“I like to think of nudity as being naked — meaning unprotected, exposed, open, undisguised, direct, outspoken. When one is willing to be in a photo without clothing, you’re not covered up, not hiding. It’s a way of telling one’s truth.”
Photographer Marna Clarke lived with a lifetime misperception that she was “fat and big.” At 70, she decided that she wanted to see what she really looked like — and not just through a fleeting glance in the mirror.
So she turned the camera on herself and her longtime partner, Igor Sazevich..
The photo series that Clarke created includes striking close-ups of the couple’s older, naked bodies — complete with wrinkles and sagging skin — as they went about their everyday routines like shaving or getting dressed in the morning. They’re the moments we all share, but few of us stop to photograph, let alone share publicly.
But Clarke did share. She turned her collection of intimate images into “Time as We Know It,” a photo exhibition and book that reflect two loving, older adults embracing each other, their lives together and the aging process.
Now 76, Clarke has seen her work juried into the 2016 Santa Fe Portfolio Review, where she hopes that more European galleries will take on her project. Americans, she says, still seem “a little stilted” when it comes to appreciating her images. They talk about nudity in discussing her work. “But it’s so much more,” Clarke says.
The photographer spoke to us by phone from her home in Inverness, just north of San Francisco.
In thinking about the role of creativity in the aging process, how does your art affect your feelings about growing older?
I know that it’s vital, because any creative project can take you out of being preoccupied with being sick or getting old, or whatever bothers you. You’re totally immersing yourself in creating. It’s one of the highs in life for me.
If there’s a message to share, as an older person take a passion you have and work on it, let it carry you through the years of losing memory, hearing, sight. Finding something you can do, that you can endure, no matter what your health is, is so important.
On your website you write, “Growing older has occasioned a gradual letting go of things I’ve taken for granted all my life: my youth, figure, memory, mobility, hearing.” What has growing older given you in place of this?
Growing older means you’ve lived longer and have more experiences, more of a perspective, and wisdom comes from that. And hopefully, some kind of sense of humor has evolved along with it. I would say that slowing down is very beneficial at times. You find out that you don’t have to know everything, do everything or be everywhere, and so you’re more relaxed.
What changes have you discovered through the process of taking the pictures?
I’ve taken a lot of portraits throughout my adult life, and there’s a deepening of a soul that you see. In any young woman who’s full of beauty and youth, it’s too irresistible to not look and envy. But at the same time, I find in older women there’s a presence of someone who has been through more, and there’s more depth there. It’s not good, bad, better or worse. That’s the way it goes.
It’s unusual to take photos of your naked body. What do these images convey to you?
I like to think of nudity as being naked — meaning unprotected, exposed, open, undisguised, direct, outspoken. When one is willing to be in a photo without clothing, you’re not covered up, not hiding. It’s a way of telling one’s truth. Igor and my being nude in photos about aging says we’re OK with our bodies, which then gives others permission to be comfortable with their bodies, wrinkled skin or cracking nails or yellowing teeth, whatever is happening.
Considering our culture’s blind spot towards seeing aging bodies, what has the response been to this project overall?
When my project was published on Huffington Post, a majority of the feedback on Facebook was a lot of youthful juveniles making fun about old bodies. But I live in Northern California, in an incredible community consisting of all different ages. There’s a real live, active, vital, older community here. At a show I did here last December, I got a very positive response from my community, including young people as well as older.
But I don’t know how it will go. When I present to a gallery, the response is, “You know, we can’t sell this kind of work.” Yet, I have people at shows of this work that will be in tears because they feel I have been honest with them.
I’ve come to the conclusion that including nude pictures is a device for winning the trust of my audience by showing my vulnerability.
After having a 20-year professional photography career, you stopped completely in 1992, coming back to it in 2005. Why did you leave it? What did you do in the interim?
I left because I hit a wall, so to speak, and I got blocked. I just stopped. I said, I don’t know what I’m going to do, I don’t know where I’m going to go. Instead of getting help or working through all of that, I said, “I’m out of here.” I sold my equipment, regretfully now, and travelled. I went to Europe and Asia. I didn’t take a camera with me, yet in the back of my mind I still thought about it.
When Igor came into my life, he saw in my apartment the framed pieces I had done a long time ago and he was struck with them. He kept saying repeatedly, “Why don’t you do it?” Finally, he bought me a digital camera, a point-and-shoot, not a fancy one. He said, you’d better get back to work photographing. So I did.
I was taking a lot of walks in the woods at that time and I started realizing how some of the trees with peeling bark around here are so beautiful.
The digital age happened while I was away, so I had a lot to learn.
What does “aging with attitude” mean to you?
Putting yourself in the right frame of mind. It’s inevitable that we’ll get older, and if you’ve given up more mobility, what are you going to do? How do you compensate for that? By being honest with yourself. Instead of saying, “I don’t want to think about it. I’m only 39.” Well, if you want to live your life like that, then I think you’re going to be unhappy anyway. I’m always one for being honest with myself.
- Click here to see more images from “Time as We Know It” or purchase the book
- Click here to follow Marna Clarke on Facebook
Photos: © Marna Clarke