I began photographing myself eight years ago when I turned 70, thinking I was simply chronicling my process of getting old. I didn’t realize that I would end up embracing these images as a tribute not just to my life but also to the demanding task of aging with grace.
I started with photographing my body. I have been obsessed since my teen years with staying thin, fueled by mild dysmorphia, which for me has been a preoccupation with the erroneous notion that I am fat. The original impulse for photographing my body came from this obsession. I’ve come to realize that this mistaken belief will always be with me; my task is to ignore the mind chatter it creates. I went on to expand this series of self-portraits to include pictures of my daily life, my partner, Igor, my fears and fantasies. I looked for new meaning by combining these recent images with photographs from my past. And I created a book of my final selections, and entitled it, Time As We Know It from a Eudora Welty quote: “The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable necessarily—perhaps not possibly—chronological. The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation.”
Carl Jung said, “Aging is not a process of inexorable decline but a time for progressive refinement of what is essential.”
So, what is essential to me?
Having a body that moves and supports me is paramount. That means I exercise daily. I also know I have to fuel myself with healthy food to sustain this active life and I have to allow enough time at night to sleep so my body can replenish itself.
DEEP SORROW FROM THIS HAS TAUGHT ME ABOUT DEEP KINDNESS TOWARD OTHERS AND MYSELF, THAT BEING KIND IS ESSENTIAL AND MORE IMPORTANT THAN BEING RIGHT.
I have a very active inner critic. I’ve lain awake many a night with its harsh words ringing in my ears, keeping me awake. When I was younger, this manifested in judging others and myself rather harshly. I’m stubborn and physically have a prominent jaw that can stick out when my heels dig in. I didn’t like to be criticized and could rarely laugh at myself. I wasn’t self-assured enough to know what I wanted, much less to speak up for it. I’ve held myself back from saying or doing what I wanted for fear I wouldn’t be liked or would be considered stupid. Influenced by my mother and her insistence on being a “good girl,” I cloaked myself in Christian piety as a young woman knowing that that persona just wasn’t me but being afraid to risk my mother’s disapproval and frankly not feeling secure enough to challenge her. There was actually a wild child lurking inside and I wonder if my mother actually recognized that and tried to control it. She used to say, “You’re just too much!” I fought with her over just about everything, sassed and ridiculed her. Somewhere along the way, I gained enough inner strength and courage to stand up for myself, to be willing to be vulnerable knowing it’s OK to ask that stupid question, make a mistake or admit I don’t know something. I’m learning to accept who I am and forgive myself for bad decisions I’ve made, to laugh at my foibles. I’ve grown to see my mother for the strong, caring woman she was and finally accepted her—one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve watched my older son pull away from me unable to forgive or accept me. Deep sorrow from this has taught me about deep kindness toward others and myself, that being kind is essential and more important than being right.
These insights are not acquired overnight. They come from examining my life and who I am and doing the hard work of taking responsibility for what this scrutiny uncovers. It’s an ongoing process. I want the freedom to be myself as I age and I want to present my experience truthfully. Photography has given me a way to witness this time honestly and artistically and to share my honoring of life and aging.
I’m a photographer, so I’ve been challenged to put words around something I do with my eyes and visual skills. Reading what I’ve written is a different experience than spending time looking at the photos. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words sums it up… the layers in my photos evoke more than these words I’m writing. If you go to MarnaClarke.com, you will see more of the project and find a way to obtain the book should you be interested.
I majored in math in college in order to get a job with IBM as a Systems Engineer. I stopped after 6 years, had babies and discovered through a dream that I wanted to photograph. I was living at that time in New York City in the early 1970s, married with 2 small sons. I attended classes at the mid-town YMCA in beginning photography and darkroom work.
Over the 45 years that have elapsed since, I have done commercial work, weddings, photojournalism, portraiture, and my own projects. I have always strived to communicate through my photos something bigger than what they physically represent, to make them go beyond just documenting, hopefully to transmit spiritually an experience or insight of mine to the viewer. This is what art is for me and it is essential in my life.
Being an artist requires being curious and adventurous, having a willingness to be vulnerable, to experiment, to take risks, make mistakes and to have the patience to do things over and over again to achieve this transmission. Growing old with a certain dignity, humility, wisdom and humor, requires the same.
BUT I’M HERE AT OLD AGE AND WANT TO BE A WITNESS TO WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME INSIDE AND OUT, SO I TAKE PHOTOS OF MYSELF IN MY LIFE AND SOMETIMES PAIR THEM WITH PICTURES OF MY PAST TO TELL STORIES.
The folly of obsessing over staying young prevents inhabiting our youth while we’re in it and enjoying all the freedoms it affords… and then as we get older and long to have that youth back, we likewise may miss our old age with its abundant peace and wisdom. We think we have one life to live and we have to stay young as long as we can, or fool others and ourselves by at least looking young. I’m as guilty as the next of wanting to stay looking younger than I am. We are so youth obsessive that old age has copped a bad rep. But I’m here at old age and want to be a witness to what is happening to me inside and out, so I take photos of myself in my life and sometimes pair them with pictures of my past to tell stories. I’m actually creating a memoire.
The photo at the top entitled, "Hands on Face" was taken in the living room of my childhood home. I obviously was irritated with my father for taking the picture. The one on the right was taken in the home of good friends where I happened to be spending the night. I noticed the handprints on the window when I opened the blinds in the morning and immediately set up my camera to capture the scene.
