Age and Consent
by Martin Thomas, Artlink Volume 19 No 3, January 1999
Exhibitions often bring fortuitous collisions. I visited Ella Dreyfus' exhibition 'Age and Consent' a few days after re-reading Walt Whitman's poem 'Faces'. Sauntering through America, the poet describes and celebrates the myriad faces along the way, concluding with a grandmother who looks out from her Quaker cap, her face clearer and more beautiful than the sky. He contemplates the linen of her gown, sensing:
"The melodious charchter of the earth, The finish beyond which philosophy cannot go and does not wish to go, The justified mother of men."
Whitman captures the tranquility of an aged person who has lived well. Yet, for all the solemnity of this almost universal encounter, I wonder how often these days a poet would discern such grace in the face of an elderly woman? In an epoch where youth and beauty are seen as inseparable, the idea borders on the uncanny. How strange that our preoccupation with longevity, the indicator by which the West measures its superiority over other cultures is smitten with nostalgia for an unattainable youth. Age really is the problem of our age. Dreyfus addresses this in her exhibition, a project emerging from residencies at aged care units around Sydney, and also from her extensive network of older friends.
That the human body, especially the female body, is the subject of a pernicious form of colonisation is axiomatic to Dreyfus. Yet far from despairing at the beauty ethos, with its lamentable effect upon women's self-image, she uses her art to radically expand channels of vision. The female nude might seem the most hackneyed of artistic subjects. Hence the achievement of images that bring new light to what ostensibly is familiar ground. The background to this project is revealing. Her previous intervention on imagery of the body occurred in the early 1990s with an exhibition and subsequently a book about the pregnant nude. The bellies swollen to the point of bursting, the superb and exaggerated curvature of womanly form, suggested an elemental timelessness. I was powerfully reminded of Henry Moore.
The photographs were popular and mesmerising. They championed the generosity, the fecundity, the aesthetic worth of the pregnant body, inviting the viewer to contemplate a place of origin. In contrast, the temporal gaze in 'Age and Consent' is directed forwards, not backwards. The show is all the more confronting because it points not to where I came from but to what I will become.
Photographs can have their own fecundity. The gallery not only houses images but facilitates their generation as memories and sensations come floating through. The photos are large, their format square (suggesting an evenness in proportion). With the power of magnification, the changes time has wrought upon the body, the fineness of wrinkled flesh, the tissue texture I know so well from holding my grandmother's arms, are simply stated.
A veil has been dropped and shielded from the returning gaze, it is kind of safe to play voyeur. Depiction of the nude is typically inextricable from issues of sexuality and desire. Hence the revelation of seeing nudes where these factors are not at the forefront, which state with a certain brutality, the warts and all reality of a time in our lives. No part of the body is hidden from the all-seeing lens. Scars, stretch marks, pubic hair coarse or absent, the patches discreetly worn for hormone replacement purposes, are there in all their nakedness.
These images are not really about making beautiful what is usually maligned as some have suggested. That is only part of the story. Beauty is hardly ubiquitous among the young, and among the aged it tends to leap out only here and there. I find it in a torso stretched and stretched again by its erstwhile inhabitants who have left a vessel, perfectly tempered, that has done everything it was designed to do.
But there is much about old age that is cruel, painful and debilitating, that rots the body or maybe worse, decays the mind. One part of the exhibition shows women in geriatric car. Some suffer dementia. There is a frightening portrait of an old, old woman. Her hands block her eyes to speak all too plainly in their silence of unresolved grief. As rich in narrative as the bodies themselves are the signatures of the models; they all gave written consent which the artist has reproduced, enlarged and displayed alongside the photo of its make. Some commence with a certain assurance then drift off into doodleland. Others have a tight, studied control.
Ultimately, I felt a deep sense of gratitude from this experience: not just to the artist but to the many women photographed who were brave enough to show their bodies as they are. Amidst the mixed bag of feelings it generated - fear, admiration, mirth, the oddity of being a man and encountering these secrets of womanhood, were moments of such richness and resonance.
My favourite is a diagonal stretch of torso where breast are flattened and belly is rounded, the skin folded in corrugations so fine they might have been carved with the etcher's tool. The navel, oval and cradled by surrounding flesh, is the eye of the picture, steadfast as a star. She was connected once, as others were connected to her. Nakedness can bring truthfulness and here indeed I sensed the melodious character of the earth.
