The Broader Picture: About as old as it gets

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The Independent Culture
THE NINETIES IS BBC2's last-chance oral history series, featuring the extremely old. People who were born under Victoria, who lived through six reigns and two world wars, and who can't have long to go now, look back on their lives.

The second programme is screened tonight. But alongside the series, Grace Robertson - best known for the photographs she took for Picture Post in the Fifties - was commissioned to do some portraits of these ancient witnesses. These images are now on show in the foyer of the National Theatre. Robertson generally came along after the television crews, spending a day with each person. She found longevity made for good sitters. 'They've passed the stage where they are concerned how their faces are going; they're not afraid to let their feelings show.'

It's clearly a fine subject for the camera. But as a research project it is rather odd - a strange kind of random sampling. Ann Paul, executive producer of the series, says: 'They are our last living contact with a world that has vanished forever,' which is true enough - for the moment. But next year, or next decade, there will be another lot from another, slightly later vanished world. The aged are a permanently disappearing tribe. What singles this group out is the arbitrary coincidence of their being roughly as old as it is possible to be, and also roughly as old as the century.

And, in terms of history, wouldn't the sensible thing be to catch them earlier, rather than waiting until it was almost too late? Many more to choose from after all. But clearly that doesn't have the same appeal. We want to hear it from the really old because what we want is not history so much as a sense of history: the sense of rarity - there being only a few survivors left - and of distance - the longest view, with the greatest contrasts of experience.

You certainly get that from some of the people opposite. You're looking at people familiar with rickets, who went out to convert cannibals, who lived when death was not yet the 'new taboo' and sex still was one. Lillian Christofas (top right) reveals the shock of her wedding-night: 'I didn't know there was such a thing as erections. I didn't know a man dug that awful thing into a woman.' George Cureton (bottom left), on the other hand, remained married in perfect chastity for 43 years.

What we want, above all, perhaps, is the sheer spectacle of great age. But that's something Robertson resisted. She says: 'I'm not interested in what some photographers call the geography of the face. I'm interested in the personality of the face.' She tried not to take the moments that brought out all the lines. 'I was determined not to show them at the zimmer-frame stage. I wanted to catch the resilience they have.'

And that's clear too. Photography, it is said, is the art of transience and mortality. But in this case it has found some of the least transient, least mortal people around.-

(Photograph omitted)