In with the old: Women over 55 are rarely photographed, so Nancy Honey used the latest technology to put them in the picture. Jane Richards reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The American photographer Nancy Honey has become well known for her work with younger women and adolescents in photo-series such as 'Woman to Woman' and 'Entering the Masquerade' where she looked at the ways in which social roles are constructed for women from an early age. She has now turned her attention to women over retirement age, having long been fascinated by the fact that there are 'so many older women on the streets that we automatically disregard'.

'Old Enough to Know Better', now showing at the Cambridge Darkroom, comprises large-scale colour portraits of older women. These photographs are also used, in conjunction with archival material, voice-overs and music on a CD-Rom disc, to address the problems of what Honey considers 'an ageist society.' As she explains, 'I am concerned about the position of elderly women within our society. After the age of 55, women seem to be on the scrapheap. There doesn't seem to be any traditional role for them within modern culture and it is particularly rare to see a woman above the age of 55 in the visual media - broadcasting for instance, or on advertising posters - or in any active role.'

Honey set out to try and recruit as many women as possible to photograph and talk to her about their lives and the prospect of old age. She visited elderly day-centres, but it was at the University of the Third Age - a little- known organisation run and attended by retired people - that her open invitation on the college notice-board attracted the greatest response.

Honey then began to research her subjects in earnest: first photographing them, then spending hours talking with them at their own homes and looking through family snapshots. And she made a point of broaching the question of their relationships with men, a subject which she found to be a convenient starting point from which to discuss issues such as marriage, children ('most of them said that their children were the best thing that had ever happened to them') and - most pertinently - sexuality. 'Most of the women I talked to found that life improved once the pressure to perform and to look a certain way had been removed.'

'One thing that came across very strongly,' she says, 'was the notion of time. Most older women seem to be extremely positive about the amount of time available to them in their later years. And the difference here is that it is their own time to devote to themselves, as opposed to other people like husbands, children or careers.'

Nancy Honey was compelled to compile a series of colour portraits of older women 'to represent what is missing in our visual culture'. It's a strong idea - reinforced by the information supplied on CD-Rom.

'Family pictures are wonderful mementoes' Honey says, 'they record a narrative of a particular family history that also includes clues to those people's background and social history. But what they don't tell us is how a person feels, only what they look like.'

She has gone some considerable way to providing the solution. The CD- Rom as exhibition space is currently all the rage - but Honey and her team have resisted the temptation to over- crowd the concept with too much technology. This is a very simple idea - a kind of computerised scrap-book with sound effects: viewers can see photographs of Jenny and Edith as older women, set against snapshots taken from their youth, accompanied by music which reflects their tastes and backgrounds (Jenny chose classical music, while Edith went for 'Annie's Song'). Honey hopes it will be taken up as a valuable insight into the lives of older women: 'I am hoping not only to glean their rich experience of life, but also cast them into a role as mentor.'

Cambridge Darkroom Gallery, Dales Brewery, Gwydir Street, Cambridge (0223 566725) To 2 Oct

(Photograph omitted)