Renee 100/100 Years // ©Jenny Lewis
The Story behind the Portrait
I’ve been thinking a long time about what to share with you all for The Story Portrait. I recently finished a project called One Hundred Years which comprises of 100 portraits capturing every age from 1 to 100. Alongside the portraits, I interviewed all the subjects to add an extra dimension. In using this method, I was trying to find a way to share with the viewer my own experience of meeting those I photographed. At present, I have many fresh stories to tell but still feel quite protective over what to share.
There’s a lot of responsibility in how much of someone’s life to present alongside a portrait, even with model release forms signed and consents given, I wonder if people really reflect on how vulnerable seeing their private experiences in the public domain might make them feel, so for now, I’m treading lightly. For this feature, I thought I’d start at the end – with Renee. I’d been introduced to her by a friend of mine who used to pack up Renee’s market stall every Sunday down Columbia Road in London. Previously, Renee had done this herself until at aged 98 she decided it had all got a bit much.
On the day of the portrait, it was the third time I’d popped into Renee’s. Prior to this visit, she’d felt unwell or forgotten I was coming and being extremely deaf, phoning her wasn’t an option. Working with lots of older people was often quite a challenge in this series – we are so used to emailing / texting plans or being able to call someone. My approach had to be much more relaxed and all communication was face-to-face or postal. It was worth the wait, for Renee was quite different from all the other older ladies I had photographed. She was tiny, exquisite and so open about her life. Her coiffed white hair, make-up, bejewelled hands and casual glamour all telling a story of who she was before she even spoke. I mentioned that I loved her tracksuit top, and she laughed that she loved a zipper nowadays as buttons were too difficult. I took her tiny hand in mine, marvelling at her rings, the size and weight of them. Again, she laughed, eyes twinkling, saying she hadn’t taken them off for years as her fingers were too bent up.
Renee was all cheekbones and held herself like a ballerina, sitting on her armchair like a throne that seemed to engulf her. A porcelain dog by her feet glowed red by the electric fire and Marilyn glanced over her shoulder. There was so much Renee in this room, like a theatre set explaining the kind of person we were looking at, undiluted by other people’s aesthetics. Delicate net curtains and pretty things everywhere, it was all so feminine. She talked about her tough beginning in life which was perhaps the reason it was important for her to be surrounded by pretty objects now.
“ I’ve got a past alright. I married a gangster, he thought he was Humphrey Bogart, used to wear a white mac. I was young and silly at the time, just 21, in too deep to get out. He went to prison for 10 years the day after my son was born. Sometimes I’d fold up a £20 note in my mouth and when I visited him I’d kiss him and pass it to him in his mouth. I wasn’t really a gangster’s mole, I was just me but a lot was expected of me…”
She mentioned domestic violence, many hidings, a difficult relationship with her son who had recently died, but what she really wanted to talk about were the wonderful new friends she had met down the market when she decided to take on a stall at the age of 75. A wonderful gang that took her in and shared jokes, laughed and supported her. To hear so much joy and adventure coming at this later part of her life was such an inspiring story of hope and resilience, of reinvention and being able to constantly adapt. Renee made me giggle and daydream about unknown possibilities that I might get up to in 20 or 30 years time.
“My boyfriend is 28 years younger than me. I became frail six or seven years ago and Terry said to me, ‘I will never leave you. I’ll always make sure you’re alright.’ We’ve never lived together, but every night he rings and says I love you.”
The experiences Renee had lived through gave her a greater appreciation of what she had in the present. She explained she had vowed never to live with another man: she had her flat, her cat, simple things that made her happy, surrounded by beauty to keep the ugliness she’d had her fill of, at bay. The trinkets acting like a talisman to keep the spell inside her sanctuary.
“I’ve always made myself up, never leave the house without makeup. I only stopped wearing false eyelashes when I was 90. I wouldn’t like you to see me undressed – it’s all skin.”
It wasn’t until I started doing the interviews when the book came out that I accepted or understood that the series was largely about my own fears of mortality after a few close friends my own age had died, vulnerabilities about my own illness – Rheumatoid Arthritis – and a general feeling of uncertainty. Living is not an easy thing, we need support and understanding every step of the way. Gathering these portraits of ages I have already lived through — and ones that are still to come — is basically a guide to help me understand where I fit into all this. As always, listening to other people’s experience is the best education. Laugh more, worry less.
I visited Renee recently to give her a copy of the book of which she is my cover girl. She is now in a home and it was quite shocking to see her without the backdrop of her flat. She was so much frailer than when I photographed her, the book was too heavy for her to hold so I held it on her lap and turned the pages for her, she cooed at the babies and children, loving seeing their fresh skin. Her rings had been cut off and her white hair swept rather than coiffed into a neat ponytail. No longer like candyfloss but much thinner than before so I could see her scalp. In fact, I could almost see through all her skin – a transparent film covering a network of veins that bruised easily to the touch. Renee closed her eyes exhausted, so I thought I would leave her to rest before Terry turned up. I left the book on her side table and gently touched her hand to say goodbye. She clasped it and repeatedly said “I don’t know who you are but I love you”. Wanting to spread love, affection and warmth as her last legacy ….what a wonderful woman.
This Portrait of Renee has been chosen as part of this year’s Taylor Wessing Portrait Award. The National Portrait Gallery is closed due to refurbishment so the exhibition will take place at Cromwell Place, South Kensington from Nov 10th to Jan 2nd if you’d like to visit her.
The book is available from Hoxton Mini Press
Living is not an easy thing, we need support and understanding every step of the way. Gathering these portraits of ages I have already lived through — and ones that are still to come — is basically a guide to help me understand where I fit into all this. As always, listening to other people’s experience is the best education. Laugh more, worry less.
Jenny Lewis grew up in Essex, after doing a Fine Art Painting degree in Preston she moved to Hackney where she has remained for 25 years working as an editorial photographer for magazines, publishers and commercial clients internationally. Her portraits are non-judgemental and unobtrusive offering a rare intimacy into the lives of her subjects. It is her interest in people and revealing their personal narratives that motivates her work. Many of her personal projects centre on her experience of living and working in East London and these have now been published as three monographs. One Day Young is an empowering series reflecting on the strength and resilience of women just hours after birth, Hackney Studios is a celebration of authenticity each artist nominating the next, discovering the supportive network of a creative community facing the impossible threat of gentrification. One Hundred Years is a series of 100 portraits of every age from 1 to 100, navigating themes of aging, connection and identity. This series can be seen across the borough of Hackney in various permanent installations.
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