In the first of our series of features around photography of the over 50s, we talk to Alex B. a successful ‘mature’ model whose blog is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the issues around age and imagery
I came across Alex.B’s blog in a reference to discussions around older models. Her blog is more than a platform for showcasing a portfolio, though it does that, it’s a media-savvy discussion around all things related to ageing and fashion. Recent posts include discussing what’s at stake in the increasing choice to use using ‘real’ people rather than models in shoots (see below), Trades Unions and models, and fashion body types.
Alex’s background as you will see below is an eclectic mix – a life-long love of dance, a relatively recent entrance to the world of modelling, and a career in teaching Visual Culture at University. Her knowledge of History of Art frames her insight into issues of ageing and representations of the body, and her long mane of silver, grey hair has made her acutely attuned to conversations around greyness and women. In the UK there has been a flurry of stories around greyness from the appalling social media abuse of Classics academic Mary Beard, to the flurry of stories around the appearance of grey hair revealed by the Duchess of Cambridge.
Alex.B addresses this issue of greyness and ageing in a sophisticated way, and any brands or ad agencies looking to understand the subtle complexities and communication issues around ageing could learn something from Alex. I certainly did.
Tell us a little about your background?
I do have a background in dance, which I studied, but alongside my dance training I also did a ‘proper’ degree because my father thought that as a dancer I would be begging in the streets. Not that he was incorrect in that assessment though I only realised that many years later.
I got very involved in my academic studies, I was at SOAS and ended up doing a Ph.D. I did Archaeology and Art History, but I expanded my brief over the years I was involved in researching performance but with an anthropological approach, I travelled to India and Southeast Asia, and my dance continued but obviously not as a professional.
I am dancing now, I had a dance class today but that’s because I am thinking of auditioning for a particular company which is run by the teacher whose class I attended, she asked me to join to see how I would do, and I will be formally auditioning before the end of the month. And this is a very exciting company because it is for older dancers, it’s called Counterpoint, it is a semi-professional company, it’s exciting to be back in all that.
How did you get into modelling?
There are two different sides to this. One is the life modelling which I used to do when I was a student, modelling for Art classes, but never with a view to having that as my main career. I started doing photographic modelling much, much later, in my mid to late 40s. I started off as a commercial model because I started off in an agency, and I also went back to life modelling for fun.
At some point I was asked if I would like to pose for photographic art nudes, which is what I did. So there are three intersecting strands to my modelling, and from commercial modelling I kind of switched (I’m a mature model so these categories don’t really apply) I started doing editorial work as well – my look can be seen as edgy because I have very long hair. In fact commercial work is getting a little more difficult to get because I don’t look like a granny or a young granny, I would have to chop my hair off, which I am not interested in doing. I have been modelling for some years now.
The title of your blog “The Real Does Not Efface Itself” is from a philosopher who is also quoted in The Matrix?
It is from Jean Baudrillard, it is the beginning of that long quote where he discusses “hyperreality” [‘more real than the real’] and I thought that’s quite appropriate for my blog. It’s evocative.
One of the things I wanted to ask you about was the recent Mirror Mirror conference at the London College of Fashion on ageing and representation?
You would have liked it because one of the presentations was about photography. One of the things my blog is about is not only fashion and advertising but also the body, the older body. I am an older model I do art nudes, and there is nothing to be ashamed of just because it is an older body. There is beauty in an older body just as there is beauty in a younger body.
The conference at the LCF had a mix of academic papers and lighter presentations, it was about understanding where ageing studies is at because it is a new kind of discipline. One of the papers I really enjoyed was by Margaret Gullette who gave a presentation about the power of photography to change perceptions. She mentioned that ageism made positive attitudes to the older body impossible – the older body is seen as a decrepit body. She was looking at different ways in which it was being subverted and there was this photograph, The Giant by Jeff Wall, she is a nude older woman, Miriam Goodman.
She showed an image by Annie Liebovitz, an amazing profile of this older woman, she also showed Richard Avedon’s photo of his father which is in fact a vision of decrepitude. It’s quite famous, Richard Avedon, had some quite mixed feelings about it, if I recall. The point of the paper was how photography can help to change perception. OK, I knew that, but it was interesting to have that said in that context and also to have an image of a nude model, a very beautiful image, she was statuesque, she was a dancer. She is an actually older, the photograph brings out those qualities you don’t see her as a decrepit older woman, it’s a majestic image.
This ties in with what I have been trying to do, so even though I have never specialised as a model – I do fashion, I do commercial work – the art nude is something close to my heart. There is scope for older people to participate in that genre of photography, they can look beautiful. The other point that Margaret Gullette made is that it is very much ‘born in the eye of the photographer’ – the photographer can make you look horrible no matter what you are – or very beautiful.
It is something that needs to be negotiated, the camera is an extension of the eye of the photographer. It brings me to something that people tend to say, that some people are photogenic some people are not. Actually what photogenic means is that you feel comfortable in front of the camera, it’s not that some people have this special thing. Some people relax, some people feel very awkward and it is that awkwardness that doesn’t allow them to express themselves. You learn as you go along to relate to the camera.
Feeling comfortable is clearly important in getting a good image, Grant Squibb talked to us recently about that transferable skill he brought from social work. It’s either being comfortable yourself or working with a very good photographer skilled in empathy…
I was very fortunate when I started doing Art nudes I was working with some very good photographers. On my very first shoot the photographer made me relax, I didn’t see the images during the shoot, it was shot on film, I only saw the images much later and I liked them. Then I worked with another photographer who was good, he was after something specific, he was the kind of photographer who liked very ‘real’, very uncontrived images but at the same time looked at his subjects very sympathetically. A lot of the pictures he took of me were very beautiful and I felt very good about myself. But I am a performer, I enjoy being photographed.
