertaining, always touching cast of characters. Among them are a 90-year-old heavy machine operator who still works full-time, participants in a foster care program for older adults, athletes, and an 80-year-old pair of newlyweds. The collection also serves as a record of some of life’s most difficult moments — a dying patient surrounded by family members, the terminal moments of an Alzheimer’s victim, and poignant glimpses of the forgotten and forlorn. As such, this exhibition functions as a moving and important introduction to the dimensions of an often overlooked chapter of life in the United States.
The cast of featured characters includes a few surprises: rodeo riders, javelin throwers, models, and burlesque queens who strut their stuff and often look like they are having the time of their life. For some, we learn that their activities are a reward for a life of hard work. For others, time is just marching on to a cheerful upbeat.
The other side of the aging picture also has it surprises: a look at what it’s like to grow old in prison and on an Indian reservation; and an intimate glimpse of those who cannot help themselves. We meet family members and companions who care deeply and give love and support in difficult situations. We also meet those who deserve better but have been failed by our society.
As it turns out, the project was a lot more than simply work for the photographer and editor. “It altered our lives,” Winokur says. “It changed the way we look at older people — the way we think about our own aging process.” That, however, was just the beginning of change for Winokur and Kashi. With new perspectives on aging reshaping their priorities, they decided to sell their home in California and move back to New Jersey in order to care for her father. “By the time the trip was over, we realized that family and our concerns about aging were among the most important things in our lives.”
Winokur decries our society’s shortcomings when it comes to aging. “We need much better vehicles to help people stay at home as they age. It’s more humane and in the end it costs less.” She says that she and Kashi remain active in working to improve conditions for older people. Winokur works with groups she feels need to be better informed in order for the world of the aging to improve — young people, medical students, social workers. She notes that the collection and film are used in medical schools.
“Aging in America” was organized by George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. It has been traveling in this country and abroad for several years with stops at such venues as the University of Iowa Hospital Medical Museum; Columbia School of Social Work, HealthSpace, Cleveland; Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Archive, Berkeley, CA; International Center for Photography and the Leica Gallery in New York City; and Visa pour l’image, in Perpignan, France.
The exhibition is accompanied by a shorter version of the documentary film “Aging in America,” written and directed by Winokur, in which she addresses her concerns. The film premiered on KQED Television, the San Francisco PBS affiliate, in September, 2003, and won Best Educational Film from the Silver Images Film Festival in Chicago. The film runs throughout the day.
In the exhibition, film, and book that accompany the collection, Kashi and Winokur raise many questions about aging and call for change as they discuss, illustrate, and decry the problems of aging. They make note visually and in their text of the isolation, neglect of friends and family and, as important, the failure of our society to deal more effectively with the needs of an aging population.
“America is a society in collective denial of aging,” says Winokur. “We appreciate vintage in wine, not people; we ‘distress’ furniture to make it look old, but we pay a fortune to erase the wrinkles that time bestows on our faces.”
To bring concerns with aging closer to home there will be a talk at the museum on Thursday, April 19. In “Voice and Visions in an Aging America,” a panel of professionals associated with aging will discuss their professional and personal experiences with growing old. Speakers include Christine Arenson, director, division of geriatric medicine of Jefferson Medical College; Vince Ceglia, artist and resident of Pine Run Community, the exhibition sponsor; and Helen Berezovsky, an active volunteer at the Michener Art Museum and in the community.
Berezovsky says she hopes the exhibition and the panel will contribute to a more positive take on aging. “I hope it will encourage people not to worry about how old they are, that it’s the end of the line. There are good things ahead. You shouldn’t look back unless it’s for gaining experience. It’s important to remember that, in many ways, you are no different from a younger person.”
Aging in America: The Years Ahead, photography by Ed Kashi, with text and video by Julie Winokur, on view through Sunday, June 24, in the Fred Beans Gallery at the James A. Michener Art Museum, 138 South Pine Street, Doylestown, PA. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. $6.50; students, $4; seniors age 60 and older, $6; members and children under six, free.
Also, “Voice and Visions in an Aging America: A Roundtable Talk,” Thursday, April 19, 1 to 3 p.m. Free admission. Advance registration is required. www.michenerartmuseum.org or 215-340-9800.