“They have witnessed almost a whole, eventful 20th Century, including two world wars, economic crises, destruction, construction, division and reunification – and they have survived.” -Karsten Thormaehlen
German photographer Karsten Thormaehlen wanted to photograph centenarians. His interest led to the creation of a beautiful portrait series that became an award-winning exhibition, “Jahrhundertmensch,” as well as a book, “Happy at 100.” Well known throughout Europe, Thormaehlen’s photo series has had little exposure in the U.S.
Shot between 2006 and 2011 in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Thormaehlen’s close-ups of the “oldest of old” faces reveal wisdom, courage, confidence and joy. And also that 100-year-olds may look way younger than their years!
Thormaehlen answered some questions about his project for us.
Erwin H. (1909) and Hildegard G. (1910-2011), by Karsten Thormaehlen
What were the things that stood out for you about the centenarians you photographed?
I totally loved their motivation and professionalism as models: They showed me clothes they liked to wear, they checked their make-up and hair, followed my instructions perfectly and were, mostly, not happy with the results. Just like the young ones…
Gustav W. (1910), by Karsten Thormaehlen
Were there qualities your models had (personality traits, characteristics, attitudes) that they seemed to share with one another?
Well, everybody was different. Some felt comfortable in front of my camera, some not. Some made their typical “photo-face,” some couldn’t, and some didn’t like to smile on command. There was something like vanity in all of them… and in the end they were very happy for the attention and being printed in my book!
Elfriede B. (1911), by Karsten Thormaehlen
To what did these centenarians attribute their longevity?
All have different explanations. Some talk about their physical activity, some their mental restlessness and their interest in daily things. Some think it’s their modest lifestyle, the food they eat, the wine they drink. Or a good sense of humor. But what they do all have in common is good genes, according to latest geriatric studies, a resistance to stress symptoms – and they never left their ‘hood for good.
Walter W. (1909), By Karsten Thormaehlen
What got you interested in shooting centenarians?
Well, I was hooked when I shot my first centenarian, the grandmother of my former artist representative. It was like talking to an old friend, just that this one was around when Wilhelm II was emperor in Germany, TV wasn’t invented and people traveled by horse.
Did you learn any life lessons from them? Do any particular “words of wisdom” stand out?
Yes indeed, but that’s all in my book. :-)
Some may see wrinkles and age spots on these faces, but we see the reflection of long lives fully lived. Do one of these portraits in particular “speak” to you? Please share your thoughts below.