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August 01, 2018 In her photographs of older couples, Canadian photographer Beryl Woodrow attempts to photograph real people, not stereotypes

Of Love & Home: An Interview with Beryl Woodrow

A photographic series documenting the lives of 80 and 90-year-old couples who continue to live in their own homes

Liz Milner
Jim and Margaret In Their Living Room, Vancouver, 2015

Jim and Margaret In Their Living Room, Vancouver, 2015

Margaret, 83, a previous social worker, and Jim, 94, a former chemical engineer, have been together for 45 years. They first met in Scotland at the university residence where he was staying as a visiting faculty and Margaret was the residence’s moni¬tor. They have lived in their home for 38 years. Jim has four children and many grand and great-grand children. Both spend hours in their garden tending to their vegetables and roses. Once a year they welcome preschoolers from a nearby school to enjoy their garden and plant seeds. The photo resting on the sofa is the home Jim built for his family on one of the islands. The painting above the sofa is one Jim painted. It combines the elements of youth and age, innocence and knowledge. -Photo and caption by Beryl Woodrow

In Ending Ageism: or How Not to Shoot Old People, Margaret Morganroth Gullette wrote, “Art that is compassionate, knowledgeable, or merely instinctively resistant to decline culture steps up the pace of change.” Though she isn’t familiar with Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s work, Beryl Woodrow’s photography seems to be the crystallization of Gullette’s project to create a new vision of aging.

Of Love and Home is an ongoing photographic series documenting the lives of 80- and 90-year-old couples who continue to live in their own homes. Beryl Woodrow bucks the trend of mainstream culture, depicting energetic older couples surrounded by evidence of their accomplishments and their involvement in their communities. Woodrow explores how these couples maintain their independence and purpose given the inevitable challenges that come with age. As the project grew, she was inspired to create a record of the couples’ worlds, filled, in her words, “with meaningful pursuits, creativity, and love of home and each other.”

Woodrow spent time listening to her subjects’ stories as she documented facets of their lives at home, while also reflecting on cultural assumptions about the elderly. Her subjects are Canadian, middle class, from a wide range of professions, and mentally astute. The resulting series straddles the boundary between portraiture, social documentary, and visual narrative, contemplating the possibilities of what it can mean to be elderly in the twenty-first century.

A Brief Interview with Beryl Woodrow

BIFOCAL: Who influenced you as a photographer?

BW: For this particular series, it is the American photogra­pher Larry Sultan’s exhibition and consequent photo book called Pictures from Home.

BIFOCAL: Why did you choose to focus on older couples as the subjects of your work?

BW: My interest in photographing elder couples began as a documentary photography project at Emily Carr University of Art and Design (Vancouver, Canada). In 2012, I began photographing my neighbours, Marg, 89, and Don, 93, who have lived in their home for 53 years. With health issues and accommodation challenges that are a natural part of aging, I was interested in exploring through photography how elder couples are able to maintain their independence in their own home and how they establish meaning in their lives. I was also especially interested in how they support each other. My experience with Marg and Don was both inspiring and uplifting, eschewing all stereotypes and as a result led me to continue photographing elder couples as opportunity arose.

Don and Marg In the Study, Vancouver, 2012

Don and Marg In the Study, Vancouver, 2012

When asked what the secret to their 61 years of marriage, Marg said, “Keeping busy;” Don said “Two televisions.” This is Marg’s television room. - Photo and caption by Beryl Woodrow

BIFOCAL: How do you select your subjects?

BW: The eight couples I connected with over four years are my relatives, neighbors, families of friends, and friends of friends. They are middle class, from a wide range of professions, and mental­ly astute. These are people who know me or know me through people they trust.

BIFOCAL: Do you approach photographing older subjects differently than younger subjects?

BW: Each person is unique in who they are, despite age, so it is important for me to capture that special something of that person (and also in this series their relationship). I do that by getting to know them before I bring a camera in. Conversely, they have the opportunity to get to know me and to feel comfortable in my presence.

BIFOCAL: How much of a say do your subjects get in how they are photographed?

BW: When I get together with them the day before the session, I go over the intent of my project. They understand that I am interested in eschewing stereotypes of older people and am only interested in bringing out the best of who they are. If they have any special requests or have particular concerns I am always accommodating. As a thank you for their time I provide them with a number of 8 -1/2 by 11 photographs for them and their family.

BIFOCAL: From the selection of your work that I’ve viewed online, I notice that all your subjects seem to be white and affluent. Is this the case?

BW: The eight couples are all middle class and not of a visible minority as these are the people in my immediate circle of relatives and friends. I wanted to photograph them in their home, a very personal and private space. Trust was essential. Even though I did reach out to some couples through their children who are of varying ethnic­ity, they were not willing for whatever reason and I certainly understand.

BIFOCAL: What strategies have you developed to avoid stereotyping your subjects?

Mort Wearing His Cowboy Hat, Calgary, 2013

Mort Wearing His Cowboy Hat, Calgary, 2013

Mort dons his cowboy hat decorated with pins from past Calgary Stampedes. The Calgary Stampede is an annual event that Mort and Toto have been attending for as long as they can remember. -Photo and caption by Beryl Woodrow

BW: This is the whole goal of my project. We often see photographs of elders in various vulnerable and emotionally fraught situations, often in black and white, or in patronizing situations. Elders often feel dismissed by the younger population. Or we think of our own future with limited choices as we age. I wanted to show older adults that are vital, and fully engaged with life in order to break down stereotypes and wanted others to consider the possibilities of what it can mean to be elderly in the 21st century. In so doing I wanted to show the photos in colour, their involvement in their various activities and the environment filled with meaning and memory.

BIFOCAL: What did you learn about aging as the result of photographing older couples?

BW: As I reflected on my experience, I thought of what these couples share. I observed their senses of humour and positive attitudes. They are all engaged in creative stimulating activities and show a curiosity about the world. When they stopped driving or had difficulty with stairs or stopped making dinners as they had all their lives, they became resourceful. They all have a strong social network, a connection to community and a support system.

BIFOCAL: What would you like viewers to come away with when they see your work?

BW: I would like them to see elder people in a whole new light and to realize new possibilities as we age.

BIFOCAL: What do you hope your subjects will gain through participation in a photo shoot with you?

BW: They often tell me that my interest in their life made them feel important and valued.

BIFOCAL: Please describe your recent exhibition.

BW: This particular juried exhibition was shown at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver. The intent was to engage people in conversation during intermission. I had an opportunity to attend an opera while the exhibition was up. At intermission I watched and overheard and engaged with attendees while they viewed the photos. I watched one father discuss each photo with his 8-year-old son. I spoke with others who shared their own experience with their parents in their 90’s who are still living in their own home. I was surprised to learn how many people — single and couples — at this age are living interesting lives in their own home that are under the radar. 

About Beryl Woodrow

Having retired from a career as a resource teacher for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Beryl Woodrow now works as an extra in TV and films and is currently a student in the Certificate Photography Program at Langara College, Vancouver. She holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, a Postgraduate Diploma in Deaf Education, a Masters of Counselling Psychology from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and a Certificate in Fine Arts Technique from Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver.