A certain portion of our early adulthood is marked by a sense of continuity: the person I feel myself to be today is not much different in essence from the child I once was. This continuity can often be felt in images: the self looking out at me from old photographs is a younger but still recognisable version of the person that I am now. At some point in our adult life, however, this feeling disappears. In place of a younger self, the photograph shows us a different being.
Another kind of transition takes place at the other end of life, in the passage from adulthood to old age. The constancy that we feel for most of our adulthood – this grown-up self, this body, this is me – is replaced by another state change, a new trajectory with a different destination. Rick Schatzberg’s The Boys was made at the start of this trajectory – at the ‘threshold of old age’, as he remarks. The Boys combines Schatzberg’s contemporary portraits of a group of friends he’s known since childhood with snapshots of their younger selves. In a series of short texts scattered throughout the book, Schatzberg looks back at their lives, reflecting on the relationships and events that defined them. He writes movingly of remembrance and regret, but The Boys is not a nostalgic book. The gaze that Schatzberg turns on his subjects – photographed shirtless, against a blank background – is wilfully ruthless, setting the vitality of youth against its disappearance.
Photography has a rich tradition of engaging with the aging process. In his mid-60s, writer and curator John Coplans began a remarkable series of self-portraits. Leaving his face out of the frame, Coplans used the camera to turn his naked body into a series of rough-hewn sculptures. Nakedness ‘removes the body from the specificity of time’, he wrote, but it also makes all the more evident the vagaries of its passage. Brightly lit and shot in close-up against a white backdrop, Coplans’ self-portraits have a kind of lumpy grace. They foreground every detail of his aging frame: the knotted limbs and wrinkled skin, the body hair, the drooping belly. But there’s neither bashfulness nor self-pity in these images – only a fascination with his own decrepitude, his body transformed into a fleshy celebration of mortality.
The Boys speaks to that point … when we recognise the photograph not just as the marker of a moment in the past, but as a changeable register of the growing interval between then and now.
The photograph is often said to freeze time, but it’s equally good at showing how quickly it moves. Every year since 1975, Nicholas Nixon has taken a group portrait of his wife and her three sisters. The Brown Sisters is a cumulative index of time’s passage, almost cinematic in its registration of the slow movement from youth to older age. Although they’re portraits of close family members, there’s a distance in them that I can only describe as anthropological: the same large-format camera and black-and-white film, the same positioning of his subjects, unchanged over decades. The defiant glare of the youngest sister has always fascinated me, but I’ll never know what’s behind it. Nor can Nixon’s portraits explain why, for instance, the sadness in a face one year has been replaced by joy the next. The Brown Sisters is a poignant record of the traces that time leaves on the body, but not of the lives that have been lived.
John Coplans, Self-Portrait (Frieze No. 2, Four Panels), 1994
Nicholas Nixon, The Brown Sisters, 1975 & 2014
Masahisa Fukase described the camera as a ‘device for archiving death’, but with hindsight, it might be more accurately described as a device for archiving life, gathering images of the living in anticipation of their demise. His 1991 book Family is a series of family photographs begun in the 1970s. For the first few years, the images are playful challenges to the conventions of family portraiture, dressing his subjects in undergarments, posing naked strangers alongside the family group. Resumed after a ten-year gap – an interval during which his father became seriously ill, and a young niece died – the mood has changed. Fukase’s family portraits now include memorial photographs alongside the living: traditional i-ei [遺影写真] portraits, made while the subject is alive for the purpose of commemorating them once they’re gone. The presence of these images – stark affirmations of mortality – is perhaps more affecting than the absence of the subjects they portray. The final images in Family are no longer playful, but haunting, the spectre of death lurking in every photograph.
Masahisa Fukase, Family, 1991
There are echoes of all of these projects in Schatzberg’s work: the monumental simplicity of Coplans’ photographs, the autobiographical register of Fukase, Nixon’s blunt objectivity. Yet in their own way, all of the latter works encourage the viewer to confront ageing as an abstraction – as something that happens to other people. As viewers, we’re invited to look in on the process from somewhere else: a place both objective and seemingly immortal. The Boys, on the other hand, is not about somebody else’s ageing and death. Two of Schatzberg’s friends died shortly before he began the project; two more not long before the book went to press. If The Boys is a memento of sorts, it wasn’t intended as one – it’s his own end that Schatzberg faces up to in this work, and by extension, ours too, the one that waits for all of us.
And in doing so it touches on something fundamental about the way that our relationships with photographs change as we get older. ‘There is an eternal present in the photograph’, Schatzberg writes, ‘but I see past, present and future all at once.’ The Boys speaks to that point – unnamed and uncharted until we experience it for ourselves – when we become aware that meaning and time are conjoined and in constant flux. That point when we recognise the photograph not just as the marker of a moment in the past, but as a changeable register of the growing interval between then and now.