Age and Consent
by Ella Dreyfus, Age and Consent catalogue 1999
Age and Consent is a continuation of my long-held fascination (some would say obsession) with perceptions and representations of the female body. For many years, my art practice focused on the maternal body as a site of cultural taboos and on the struggle for the self-representation of female sexuality (Pregnancy Series, Stills Gallery, 1992, The Body Pregnant, McPhee Gribble, 1993). In 1994, I was invited to work as artist-in-residence in the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Women and Babies at Liverpool Hospital. This was followed by another residency in 1996, in the Aged Care Unit of the same hospital. From being surrounded by new life, I was suddenly confronted by illness and death.
I began the second artist-in-residency with fairly romanticised expectations of what I would photograph. I envisioned an atmosphere of healing and closeness, where touch, skin and affection would be visible. The reality of the hospital ward, with its regimentation, cleanliness and states of anxiety altered these preconceptions. Upon showing the work prints to the staff, it became evident from their discomfort, that certain images were unacceptable in the controlled, sanitised environment of the hospital. There was an aversion to pictures that depicted illness and mortality, and an unwritten code that demanded I represent an institutionally-sanctioned portrayal of the dignity and benignity of old age. The images that form Age and Consent I are a selection from these seemingly unacceptable photographs.
As I watched the patients with dementia sign a consent form (giving me permission to photograph them), I noticed they were pleased to be asked if they could sign their names and took pride in their ability to sign. It was as though I was witnessing an act that signified the last vestiges of their identity and dignity. While their signatures gave me license to use their image, I wondered if they knew what they were consenting to.
About two years ago I took a snapshot of my grandmother, Rose, a slender woman of 90, standing in the garden. Her response shocked me, as all she seemed to notice was the size of her stomach. Last year I approached other women to model for a new series of photographs and continually heard them berate their bodies for being too fat, too saggy and too old. They spoke with feelings of disgust and revulsion for the state of their bodies, as if they had failed to measure up to the cultural imperative that demands the maintenance of physical health and youthful vitality. Needless to say, I was thrilled every time someone agreed to be photographed in the nude, because it signified a courageousness to confront both their discomfort with their bodies and societal pressures.
The images in Age and Consent II and III were made in a far more collaborative way. The subjects were women I knew personally and the photo sessions were conducted within the intimate environment of my home studio. In addition to signing the consent form, a further verbal agreement was made that gave the women the right to veto any of the images for this exhibition, although none of them did.
I am aware that the responses to this exhibition will vary widely. My aim is not merely to shock, rather to provoke people to think about a subject that, inevitably, concerns all of us, but is often avoided. I would like to acknowledge those whose thoughts and ideas have contributed to the development and understanding of my work; writes Lynda Nead and Iris Marion Young and writer, photographer, feminist Jo Spence, whose work addresses the aesthetic, cultural and medical discourses of the female body, desire and death.
Age and Consent
by Alison Rossback, Age and Consent catalogue, 1999
I enjoyed the privilege of participating in Ella Dreyfus' Age and consent exhibition. It reminded me of the stages of my body over my 60 odd years. How, in my 20's, it was there to attract a mate and bear children, in my 30s and 40s, to be strong in nurturing my children.
When I came into my 50s, I realised more and more that all this was pre-planned for me, so that I was able to live in this world consciousness. My body was a wrapping and was one of three parts of me: my mind, my spirit and my body. Now I am in my 60s, I revel that I have survived to still function in this world before I start my next stage of growth. Now my body tells a story to other eyes of my life on earth.
Age and Consent
by Jacqueline Millner,, Age and Consent catalogue, February 1999
Throughout Western culture, the ageing woman has been characterised as a problem. Her behaviour described by Freud as "peevish, argumentative and sadistic", has come to legitimise the social ostracism she suffers:
"The older woman evokes in herself and in others the horror and fear of an inappropriate sexual desire that lingers through the very process of ageing, physical degradation and decay. Objectively viewed, she is ludicrous, grotesque, sloppy, self-pitying and abjectly needy. Subjectively felt, she is an excess woman, desperately afraid of invisibility, uselessness, lovelessness, but also deeply furious at both the double standard of ageing in a patriarchal culture and her acquiescence to male heterosexist values and the self-contempt they engender". (Vivian Sobchack)
Yet after what amounts to forced exclusion from the sexual economy, to be peevish, argumentative and sadistic is not entirely inappropriate, it may be what it takes to assert one's bodily and desiring existence. Nonetheless, contrary to Freud's implication, these traits are not the natural consequence of impending menopause, but result rather from the manner in which a society regards old age. How is it that the process of a woman's ageing, which should attest to her fortitude and good health, has come to represent the ultimate abjection? Ella Dreyfus' three part exhibition, Age and Consent, explores this very question.
