Number 73 has 95 great-great-grandchildren. Number 61 says his father, the illegitimate son of Vice President Andrew Johnson, stood next to Abraham Lincoln during the Gettysburg Address in 1863. Number 86 grew up on a Montana ranch and, up until he was 102 years old, did 30 push-ups for exercise every day. Number 14 is a 103-year-old Portuguese widow who wears black to mourn the death of her husband; he died in his early 20s. The biographical details of each of the subjects in photographer Mark Story’s Living in Three Centuries exhibit are intentionally brief and incomplete. There are no names (only numbers), some familial facts, a location and an age. The information about each centenarian (at least 100 years old) and super-centenarian (at least 110) is kept short because the images themselves express a much more thorough history to viewers.
“You don’t need a long, long story to go with the faces,” Story explains. “They’re very revealing just as they are. Just the face—I didn’t want clothes, background, any distractions. I just wanted tight shots of the face, which when you start getting close to it really speaks to the person’s life. It becomes like the fingerprint of the life they lived.”
Story has been working on Living in Three Centuries since 1987. While working professionally as a television commercial director specializing in “comedic dialogue” campaigns—think Budweiser and Little Caesars Pizza, both of which he’s directed for over a 25-year career—he became fascinated with human faces. In the 1980s, Story, who estimates he’s sat in on more than 3,000 casting sessions, started to experiment with hiring elderly non-actors for commercial roles, not only for comedic effect, but for their authenticity.
“They were so hilarious people would just crap their pants,” says Story, now 58 and no longer directing commercials. “They were so hilarious because they couldn’t act. Commercials are always so polished and these people definitely were not.”
Inspired, Story eventually decided to use his free time to travel the world looking for more of the unpolished, weathered faces he was starting to cast in commercials. At first, he was interested in shooting not just those more than 100 years old, but anyone who appeared “worn beyond their years by living extraordinarily hard lives.” That mission lead him to photograph a 46-year-old Portuguese man suffering from polio and rickets and a 42-year-old homeless Cherokee who preferred to live on the streets rather than on a reservation, among many others.
“I would literally go to China for two months,” says Story, “get two interpreters and get into a car and drive 7,000 miles and photograph hundreds and thousands of people whose faces interested me…I would stop people on the street, wherever, if I found someone who I thought looked the part.”
Despite its title, Living in Three Centuries includes some of those early shots, but the majority of the 22-piece exhibit on display at Gallery Saintonge (itself a fraction of the 70-plus piece full project) are of centenarians and super-centenarians. In the last few years Story has collaborated with the Gerontology Research Group, which studies the DNA of super-centenarians, to locate the oldest living people in the world. Just last summer, with the help of GRG, Story completed his project by traveling the midwest to shoot all 21 known super-centenarians in the region; 17 have since passed away.
“It’s amazing to see different people’s reactions to this,” says Story, who thinks some viewers become emotionally attached and others are repulsed by the intimacy of the photographs. “I think they depict, very clearly, how tiring it can be to live a life.”
To emphasize the features of his subjects’ faces and accentuate the high-contrast black-and-white portraits, Story shot most of the images outdoors with front or side overhead light. The effect creates long, dramatic shadows with deep-seated wrinkles, ancient scars and the slightest stubble hauntingly prominent. Story credits his classes at Missoula’s Rocky Mountain School of Photography from 2001 to 2005 (the school owns Gallery Saintonge) with helping him perfect the development of the images and maximizing his almost 20 years of work on the project. The result is a stunning consistency in each 16-by-20-inch photograph, despite the fact Story took them over the course of many years and wasn’t often afforded the luxuries of flexibility or time in setting up the shoots.
“They have good days and bad days, and we’d wait for the good days, but even those were tough,” says Story, who was conscientious about getting written permission from family and caregivers before photographing, as well as compensating everyone who participated. “The super-centenarians were the ones who couldn’t [go outside]. They’re usually laying in dark little rooms where you can’t put up lights and you’re forced to literally shoot with a flash. You end up having to work so fast when you’re there because they’re starting to fall asleep, it’s nap time, they can’t keep their eyes open and you’re working as fast as you can to just get a few shots before you have to leave them be.”
Inevitably, the questions Story is most often asked about his project have nothing to do with his process or the artistic qualities of the work. Instead, everyone wants to know what Story’s learned from the centenarians and super-centenarians—perhaps some common denominator holding the secret to longevity. Story is so used to the questions he’s included an essay on shared characteristics that accompanies the exhibit. For example, many of these super-centenarians never saw a doctor until they were in their 90s, and though most never smoked, one has a long history of smoking tobacco, and another used snuff for 103 years.
But more poignant for Story than how his subjects managed to last so long is what he personally took away from the project. His frequent visits to nursing care facilities revealed that most patients have little or no family present and suffer from a general lack of attention. Story returned home from one shoot spooked to the point of immediately sitting down with his wife and each of them writing living wills 50 pages long.
“You very quickly see that it isn’t about how old you live to be,” he says. “It’s about how did you end up living your entire life.”
Living in Three Centuries will be on display at Gallery Saintonge throughout June with an opening First Friday reception Friday, June 2, from 5 to 8 PM. Mark Story will be in attendance and available to sign copies of the book that accompanies the exhibit. Story will also give a lecture in the gallery on Thursday, June 15, at 7 PM.