Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2005 | Reviews

Aging in America: The Years Ahead, an Ed Kashi Exhibit

By Jennifer Hemmingsen
Frankie Manning, 90, was one of the original Lindy Hoppers at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem in the '30s.

My great-grandfather lived to be 105 years old. By the time he turned 101, he started talking about dying. “I’m done,” he’d say. “I’m ready to go.”

We would try to change the subject. “You’re in good shape,” we’d say. We didn’t want to think about the imminent possibility of his death.

As a society, we are famously squeamish about aging, but we’re also getting old. Our fastest-growing demographic is people over 85. Soon we’ll have no choice but to pay more attention to the concerns of our autumn years.

That’s the philosophy behind Ed Kashi’s award-winning photographs in “Aging in America: The Years Ahead,” on display at University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics through June 24 in the Joyce P. Summerwill Patient and Visitor Activities Center. The collection gradually takes you deeper into the realities of getting older, from vitality to loss to rethinking what is possible.

The exhibition starts with photos of octogenarians who still go to work or are active in their communities. A smiling Frankie Manning, one of the original Lindy Hoppers, swings a young woman at his 89th birthday party. He celebrated, as he always does, by dancing with as many women as his age.

But then you turn a corner to see much more poignant images. In one, Maxine Peters is on her deathbed. Her body is shrunken, her face tilted upward. The photo’s grainy quality makes it seem like she’s being absorbed into the sunlight behind her. Her husband sits by her side, his eyes downcast, shoulders hunched. He is holding his wife’s hand.

Around the next corner there’s 1960s fashion model Gloria Barnes, still turning heads on the streets of Manhattan. There’s the country’s first seniors-only assembly line at Bonnie Bell. There’s the Democratic National Convention where, like their Republican counterparts, half the delegates are members of the AARP.

At the end of “Aging in America,” you’re left with a more complex idea of what growing old is all about, and what it can be. Like all stages of life, old age can be joyous, bittersweet, painful, and beautiful. And maybe not all that scary after all.