Featuring close to life-size cropped nudes, banner-sized diaphanous images of dementia patients, and pairs of seated portraits, this work underlines that how we think of old age is directly related to how old age is represented in our culture, suggesting that the negative symbolism associated with female old age is not an immutable phenomenon.
The representation of aged women is partly a problem of visibility. The older woman is not easily characterised as either the object or the subject of the gaze; she is often so threatening and disgusting a sight that the gaze quickly slides over her to disavow her visibility. Perhaps because the visibly aging body represents a challenge to the self-deluding fantasies of immortality that mark the dominant culture, the aged, in particular women, drop out of public space and the domain of the universal into the desolately private and particular. In their invisibility, their subjectivity is easily denied. In Age and Consent, Dreyfus is concerned to affirm the public presence of the aged, to facilitate the reclamation of some cultural territory for the expression of their experience.
Dreyfus is keenly aware that loss of visibility often goes hand in hand with loss of agency, and even eventual loss if identity. This the artist poignantly captures in the series of signatures which she gathered from some of her subjects; the jagged and brittle Copperplate embodies their desperate effort to retain some integrity. Loss of agency also resonates in the fact that we do not choose old age, that our bodies elude our control and change without our consent. Moreover, a body which corresponds to cultural stereotypes of what is "feminine" is generally crucial to a woman's sense of herself as female and as an existing individual; to exceed the boundaries of the properly feminine through old age may well precipitate a shattering loss of identity. After all, "the body by which a woman feels herself judged is the body of early adolescence, slight and unformed, a body lacking flesh and substance, a body in whose very contours the image immaturity has been inscribed" (Sandra Lee Bartky). Dreyfus' images ask us to consider what happens to a woman's sense of self when her body no longer matches this narrow stereotype of femininity.
But Dreyfus is not concerned solely with visibility. How a society and individual women themselves portray old age, in what contexts, according to which conventions and cultural codes, to expound which values and ideologies, are also key aspects of her project. Rarely are older women featured in popular culture other than as the butt of humour or the object of pity or loathing. We may never encounter images of the naked aged body outside specialised medical discourse. And while the history of western art may well be in large part the representation of the human form, old women do not really feature in the pantheon of The Nude, certainly not in accordance with the conflation of the female nude with beauty and desirability. So when we come across monumental images of ageing nudes in the art gallery, we are confounded.
Dreyfus, as in her Pregnancy Series, appeals to a classical aesthetic, to well-tried conventions of representing the nude; the figures are headless and decontextualized, the poses at times reminiscent of odalisques familiar from art history. Moreover, the artist is clearly concerned with the creation of beautiful prints. Some of these images recall Edward Weston's nudes, or even the erotic "making strange" of Man Ray. However, Dreyfus' nudes are not the blemish-free abstractions which invite the projection of heterosexist fantasy. They are marked and worn, most decidedly lived bodies with individual life histories and stories to tell. Messages are scrawled on every inch of skin: thank you notes, birth certificates, valentine cards. These bodies are, in the words of Carla Kirkwood, journals in 3-D, chronicles of time, of family, class, gender and nation, testimonies to history. The lived experience of these women also over determines the poses they assume. In the seated portraits, we see vestiges of that unspoken imperative that women should take up as little space as possible, knees together, back straight, hands demure. But this language of subordination is not as evident in the nudes, where we see the women becoming looser, loucher even, extending beyond the boundaries of the proper. Dreyfus invites us to explore what happens to the artistic and photographic conventions of representing the nude when the body departs from the ideal of beauty.
