Ari Seth Cohen’s street photography has been repeatedly (and rightfully) credited with debunking ageist perceptions of who constitutes a ‘tastemaker’ in the realm of fashion. Since launching his blog, Advanced Style, in 2008, the San Diego native has captured countless members of New York’s well-heeled senior set. Wrapped in fluorescent coats, wearing all-over plaids and leopard prints or draped in decadent fur, Cohen’s women – and the occasional man – find ultimate pleasure in the act of getting dressed. Due to age alone (his subjects range from their 60′s to 100′s), they have witnessed the ritual cycles of fashion, from the high street rip-offs to the tasteful appropriations, the eternal faces and the hallowed muses that appear before a designer only for a moment, casting light on everything around. These mature New Yorkers know that dress is more than appearing on-trend – it is inextricably linked to our sense of identity. It becomes a way of confirming one’s existence, of saying ‘I am here’ to the world.
For New Zealand designer Karen Walker’s new sunglasses campaign, Cohen was approached to photograph four of his favorite silver-haired creatures: flamboyant, boisterous dressers, women both sanguine and self-assured. It was Walker who initiated the partnership, eager to translate the timelessness of her 31-piece frame collection,Karen Walker Forever,into a tight set of images that reinforced eyewear as an essential accessory. She looked at Cohen’s many muses and understood them, saw them as her own.
The meeting of the Walker and Cohen has produced something quite incredible – campaign portraits that are eccentric, refined, intimate and honest. Accessory images that feel accessible – modelled by incredible characters with silvered hair and style that is all their own. The women in question, Ilona Royce Smithkin, Joyce Carpati, Linda Rodin and Lynn Dell, are aged between 65 and 92. They smile in frames named things like ‘space bug’, ‘helter skelter’ and ‘super-duper strength’. I spoke to the ever-charming Cohen about the collaboration, his Advanced Style project and the importance of the right mentality when growing old. He was economic with his words – frank and to the point. He was also incredibly kind.
Laura Bannister: Karen Walker Forever is replete with graphic silhouettes and excitable hues, from turquoise to neon yellow. How important have you found accessories to be in the style choices of your subjects on Advanced Style?
Ari Seth Cohen: Iris Apfel says that she learned about the importance of accessories from her mother who, “Worshipped at the altar of the accessory.” Accessories seem to be the key element in personalizing and defining their unique take on style.
Laura: You’ve forged firm friendships with many of the women you photograph. How difficult was the process of selecting the right personalities and aesthetics for Walker’s campaign?
Ari: It’s always hard to choose some women over others. The women I chose each have a unique sense of personal style and they all love and collect eyewear. I worked with Karen to really narrow down our favorites for this campaign.
Laura: Does the nature of your photographic process alter for commercial projects?
Ari: Yes, as I usually shoot outside or indoors with natural lighting. The spirit of the photography is the same – just a bit more produced.
Laura: What’s the most prized accessory you own?
Ari: My grandfather’s vintage Gucci watch.
Laura: I’m interested in how you initiate the photographer/subject relationship with the women on your blog… Are they all simply women you run into? Do you ever get requests from women to photograph them?
Ari: I met most of the women who appear on my blog outside while walking around with my camera. I do get a lot of requests and suggestions from people about who to photograph, but I like the process to be very organic. My book agent introduced me to one of my favorite ladies to shoot, a gorgeous 101-year-old who dresses up every day and practices Pilates twice a week.
Laura: Is there a process of getting to know each woman – sitting down over a coffee or similar – before you begin photographing her?
Ari: Every situation is different, since our first meeting starts with me approaching them while walking around the city. So many of the women I meet have been so open and excited about the project that they have invited me for tea or back to their homes to hear more about what inspires their personal style.
Laura: Where is the most unlikely place you’ve found a new model?
Ari: I never know where my next subject is going to come from, so I make sure to have my camera on me at all times. One time I was heading to the restroom in a cafe in Paris and I saw an incredibly gorgeous older lady exiting the ladies room, headed for the exit. I quickly turned around and asked her if she would mind me taking her photo.
Laura: New York is often deemed a Mecca of sorts for experimental dress – have you found this to be true in your travels? What is it about the place that ignites unbridled optimism in the way people present themselves?
Ari: I definitely think that New York sets the stage for a lot of creative freedom… New York is so big and has so much going on (in terms of art and fashion), so people feel comfortable expressing themselves here. It’s also a walking city. 80-year-old Lynn Dell, who appears in the Karen Walker campaign says, “The streets of New York is our stage and we must dress for the theatre of our lives every day”.
Laura: In a previous interview, you speak about the formative influence of your grandmothers in forging your own aesthetic sensibilities. What are some of your strongest visual memories you have of time spent with them, growing up in San Diego?
Ari: My Nana Helen’s Escada suits, perfectly coiffed hair, and gold jewellery. Bluma’s scrapbooks filled with photos of women dressed to the nines in gorgeous dresses, hats and gloves.
Laura: Who is the oldest woman you have photographed for Advanced Style? Can you tell me a little about her character?
Ari: Probably 102-year-old Bel Kaufman, writer of Up the Down Staircase. When I visited her in her New York apartment she recited all of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock for me. She is quick witted, insanely intelligent and a blast to be around.
Laura: Tell me about the most incredible woman you have met in the last week.
Ari: Two ladies at a retirement community in Florida called Forest Trace. They are 100 and 101 years old and are best friends. They exercise and enjoy life everyday. One of them said to me, “Some people thing getting old is the end. The fun is just beginning for me.”
Laura: Finish this sentence. “When I’m not taking photographs, I spend my time…”
Ari: Taking photographs.
Laura: When audiences engage with your images, what are you hoping they will see?
Ari: I hope that they that aging can be a positive thing. I hope they inspire people to feel better about getting older, to dress up and be creative and to engage with older people in their communities.
Laura: The fear of growing old seems to be common within younger generations. Does it frighten you? Did it ever?
Ari: It’s hard to be frightened when I am constantly surrounded by incredible role models. I just hope I am as vital and active as the people I photograph.
Laura: What excites you the most about getting older?
Ari: The freedom to act, dress and say whatever I want.