A dozen years ago, at age 70, Marna Clark had a dream. He was walking on a sidewalk and had rounded a corner. Ahead of him, he could see the end of the road and nothing beyond.
This was a turning point for Clarke. “I realized, ‘Oh my God, I’m closer to the end than the beginning,'” she said. Soon, she was seized with a desire to test what it looked like at the time – and to document the results.
Clark, a professional photographer decades ago, picked up a camera and began photographing her face, hair, eyes, arms, legs, feet, hands and torso. Among many, he undressed. “I was exploring the physical part of getting older,” she told me.
It was a radical work: older women are largely invisible in our culture, and honest and unsentimental portraits of their bodies are almost never seen.
Before long, Clark, who lives in Inverness, California, turned his lens on his partner, Igor Sejevich, a painter and architect 11 years his senior, and began recording scenes from their lives together. Finally, he realized that they were visibly growing in these photographs. And he realized that he was creating a portrait of many years of old age.
The resulting collection, which he titled “Time As We Know It,” won a LensCulture Critics’ Choice Award this year, given to 40 photographers from five continents. “There is a universality and humility in looking at these images that remind us of the power of love and the fragility of life,” wrote Rhea Combs of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery, one of the judges.
At first, some people were disturbed by the pictures displayed in a San Francisco Bay Area gallery near Clark’s home. “I found out that there was a taboo about older adults showing their bodies — some people were just shocked,” she told me in a phone conversation.
But many people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s expressed gratitude. “I’ve learned that older people are dying for some kind of recognition and acceptance and they want to feel seen — to feel like they’re not invisible,” Clark said.
Art has many benefits in the afterlife, both for the creator and those who enjoy their work. It extends well-being, by building a sense of purpose and countering beliefs such as the notion that aging is defined almost exclusively by decline and decline, writes Dr. Gene Cohen in “Creative Age: Awakening Human Potential in the Second Half of Life,” published in 2000.
Cohen, a psychiatrist, was the first director of the Center on Aging, Health, and the Humanities at George Washington University and acting director of the National Institute on Aging from 1991 to 1993.
In 2006, Cohen published the results of a creativity and aging study conducted in San Francisco; Brooklyn, New York; and the Washington, DC, area. Two groups of older adults were studied: those who participated weekly in arts programs led by professionals and those who went about their normal business. Those in the first group saw fewer doctors, used fewer medications, were more active and had better physical and mental health overall, the study found.
For Clark, “perspective” and “accepting my body as it is” are benefits of her 12-year project. As a young and middle-aged woman, she said, she was “obsessed” and worried about her appearance. “Now, I think there’s a beauty that comes out of people when they accept who they are,” he told me. “It changes how I see myself and how I see others.”
Shortly after our first conversation, in early August, Clark, now 82, found himself at another crossroads with the death of Sejevic, 93, who suffered from lymphoma and refused chemotherapy. The couple has been together since 2003 but never married.
Sejevic had fallen three times in the months before, broke a hip, contracted pneumonia in the hospital and returned to the hospital. As he lay in bed, taking morphine and surrounded by family, one of his daughters’ two dogs came over to check on him every hour. At the moment of his death, they roared, perhaps because “they sensed a shift in energy,” Clark said.
“It was amazing — I’ve never been through anything like that in my life,” he said of Sejevic’s death. “There was so much love in that room, you could cut it with a knife. I think it changed me. It gave me a glimpse of what’s possible with people.”
Everywhere he goes in Inverness, Clark runs into people who tell him how sorry they are for his loss and ask if they can help. “I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of care from my friends and family,” she told me. “It’s like a giant hug.”
It takes a community to comfort an older adult coping with loss, just as it takes a community to raise a child. Clarke said she is still “emotionally up and down … questioning what death is” as she processes her loss.
Eventually, Clark said, he wants to resume work on “Time As We Know It.” “Because it’s about my aging,” he said. “My old age. And that’s what I’m committed to. It’s given me a purpose. And when you’re old, you need to have something that you love and that makes you feel alive.
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