As I’ve shared this work, I’ve faced discomfort and disapproval from others for exposing what seem to be big taboos: aging, death and elder nudity. I’ve felt completely shaky and vulnerable, as if I’m exposing my own secrets to the whole world. I’ve known from other instances that sharing truthfully is a powerful experience for me and is potentially an invaluable gift for those who are ready and open to receive it.
I know this work has touched a lot of people, who feel ”seen,” who feel they’re not alone in their fears and shame of growing older, “unattractive” and useless in this youth-oriented culture. I feel an obligation to those whose lives I’ve touched and also to myself, to continue. I wasn’t aware in the beginning that doing this work would be therapy for me as I face the unknown myself.
Growing older has occasioned a gradual letting go of things I’ve taken for granted all my life: my youth, figure, memory, mobility, hearing. So much is out of my control; perhaps it always was, but I was blind to it. I enjoy not having to know everything or solve everything or be on top of everything… and am enjoying a slower paced life, having the time to reflect and wonder. I’m clear about what is important. Occasionally I think about dying, wondering what will do me in, when and where. But most days I’m in my studio engaged in various projects. Creativity keeps me busy, alive and vibrant. Thoughts of growing old recede as I immerse myself in my work.
Hand on Chest
I was in the first throes of photographing my body and I wanted to show my hands. I posed them several ways: each alone across my chest, both crossed, each a fist, both as fists, both pulling down on the collarbones. I find sometimes I need other eyes to help me decide on a photo, so I asked a girlfriend photographer which one she thought was the strongest and she chose the left hand alone across the chest. I see the feminine embodied in this gesture… protective, gentle, healing, loving, nurturing, strong.
This photo also shows the details of age spots, wrinkly knuckles, ridged nails, thin skin, bulging blood vessels. The skin on my chest shows sun damage, the price I’m paying for hours of laying out in the sun unprotected. Being tan made me feel sexy and healthy and attractive and so I bathed and gave the finger to the future.
Reaction to this photo is usually one of two:
- I’m committing suicide a la Edna Pontellier walking into the Gulf of Mexico in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, or Virginia Wolfe walking into the River Ouse with stones in her pockets.
- I’m facing potential danger unflinchingly and walking toward it.
This scenario actually came out of a dream. I originally wanted to wear a black wetsuit, then thankfully decided on a black sweater and silk skirt that ended up nicely billowing as I strode bravely into the water. This actually was my very first dip into the Pacific Ocean, and possibly my last, and I have lived here for 16 years. I immersed myself in the frigid ocean only as far as my crotch and repeated this routine for about 200 shots, many unusable because they were out of focus or not interesting enough. The chosen image was early on in the sequence as the skirt is still dry.
I am not suicidal nor have I ever attempted to kill myself. I did read The Awakening ages ago, and again when I dreamed this image in 2014. For me it represents the courage I have had to summon throughout my life in order to forge new paths alone.
In high school I discovered that one of my classmates who lived nearby had peeked in my bedroom window at night repeatedly. Instantly he became a creep to me and even to this day, I cannot look at him without feeling invaded.
I re-created a Peeping Tom scene in which I was performing the ordinary task of getting dressed. The house I now live in has a bedroom on the ground level easily visible through several windows. One of them accessed almost the whole room and the available lighting worked to render a realistic scene. The remote shutter release device was having a hard time working through the screen so I employed Igor’s assistance. I would try a pose and tell him through the open window to click the shutter. The camera was set to focus on me for several shots and then on the window screen itself with the latter setting imparting more the feeling of being outside the window looking in. I later combined the chosen photo with an old black and white shot our dad had taken of my older sister and me in the front yard of our new house in 1942. The peeping tom window is not visible in this photo but is around the right corner of the house toward the back.
I have had many incidences in my life of male abuse…what woman my age hasn’t? This one seems innocuous when compared to some of the others, but it was the first and carries a powerful impact of helplessness… and rage.
The Shirt (formerly entitled “Imperial Hotel” where it was taken)
Igor and I often take small trips around California to celebrate our birthdays. For mine in 2014, we went to Amador City in Gold Country and stayed in what appeared to be the only hotel in town. I woke early and saw this magnificent light coming in the window reflecting in the table top and sculpting Igor’s shirt placed on the back of a chair the night before. I quickly and quietly got up, assembled the camera on the tripod and snapped away.
I have made several images that convey the absence of a person. Here it is Igor, though it could easily be my shirt as well and my absence. We’ve talked about death and what we each want as a final celebration and it’s a bit spooky but necessary. I feel Igor’s presence in that shirt, as if he’s there talking with me as I photograph or get dressed. And I love the sun shining through the transparent curtain giving a hint of the warm outdoors, and the dresser deep in shadow behind the chair.
I have not had many deaths occur among close friends and family… my parents, of course, and only two close friends. I had taken portraits of Carla a couple of years before she died, none of her home or a chair without her in it. I wish I had. She is the one who taught me about kindness as she was discovering it for herself struggling to survive the painful cancer consuming her lungs. George was the brother I never had. Two years ago he became quite ill at 77 and pulled the plug when he realized he would no longer be able to live the life he wanted.
This was a simple shot to make. I was taking pictures in a room that faced east (the same room as in "Peeping Tom") with the light illuminating my body. I turned around and saw my shadow on the wall and realized there was another image. I had to remove all the artwork installed on the wall and used my shadow to camouflage that of the camera and tripod. The photo actually shows the texture of the plastered wall and appears black and white with some mysterious green glow in a couple of areas.
I often place this photo at the end of a sequence; for me it evokes the personification of the eternal spirit.