Age and Consent hovers between art photography and documentary. Documentary photography is often deployed in the cause of social reform, although no longer unproblematically, given concerted critiques of photograph's exclusive claim on the real. As Abigail Solomon-Godeau points out, oppositional documentary practices operate within larger representational systems that usually go to limit or even neutralise them, so that they often fall prey to the same passive contemplation or voyeuristic consumption associated with the mass media that they pit themselves against. Dreyfus is well aware that severing negative symbolism from female old age is a far more complex task than the exhibition of positive images. For this reason, her project is as attendant to process as it is to the final product. Dreyfus here has predominantly photographed friends, relatives and neighbours. She has entered into intimate dialogue with these women, listened to the tales around their scars, empathised with their fear and anger at social exclusion. And she has throughout the compilation of images scrupulously conferred with her subjects, granting them veto rights over the photos. In a sense, Dreyfus' process is a complex collaboration, a subtle exercise in empowerment, and hence radically distinct from "socially concerned" victim photography, and the presentation of the exotic or bizarre for the audience's titillation.
Combining erudition is codes of representation, sensitivity to the plight of elderly women, and a passionate belief in the power of art to precipitate change, Dreyfus has conceived a poignant and exuberant exhibition. Age and Consent is aesthetically alluring, bold in its statement and undeniably empowering to those many women whose existence is all but denied by the dominant culture. It effectively plays out the aged woman's real revenge: to insist she is alive, in the world, and ever full of desire.
by Elisabeth Wynhausen,, The Australian, 11th March 1999
Photographer Ella Dreyfus doesn't want to shock people, she says. But she expects some will feel confronted by her work. Even before the opening of her photographic exhibition, Age and Consent, at the Stills Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, next week a few acquaintances offered a peek at the pictures firmly said no, they didn't want to see them.
Indeed the show will drive some people from the gallery fighting down a sense of disgust. The images of the broken bodies we see on the television news practically every night aren't nearly as disconcerting as images of ordinary old nude bodies.
"We should be so proud people have lived to this age. But people are frightened of it. It's a horror and revulsion of an older body - especially an older woman's body," she says.
Dreyfus, 38, a vibrant woman with short, dark hair radiates a strong sense of purpose. Interested in rendering people who have become invisible - just have because they're old - visible again, she dares to say that her exhibition celebrates the "diversity and sensuality of the aged body".
And improbable as it may sound, anyone who sees her photographs of the mischievous looking 77-year-old woman who turned up for the modelling session with her old Christian Dior underwear (but didn't hesitate to shed it) will understand what Dreyfus means. The body belies the decades. The eyes still have a speculative sparkle.
Though intent on provoking us to think about a subject most would rather avoid, she isn't on some kind of crusade. "My aim isn't to break the taboo. To me it's about showing myself - it's about being a woman," she says. A featured event of Senior's Week 1999, Age and Consent is sponsored by The Body Shop with the idea of promoting more positive images of old age.
Since Dreyfus was an art school student she's been interested in photographing the body - particularly the female body. In fact she made her reputation in the early 90s with her Pregnancy Series - images of naked pregnant women widely praised for the unexpectedness of their beauty and eroticism. The critics suggested the work was powerful enough to affect the way women are seen in society. Following the show at Stills Gallery, which drew its biggest crowds ever, says Dreyfus, McPhee Gribble published her book The Body pregnant.
In 1994 Dreyfus was invited to be artist-in-residence at the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Women and Babies at Liverpool Hospital in Western Sydney. A fraction of the money for the hospital's redevelopment had been put aside for the creation of new art works - and in 1996 Dreyfus was again asked to be artist-in-residence, this time in the hospital's Aged Care Unit.
"From being surrounded by new life I was suddenly confronted by illness and death", she writes in the catalogue of her forthcoming show. Rather over-idealising the situation beforehand she and imagined making photographs that captured the essence of the healing process with images of "touch, skin and affection".
The hospital's regimen - and the patients' own understandable reluctance to be pictured naked, at their most vulnerable and feeble - forced her to rethink her project.
When hospital staff reacted with dismay to the resulting photographs, Dreyfus realised that they had wanted images of benign and dignified old age, not images of illness and mortality, she tells me.
We have met at the house in Balmain she shares with her husband and two children. Upstairs in her attic studio where the windows from the view of the harbour bridge, she unfurls large prints of the work.
