The Professor: Ellen Wallenstein
The Courses: Photography 1 and Narrative Forms: Photo Book
Alumna photographer Ellen Wallenstein, (M.F.A '78), adjunct associate professor, is midway through a project titled Respecting My Elders. She is shooting creative artists in their 80s, from painters and performers to writers and composers. In keeping with the theme of her Narrative Forms course, Wallenstein is telling a story. Her goal is to shoot 100 people.
Moved by her own father’s death at age 79, she began the project by shooting her mother and her contemporaries, but quickly realized that for the project to gain traction she needed to up the criteria for inclusion. She also discovered that many people over 80 were particularly active and engaged if they were artists. “People who are creative don’t slow down. I thought: ‘If I do this for others, maybe I will make it to 80.”
“I started writing letters with return envelopes to people I admired,” said Wallenstein, noting that many of her subjects don’t have email. “People started letting me in. The first was the filmmaker Albert Maysles.”
Nailing down playwright Edward Albee was challenging. It took Wallenstein almost a year to get the appointment to meet him in his Manhattan loft. “I was nervous. It felt like a blind date,” she recalled. “I brought flowers as I usually do. He ended up posing all over his apartment. We ended up having a long talk about art."
While Wallenstein’s subjects have celebrity status, they typically welcome her advances. “They have time and are typically interested by my interest. We live in such a youth culture,” she said. “But I don’t want to take much of their time. I try to be respectful.”
Wallenstein has some favorites. She asks her subjects to pose with an object of value to them. She found it particularly moving when the painter Wolf Kahn chose his smock covered in paint from 30 years of work and a vest that his wife had knit for him. And she does have her eye on some up-and-coming octogenarians: Woody Allen, 78, and Gloria Steinem, also 78.
The project has been featured on the prestigious lenscratch.com website as well as in lejournaldelaphotographie.com.
Text: Bay Brown
Photos: Ellen Wallenstein