German photographer Karsten Thormaehlen has photographed some of the most gorgeous people and places in the world. He's traveled to exotic locales and captured high-end fashion and luxurious goods with his lens.
But for his new book, Thormaehlen chose subjects he says he finds truly beautiful: not just old people, but extremely old people. "Aging Gracefully: Portraits of People Over 100" (Chronicle Books, 2017) features 52 insightful images of people from around the world who have hit the century mark.
"Since I’ve worked for many years in the beauty industry as an art director for luxury goods and cosmetic brands, I know what it takes to achieve 'perfect beauty.' It’s almost impossible! Like reaching 'absolute zero' or 'squaring the circle,' " Thormaehlen tells MNN. "I’m convinced true beauty comes from self awareness."
Thormaehlen says very old people look at photography in a completely different way.
"Being photographed is and has been something special in the past, only performed on special events, and on certain stages of one’s life: baptism, wedding, first child, all generations together, anniversaries etc.," he says. "Back than photographing was a complicated issue, it was expensive — and always very sad if the photo, which you saw days or weeks later for the first time, didn’t come out properly."
He says his centenarian subjects seem to find pleasure in the experience.
"They give me, the photographer, the impression they enjoy the attention, being photographed. It’s fun for them."
Thormaehlen found his subjects in many different ways. Some he discovered through people who had seen his work, some through their grandchildren and some through advertisements or by talking to managers of resident homes. Some he found through online searches.
For example, Dr. Olivia Hooker of White Plains, New York, (pictured above) was one of the first African American women to join the U.S. Army. As a child, her home was ransacked by the Ku Klux Klan during the 1921 riots in Tulsa. "I still don't know why they bothered to burn up a little girl's doll clothes, but they did," she told the Wall Street Journal, which Thormaehlen quotes in his book.
When Thormaehlen photographed Hooker, he noted that the walls in her home are filled with diplomas and greetings from the Clintons, the Bushes and the Obamas.
Talking to so many wise, witty people, Thormaehlen found there was one thing they all had in common:
"I learned from almost everybody that they love living, 100 percent. They don’t think about dying, but if it happens it won’t be a problem."
There's a certain element of patience involved with reaching a certain age. Maria Luisa Medina of Ecuador (pictured above) sits on blankets on the floor in her home and spins yard from sheep's wool. This, she told him, has become her favorite thing to do since her legs have became weak.
But there's a sense of accomplishment. When he went to see Luz Pacifica at her home in Ecuador, he climbed up a short but extremely steep path to get to her wooden cabin. When she met him at the door and saw how hard the photographer was breathing from the climb, she smiled and said, "Hope this answers your question how to become 100!"
Thormaehlen asked each of his subjects to share a little bit about their lives, including advice and perhaps the secret to their longevity.
Gaspare Mele is from Orotelli in Sardinia, Italy, where villagers call him "Uncle Gasparru." He has dedicated most of his life to poetry and still loves to sit at his kitchen table where he creates thoughtful verses on his timeworn typewriter. He has a large family, including eight children and a slew of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
His advice for a long life?
Live and work in peace and harmony with yourself and with others. Always try to distinguish good from evil.
Zoila Donatila Aliaga Melendez vda de Roman of Lima, Peru, believes her faith is what has allowed her to live so long. She gathers with her friends twice a day to pray the rosary.
The other thing she does often is play cards — and she's good at it, although she admits she cheats.
Married at 19, she now has eight children, 21 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren. In addition to cards and prayers, she likes to read and knit. She says she's never been seriously sick a day in her life.
Born in Den Haag in the Netherlands, Gerardus Jacobus Johannes Keizen enjoyed the attention of being photographed, says Thormaehlen. Keizen tugged at his hair and twirled his mustache as he prepared to pose.
His secret for living so long?
A routine life of moderation. Go to bed early, don't smoke, don't drink — although you can always make an exception now and then for a whisky. And for gin, too.