Bebe on Sand

Jocelyn Lee’s Older Women in the Nude


Is nakedness invisibility’s opposite? Maybe not, but, if it’s unapologetically displayed, it can be a kind of antidote to erasure.

Some clichés about the cycle of life are true. When you are raising young children, the days are long and the years are short. And when you’re a woman, you will, at about age fifty, become invisible. All our lives, as girls and younger women, we prepare ourselves to be looked at. We grow accustomed to registering—to attracting, evading, or denouncing the male gaze. In “Mrs. Dalloway,” Clarissa, newly aware of herself as a woman of a certain age, walks down the street thinking, “This body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing—nothing at all.” The cultural critic Akiko Busch, quoting that line from “Mrs. Dalloway,” notes that “a reduced sense of visibility does not necessarily constrain experience.” True, but it takes some getting used to, and when it’s punctuated, as it often is, by condescension—when strangers are suddenly addressing you not even as “Ma’am” but, with a verbal wink, as “young lady”—you may not want to get used to it.

Nancy at 78, Maine at 18
Jocelyn Lee “Nancy at 78, Maine at 18 (Aunt and Grandniece),” 2018. / Jocelyn Lee

Is nakedness invisibility’s opposite? Maybe not, but, if it’s voluntarily, unapologetically displayed, it can be a kind of antidote to diminishment and erasure. A nude portrait of a woman older than, say, sixty is an unusual image—even a taboo one. To make such photographs, and, even more so, to pose for them, is an act of defiance. In the course of her career, the photographer Jocelyn Lee has been drawn to nude bodies of all shapes and ages. Her latest book, “Sovereign” (Minor Matters Books), features a selection of her photographs of women who range in age from their mid-fifties to their early nineties, posing naked, frequently outdoors and in natural settings.

Nancy Floating
Jocelyn Lee “Nancy Floating at Quitsa Pond,” 2016. / Jocelyn Lee

Lee’s color images of older women are painterly, classical, but also frank. Skin puckers, crinkles, and sags. Bellies poof and pleat. A silver-haired woman stands knee-deep in a pond strewn with autumn leaves, looking directly at the camera, her elbows angled back like wings to reveal one intact breast and one mastectomy scar. A naked woman sits on a blanket of moss in the woods, her breasts and belly soft, so at ease she might be napping. In “Nancy at 78, Maine at 18,” a woman and her grandniece stand nude on a beach. Side by side, their long-legged, curly-headed bodies rhyme, but also remind us of the ways time will remake our familiar, corporeal selves. The image is not some grim memento mori, though. The women lean comfortably toward each other, touching shoulders; the younger woman’s arm loops through the elder woman’s. Behind them, the sea and sky are a light-suffused blue.

Webber Pond
Jocelyn Lee “Webber Pond,” 2019. / Jocelyn Lee

Lee, who is fifty-nine, lives part of the year on a lush, wooded property outside of Portland, Maine. She’s taken some of the portraits of older women at a pond near her house, and others on beaches at Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere. The natural settings, devoid of sociological detail and inherently beautiful, tend to banish ironic readings and extend a certain benevolence to the naked subjects. We aren’t in paradise here—nobody in these photos looks that naïve—but we are not in any sort of judgment-laden social space, either. Lee told me that she hoped the locations implied the warmth of sun on the body—“that kind of comfort and love”—and communicated the idea that we are “all essentially sensual creatures.”

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Source: New Yorker

Original publication 1 November, 2021

Posted on NatCorn 2 weeks ago

Reference to an article does not infer endorsement of any views expressed.

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