The photographs hospital staff found difficult to deal with form part of Age and Consent. The inexpressibly moving images show old people with degrees of dementia. Whatever consenting to have their photographs taken may have meant to them, they took great pride in signing their names, says Dreyfus, whose warmth shines through her work.
In her everyday life, Dreyfus lectures in photography at the national Art School. A male student once told her he was outraged she would dare to photograph a woman who wasn't gorgeous. "It was almost like I'd broken some rule that says "when you photograph a women, you put make-up on her, you do her hair and you make her look beautiful." Not Dreyfus.
If she looked for anything, she looked for perfectly ordinary bodies. "Don't give me someone gorgeous and perfect, because I won't know what to do with them".
A couple of years ago she started asking older women she knew if she could photograph them. The first was an elderly relative who agreed "because she loves me". Perhaps because the woman was a relative, Dreyfus herself found the proof sheet so disturbing that it was a year before she printed the pictures, nerved herself up to show them to people, and finally went further, asking other relatives, neighbours and friends to participate.
She explained that the photographs were destined for an exhibition open to the public that they could choose whether or not to have their faces in them. One in four declined outright.
"But I would say that 75 per cent of the people I ask say "oh, you wouldn't want me, I'm too fat," says Dreyfus, a good-looking woman who admits to sharing something of the same pre-occupation. "Why do you think I'm doing this work?"
The obsession with fat goes right through society, of course. "I met a woman recently who was an alcoholic and a drug addict and she told me that when she gave up the drugs and alcohol, no one said a word, but when she lost the weigh, it was as if she had walked across the Sahara or something."
Once Dreyfus had photographed older women and showed friends, the prints, she noticed that the most flattering remarks were made about the body of a sixtyish woman who isn't just thin, but almost androgynous. It seems the inescapable imagery of stick-thin models so shape our conceptions of beauty that people are less likely to recoil from the image of a stick-thin older body. Not that the woman was particularly happy with her own body.
"Women of all ages feel whatever their body is - it’s wrong." If her work has the desired effect it will break through the sense of shame, she says. Dreyfus likes to think the images will prompt people to say to themselves "Well, if that woman looks like that and she's prepared to strip off, maybe I'm okay..."
It has happened already. Some women who saw photographs of perfectly ordinary older bodies said they felt a sense of relief. "I think women really suffer a lot," says Dreyfus. "When you're younger, you rely on your looks to get you by. We've all been trained to spend a lot of effort and energy on being sexually attractive. But there comes a time when you cross over some line and it doesn't work anymore...then you have to confront your worth as a woman. "What am I if I'm not sexually attractive - am I anything?"
By no means all her models had allowed their sense of themselves to be extinguished, however. One woman, an 83-year-old with an active mind and an almost unlined face said "look at my gorgeous body; see how smooth my skin is..." Dreyfus thought it was wonderful.
"I've had the most fascination conversations with all these women." says Dreyfus, who relishes the intimacy of those experiences. "They often talk to me about their bodies. They tell me which bits they like or don't like, which bits their husbands liked or didn't like."
Naturally some were heartened by the positive attention - something they had to get used to doing without. "All your life you've been noticed - women grow up being looked at," says Dreyfus. "No matter whether you're attractive or not, you're still the object of people's viewing and commentary, all of your life.
"But I think older women get ignored. You walk down the street, you pass a dozen old ladies and you wouldn't even see them, your eyes go right through them.
"After all these years of being looked at and performing to that, suddenly there's no audience, no one's interested anymore.
"And I reckon that's partly why I'm doing this," says Dreyfus. "Let them have a look."
Nude Descending Staircase (with Zimmer Frame) by Steve Freeth (unpublished)
Ella Dreyfus takes photographs of nude women, but given the sort of headlines she gets in Australia you could be forgiven for thinking that she is doing something very, very wrong.
"It surprises me that my work is seen as so shocking given what you see splashed over the sides of buses or billboards", Dreyfus says. "But my work is operating at the edges of art, it is a dangerous area that I'm interested in and I'm definitely not trying to be aesthetically pleasing".
It’s a threat she made good with her latest show Age and Consent, large black and white photographs of naked women in their 60s, 70s & 80s arrayed in both conventional cheesecake shots and as cropped close ups. The exhibition, which was part of Sydney's celebrations for the International Year of the Older Person, opened in March and sparked immediate and national media frenzy.
