Things changed about my work with aging.
I have a better sense in telling stories.
I was never better than in my later years
Susan Wood Richardson, photographer, founding member of the Women’s Forum and author of the book “Women”, a collection of portraits of the most influential icons of the 20th century
From the moment Susan Wood Richardson picks up the phone, you understand what makes her the celebrated photographer she is. Her ability to leave a space in order to capture life is a quality that transpires even through her voice. It’s quite puzzling. Although she is the protagonist of the interview, Susan is at the same time a sort of observer and her curiosity is like a magnet for things to happen.
So, while I have to refrain myself from begging her, “Please, tell me more!” when she talks about when and how a certain picture was taken, she surprises me with her wholeheartedly expressed interest: “What do you think about this?”, she asks. Whatever my answer, Susan picks it up as you would do with a multicolor rock or a flower you’ve never seen before: zero judgement and total enjoyment.
I’m sure that her open-mindedness and curiosity helped her to succeeded in professional photography when female artists could be counted on the fingers of one hand. But these qualities also played a role in the way she crystallized the essence of many female ceiling-breakers and icons she photographed – from Susan Sontag to Gloria Steinem, from Yoko Ono to Barbara Chase-Riboud. It has therefore been a real gift to listen to her recalling and learn how she frames the time we’re living in.
You photographed some of the women who shaped the last century. Your images stand out for their ability to tell a story. What is their secret?
I recognized something about the women I photographed. I recognized something true, genuine, inspiring, authentic, and caught it. Whereas I’m not quite sure about the photographer’s instinct, the fact that I saw a lot of art has helped. I see things that remind me of that art; I try to refer to art.
In your interview with The Guardian, talking about your book Women, you said that they had something in common: “Intelligence, energy, and an understanding of things that weren't quite said.” Did you notice that, even when their beauty began to fade, these attributes kept shining on?
Beauty is beauty, it is lovely to see, but not everyone is photogenic. There are visual moments, there are angles, there’s a quality that shines and you need to capture it before it’s gone. But yes, these women definitely kept shining.
You are a founding member of the Women's Forum. Do you feel the media representation of women has changed or is it still focused mainly on beauty?
It has changed, because there are more women in powerful positions. I generally see headshots, but there should be more in-depth stories. There are a lot of women in higher positions and I don’t know why we don’t have a more comprehensive representation of their lives.
Women’s fashion magazines are not doing enough with women in business. They keep playing the same chord of the entertainment and beauty. There are women in music, in the arts and science. Maybe, it’s just that significant women don’t invite journalists to spend time with them.
Was it different when you were working?
I tried to photograph people in a meaningful way. I spent time with them. Very few of the pictures you see were taken in a two-hour window. We stayed together for many days. This is important to get passed the camera face. I helped them to choose something from their wardrobe, we talked of many things, and at the end the photographs were attractive in a natural way. Although the eyes tell so much, some results were unexpected and the best picture could be a profile. It takes time, but intelligence, intensity, kindness, determination, the true essence, and the true expression come through.
Do you have the feeling to becoming invisible with age?
We do become somehow invisible, but this doesn’t mean you cannot be noticed in a positive way. I’m in my eighties, I’m very modest and I try to be polite. I wear loose, flowing clothes, beautiful colors, brilliant red, maybe a hat. I wear comfortable shoes, silver and gold. Strangers and friends seem not to notice or care about my wrinkles.
On the other hand, now that my dark brown hair has turned white blond, it gets the spotlight. Strangers stop me on the street and, in a friendly way, pay me compliments on my color. That’s why I’ve named it the “blond envie.” Interesting, as we older women are supposed to be invisible, isn’t it?
Definitely. So, how are you living this time in your life?
I’ve been through a lot, included two death-defeating operations. I do various therapies and I enjoy eating out. Being older is different, but I don’t want to lecture. Nobody wants to have wisdom laid on them.
Amongst the women you photographed, there’s Betty Friedan. Her book The Feminine Mystique influenced my worked with The Age Buster. Can you tell me something about this shooting?
Betty asked me to do some cover pictures for her book and, in time, we became good friends. She was a powerful woman and had beautiful eyes, but her face was very difficult to photograph. I managed to catch something of her grandeur. There’s a balance in the photograph she used for the book and it worked.
Hers was a ground-breaking book. As a psychologist, Betty analyzed the results of a Smith College survey that asked questions to élite women college graduates. With the definition of the “problem that has no name,” Betty identified the dissatisfaction of well-trained good minds for not running the world as the college years trained them to. Their brains, instead, were used for running the dishwasher and all the appliances to make time for the good but meaningless cyber hectic life of neither service nor power.
Betty could get very grumpy about things. At the beginning of her career she was a member of a labour union and she was used to fight for rights. Maybe because of this background, she had a forceful punchy personality. She enjoyed clothes and fitness and never surrendered to age. Betty was very active and tried to design ways to take care of the loneliness problem that comes with aging. She was part of what she called “The Commune.” Have you ever heard of The Commune?
No, what was it?
It was a group of successful single men and women, including Betty. They rented a luxurious mansion in the Hamptons where they spent time together, hosted parties and dinners. Betty was brilliant in getting things done. The people there were fantastically interesting, some were the intellectual stars of the era. There were talks and after dinner games, their charades were intelligent and amusing. She created a whole life for herself and her friends.
You also took pictures of Susan Sontag. What do you remember of her?
I decided to create a photo essay of couples working together that, at the end, didn’t get published. It was through this work that I got in touch with Susan. She was delighted and thrilled with this idea. She brought along an actress she was working with. She was amazing.
How is aging impacting on your work?
I arrived at a point in my sixties when the editors I worked with moved on or retired and the new ones made different choices. I was out.
I think that’s crazy, especially in a creative profession. Not to mention that some studies prove that there’s a positive correlation between the employment of older workers and younger ones.
I totally agree: we’ve been pushed out. Men are not pushed out at the same rate as women. It is nice to let the new voices in, but at the same time there aren’t age limits in art. It’s a very good cause to fight for.
I didn’t loose the confidence in myself. I decided to publish books; that’s how the book Women came about. Things changed about my work with aging. I have a better sense in telling stories. I’m delighted that this ability is still here. I was never better than in my later years.
Do you still carry a camera with you?
Yes, in a silver backpack. You never know when you might need it.