This interview was originally published by Senior Planet in December 2013, tied to the release of “Cohen’s Advanced Style Coloring Book.” We’re reposting an edited version of the Q&A today as the film “Advanced Style,” a documentary by Cohen and director – co-producer Lina Pliolplyte, premieres in NYC. Click here to see a US screening schedule.
One day in late 2013, Ari Seth Cohen was back in his neck of the woods; the young blogger known for his NYC street photography was surrounded by older ladies in leopard, black frills, Hollywood glam – LA Advanced style! The occasion: a signing of his “Advanced Style: the Coloring Book” at the South Pasadena boutique Koi.
Cohen is the force behind the megapopular Advanced Style photo blog, which features the photos and stories of stylish older women – and some men – who catch Cohen’s eye on the streets of New York and around the world. Cohen’s photography captures the zest for life that his subjects exude, a bold resistance to invisibility. In his words: “I want people to feel good about their age, dress up, never stop having fun and be joyful.”
“Advanced Style,” Cohen’s best-selling fashion book, was published in 2012; the coloring book followed, featuring 30 original drawings based on the models in his book. It was meant to be a fun, intergenerational activity that children and older adults can share. At the time of this interview, he and co-producer Lina Pliolplyte were finishing their “Advanced Style” documentary.
We spoke with Cohen at Koi, where both staff and visitors were glamorously – and in some cases eccentrically – decked out. It wasn’t long before Cohen grabbed his camera and started shooting his fans.
As a 32-year-old man from the West Coast, what got you started photographing older women in NYC?
My appreciation for older women began with my two grandmothers, who raised me along with my mother. Both were wonderfully stylish, creative and smart. My grandmother Bluma used to look through her drawers of old photographs and her beautiful rhinestone jewelry with me. She encouraged me to be creative at a young age.
My grandmother went to Columbia University and she always told me, You have to move to New York when you get older because that’s where everything creative is happening. So I moved there and noticed all of these wonderful older people on the street, and started photographing them. I’d never taken a photo before! I just wanted to make a connection to older people, and this personal project turned into a career, so it’s pretty cool.
How did the blog come about?
I didn’t even have a camera – I had to borrow my roommate’s to take photos of the people I met on the street. They had such inspiring stories, and I needed to share them with the world. There was also a lack of representation for older women in fashion and media from what I saw. All of these ladies could be in advertising campaigns. I’d seen street-style blogs and worked in fashion before, so a blog was the next logical step.
You takes a lot of pictures of a particular group of New York ladies, but you also do reportage when you notice someone in the street. How do you decide whom to shoot? What are you looking for?
I think I’m drawn to a strong sense of personal style. I shoot almost five times a week on the street and I look for different things, from classic elegance to eccentricity to just something I’m drawn to – a lot of it is personal expression and vitality. And yes, over the course of five years, there are certain women I’ve grown close to. I’ve noticed they really have a strong point of view and are inspiring to other women – from teenage girls to older women.
Can you tell us a little more about the women you’ve grown close to?
There’s one woman, Ilona, who’s 93 and lives in the West Village. She climbs three flights of steps every day. She’s an artist who painted the Kennedy children. At 80-something she started to do a cabaret act and is now a cabaret singer – she’s really incredible. She has long eyelashes that she makes from her own hair.
Ruth Kobin does Pilates at 102. She introduced me to Bananagrams (a game like Scrabble) and beat me three times. She’s so with it, she still lives by herself. She says watching football and playing Bananagrams keeps her going. And so does the Pilates. They’re all incredible.
You also shoot older men of style. Do they respond differently to your request to photograph them than women do?
My grandfather, who was an extraordinary dresser, thought about style more as a way to present himself to the world, rather than thinking about making a fashion statement. They react like my grandfather – they’re more into presentation than fashion.
Do you have any funny stories about things that have happened when you, a young guy, approach older ladies on the street?
Oh God, there are a lot of funny stories. There’s one lady who’s one of the most elegant women in New York. I had to take her photo. This is how she describes our first encounter in Connecticut:
I was walking down the street with my friend and this young guy was following us. And I said, Why is this meshuganah (crazy in Yiddish) guy following me? Then we crossed the street and he crossed the street. Again I turned to my friend and said, Why is this guy following us?! My friend, who recognized Ari, says, That’s Ari Cohen. So I say, Who the f*#! is Ari Cohen?
But I did get to photograph her.
A few months later she said one of the most beautiful things about what I do: “Ari took us from over the hill to on top of the hill looking over everyone else. Looking down on everyone else.” I thought that was so cool. She went from thinking I was crazy to loving my work.
How has photographing these women shaped your perception of aging?
It’s shown me that many of these women have more energy than I do, really! There’s a woman, Joy, who’s 80 years old. She’s go go go go go, and shows me we have to continue to be passionate about different things. They’ve inspired me to work harder and be healthier. Because they’re all so vital, healthy, active and… I need to join a gym.
What differences strike you the most between older New Yorkers and older people in other cities?
The thing about New Yorkers is they’re very active because it’s such a walking city and everything is close by. Older people don’t become as isolated as they do in more suburban cities, because everything is at your feet. It’s easy to be part of a community. When I moved there I didn’t think it would be the best city for older people, but I realized it is.
Are you planning any other Advanced Style projects?
I’m working on a new book, going more in depth into ladies’ lifestyles. In the first book I didn’t really have the opportunity to interview all the women, so my next book will have more insight into why people stay vital and how they do that. And I travel, photograph and keep on learning about people.
Watch: The Advanced Style trailer