"There seems to be no middle road with these photographs', Dreyfus said. "The press always uses words like "taboo" or "confronting', but present them as freakish. And the public tend to split down the middle between fascination and revulsion. As one ten year old said in the visitor's book at the show when it travelled to Brisbane 'I've always wanted to see naked old ladies and its disgusting'".
You get the impression that Dreyfus, who is small, combative and obviously obsessed with the printed image, relishes the reaction her work gets. "I hate the way art is so rarefied, all locked up in galleries and academia. What I love about these photographs is that they have now been seen all over Australia thanks to the way the media exposed them and that the public got to see real women's bodies, not the sanitised, airbrushed fantasy that we live with every day".
There's no denying that Dreyfus is on both an artistic and cultural crusade. She burst on to the Australian photographic scene 9 years ago with Pregnancy Series, a stunning black and white catalogue of very pregnant and very naked women that laid the ground work for Dreyfus's obvious ideological concerns. Originally published by McPhee Gribble as The Body Pregnant, the series provided Dreyfus with one of her greatest delights as an artist, the opportunity to reveal the sensuality that lies beneath the surface of ordinary women's lives and to force you to deal with it.
"There is such a narrow range of how we view the female body, of what is considered normal. My work attempts to give visual reality to the 'other', the fringes of what has been a long tradition of female nude photography. Most nude photography shows toned bodies because it represents a control of nature. My nudes take us back to our origins and to chaos and in that sense my work is both sexual and political. Age & Consent attempts to do both in an area where very few photographers have ever felt tempted to stray before. The fields of sagging, scarred and crepey skin are photographed in an affectionate, if unflinchingly honest, way. The liver spots, the flat breasts, the stretch marks and the hysterectomy scars are there for all to see, but often laid out in eerie poses that echo Playboy centrefolds.
To underline her point Dreyfus has also cropped many of the photos close in on the folded, ragged torsos and vaginas to create bizarre landscapes of flesh at the end of life. 'Suitcases for the soul' as one commentator put it.
"This work is a celebration of women getting older; something that society at large is not at all interested in. Women tend to get sidelined as physical beings, but you look at these bodies and see them as maps, everything that happened to them through their lives is all there for anyone to see. It's quite remarkable".
Dreyfus believes that as a woman she is bringing something different to the female nude that attacks the accepted notion of the body beautiful and what is considered desirable. For her most male photographers trick up the female body as high art when in reality it is merely an excuse for pornography.
"The body beautiful will always be with us and so it should be. But as a female photographer I am more understanding of where women are at, I am more involved in their lives".
Not everyone agrees of course and for a number of people the show has been in the poorest taste, something to be avoided at all costs. People have refused to enter the gallery, walked out in disgust or complained to the magazines covering the show, but for Dreyfus these portraits are exactly what the International Year of the Older Person has lacked.
"There is a tacit agreement that we can only show old people as healthy, wealthy and white. I just got sick of seeing old women abseiling or swimming with great big smiles. I don't want to shove illness in people's faces, but ageing is real and our bodies are just as interesting at 70 as 17".
Dreyfus believes her vision is a refreshing antidote to the unrelenting diet of hungry looking models that fill every media outlet. "Women's bodies have been historically abused and manipulated, but we are now in an age where our body image faces an epidemic of thinness, as though we fear our bodies and have to subdue them to fit an imposed ideal"
Support for Dreyfus's vision has also come from some surprising quarters. She is now in demand to address conferences on age and health care and recently spent a day with over 100 Uniting Church chaplains from around Australia who work in nursing homes and hostels explaining her vision.
'I really expected to be mauled by that sort of an audience", Dreyfus says. "But they loved the photos and had all sorts of stories about the way older people's sexuality and nudity is handled. For many it seemed to be a revelation that older women could have this very palpable physical reality and that their bodies have great dignity and interest".
Both the variety of bodies on display and the women's confidence before the camera has clearly fascinated Dreyfus in putting the show together. She points to the hundreds of images littering her studio, part of the home she shares with her partner and two children in Sydney, and beams.
"It's been a wonderful surprise for me as well that these women could feel either good enough about their bodies, or at least courageous enough, to let me photograph them and then show them in public".
"It's also broken down all my own prejudices and stereotypes about getting older. Just look at this range, look at how different they all are and how beautiful".