Hal Kahn has an issue with the digitally retouched, wrinkle-free world in which we live, and his self-funded photography exhibit, Faces of the Elderly, reflects it.
"I want to show the wrinkles," the 60-year-old says of the forthcoming show, which consists exclusively of portraits of senior citizens.
"I don't Photoshop these pictures. I want to say that having wrinkles or gray hair or age spots, or having problems walking—they're all signs of endurance, of strength, of perseverance, and we shouldn't be ashamed of them; we should honor them."
His tone passionately elevated, Kahn finds—especially in this country—that seniors are often airbrushed out of the picture.
"In this culture now, we hide people. It used to be people would die at home; we would see it as a natural, normal part of life," he says. "Now, I know there are communities—say, Native Americans or the Japanese—where older people are still honored, but in American culture in general, we push them away."
The Philly transplant's foray into photography was almost accidental. "When I came here, for a short while, I had a girlfriend with young children, and I thought we would be together forever, so I bought a camera to make a family album," Kahn reminisces.
"By the time I paid for the camera, she was gone," he says with a laugh.
Captivated by natural color and texture, he began shooting flowers in his backyard and managed to sell handmade greeting cards featuring his work at the New Mexico Museum of Art's gift shop.
Kahn's been on disability since 1997, when he was diagnosed with mitochondrial myopathy, a hereditary disease that doesn't allow him to properly process food and oxygen. Ten years after his diagnosis, he was rear-ended while driving down Cerrillos Road and had to undergo spinal surgery.
"That injury made it very hard to bend over and photograph flowers, so I started doing people," he says.
Recently, he underwent disc surgery—"the same operation Peyton Manning had"—and though he lives in constant pain, this latest photographic venture puts his problems in perspective.
"I was always a very vigorous guy. I used to do a lot of swimming and racquetball and tennis and now, not being able to walk around the block for 15 years, it's been very, very humbling," he says. "At the same time, it also makes you count your blessings. I have a wonderful daughter."
Putting up community announcements, cold-calling people he saw in the news, like a 114-time Senior Olympics medal winner, and approaching people directly on the street or at the supermarket, he assembled his cast.
"Most people think I'm selling something and don't respond, but enough of them did," he says.
Kahn also quickly drew parallels between himself and his subjects.
"Everybody has suffering, and so much of the project is about: How do you deal with life when you can't do what you once did, when you can't lift as much, when you can't run as fast?" the former San Jose Mercury News reporter says.
His journalistic side taking over, each 5x7" print (a reduced size that's a result of his fixed income), will feature something his Zeiss lens could not capture: a short bio on each of his subjects, most of which have led heart-wrenching lives.
Richard, a dapper gentleman pictured in a corduroy jacket and a black felt hat, told stories of growing up in Germany and seeing Hitler rise to power.
"When Hitler took over, he watched the parade, the marching bands—the word he used was 'fantastic,'" Kahn says. "He tried to give a sieg heil! salute and his father, who had served in WWI, slapped his hand down." He later managed to escape from the Hitler Youth program and hid in a barn until the war ended.
Another image shows a smiling lady holding colored pencils and resting her hands against her beaming face.
"That's Elizabeth," Kahn says, recounting how her father, who wanted her to be a musician, would hit her if she hit the wrong notes. "In her 70s, she took up drawing with colored pencils. This allowed her to express her artistic side. She got a lot more self-confidence, a lot more self-esteem, and she's happier now than she's ever been."
Valerio, who at 96 is one of the oldest subjects in the exhibit, told tales about his younger days, when he would vigorously ride on horseback from rural New Mexico for three hours to get to a dance in town, and then ride back by daybreak to resume his ranching duties. When asked by Kahn what the hardest part of his life had been, Valerio replied that it was when his 2-year-old boy drowned after falling into a cistern well, and he had to retrieve his body.
Far from perpetuating the misery loves company adage, Kahn, who plans to publish a book based on his experience, says these are stories of survival of the human spirit and overcoming immeasurable odds.
Reclaiming his lost virility, Mike, a recovering alcoholic, for example, asked to pose nude.
"I find the people very inspiring, because they haven't given up. That's one of the big points. They haven't given up," Kahn says. "A lot of people kill themselves; a lot of people take refuge in drink or drugs; and these people press on, and they lift my spirits."
Taking a pause he continues, "When I get down, I think, 'Well, hell, these people are 20, 30, some of them 40 years older than me, and they're still pressing on.'"