There was a word you used there, the ‘real’ and this notion of what’s real in photography is an issue you raise in a blog post “Models are real women too”
The issue of using models or ‘real’ women, it’s such a false distinction that is seeping through. Models are ‘real’ women too.
It’s a marketing construction not a photographic one, a marketing idea…
It’s a false idea, I want to see diversity on the catwalk not just in advertising. I joined Equity for example [the actor’s union] ages ago as a performer I was a aware the fact there was such a thing as a union. But now there is an Equity models network. Many models particularly in fashion, they are not women yet, they are teenagers, that is why they can be painfully thin, which is not abnormal for a teenager, when I was a teenager I was really skinny. There is this childlike idea that is flouted, then there is the category of ‘real’ people…no, we should reconsider this whole category of models.
You feature in The Guardian Weekend’s Fashion For All Ages, a regular fashion article run over a spread which – it’s a simple idea and a fascinating photo project. It’s amazing what ideas a great Editorial concept can smuggle in
The Guardian Fashion For All Ages has a very interesting history, it only started in 2009. The Guardian had very little to do with fashion 15 years ago, but now the magazine is quite an important one in terms of fashion coverage. They had this idea of having older models as well as younger ones, and diversity in terms of the ethnicity of the models, and occasionally they have male models too. I asked my agent to put me forward because they are always looking for new models, for variety.
It was a good thing to be on, but it is only The Guardian who do it, why don’t other magazines do it? The styling is done in such a way that it shows older women can also be stylish. You need to adapt things, as an older woman you don’t want to mimic a younger woman, you need to interpret things in your own way. It would be nice to see more older models. But having said that, there is this famous older model who is 85, a British model, called Daphne Selfe, and she was at the conference, I had the pleasure meeting her in the flesh. She had been featured by RED magazine.
When did your grey hair become a symbol, signifier for you and your work?
That’s an interesting thing. I started going grey quite early on, it’s a genetic thing, I have my father’s hair and by the age of 24 I already had grey hair, just like my son who is 26. The difference is, when I discovered it I was horrified, it made me run for the nearest colour dye. For a long time I coloured my hair but I got really tied of that and when I turned 40 I decided, “I am going to have grey hair”. And I chopped it all off, and it grew again within a couple of months, and I then experimented with the length. It’s harder to find work as a commercial model with a bob, I could represent a particular age group but I wanted to have long hair, and may hair grows very fast and very thick. And I decided I didn’t want to cut it and it became not just a signifier but a whole series of signifiers representing women, there’s a whole movement about embracing your grey as part of your ageing process. Fine, except I don’t want the whole idea of ageing to be reduced to this kind of thing – “if you colour your hair you’re not ageing well” or “if you don’t colour your hair you are ageing well.” No. It’s about grey being accepted as a colour, and separating it from ageing. There are young women in their 30s with grey hair. I won’t regard them as old, most of them colour their hair – grey is not necessarily to be associated with old age. I found with my very long grey hair it became easier to find work as a model because in fashion and editorial it’s all about being quirky, it’s all about being different – long grey hair, yes that works. I used that to my advantage.
You had the confidence to be able to deliver that
Yes. The one time I succumbed to a request by the bookers, another agency I was with, I agreed to cut my hair – it was a big mistake. That was back in 2007. Fortunately my hair grew again, within two years it was long, not as long as it is now. She said you can get more commercial work if you have a bob.
No. It didn’t bring me any more work. I like it long, and if I want I can tuck it in, which is something people have done, it made me laugh. People selected me for this commercial, then they asked me on the day, they asked the stylist to tuck my hair in so it would look like a bob. I was thinking, ok they are afraid of having a woman with very long white hair, because women will not identify with her.
So what are the common assumptions and conventions around ageing?
The popular understanding of ageing is that you age gracefully, which means –you do not age. And that is what has been projected. You have a celebrity culture, women do whatever they can to look young, at whatever age, 60, 70, the idea is you age well to look ageless.
The culture has to allow you to age?
Being ageless is not a bad thing in itself, but to understand ageing as a basic process is important. The idea that you need to fight constantly in order to look young or ageless that’s wrong. One of the reasons I like Daphne Selphe is that she is 85, she looks good as her age, she doesn’t look younger, she doesn’t try to look younger. It’s good to look after yourself, it’s good to take care of your health, that’s part of the whole process of ageing, you look after your teeth, you exercise, but the idea that at 80 I am going to have cosmetic surgery so that my face doesn’t have a single wrinkle. That’s a bit silly isn’t it?
Are we seeing more over 50s over 60s in Fashion and Advertising?
Very slowly yes, but it is an uphill struggle but we will be seeing more of that because there are more older people than younger people. Its do so with the fact that people are living longer. In Italy were I comes from, there are a greater number of older people, it’s to do with demographics.
Clients, people with the marketing cash, will enable this to happen when they see photographers and people like yourself figuring out visual forms of representing older people that actually connects with how this generation of people see themselves
Absolutely, I think in a way the push has come from Art photography because Art photography isn’t tied to specific economic interests. That’s why it’s a very interesting platform in terms of changing people’s perceptions. When you do artwork and you are presenting yourself as an older model, this can do a lot. Not everybody understands, not everybody follows Art Nude photography but it’s a way of changing perceptions, because Art Nudes is connected with portraiture.
You can read Alex.B’s thoughts in her blog The Real Does Not Efface Itself The video below, Visiting Hour featuring Alex was made by filmmaker Marie Schuller as part of Showstudio’s Fashion Fetish series. According to the blurb, “The work references themes of age, memory and fantasy….Deliberately combating the under-representation of mature women in sexual imagery, the film delivers a pointed depiction of older females as sexual, beautiful and powerful beings.” That’s something you can decide for yourself, the film includes nudity.