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.
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.
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
“By the time I paid for the camera, she was gone,” he says with a laugh.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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