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Nora 12_Emily Stein
Emily Stein, styled by Janine Eveson

The photographer celebrating the beauty of older women

Emily Stein’s Nora photography series challenges how our society views ageing to celebrate the vitality of older women

For older women, our society can often seem like an unwelcoming place. What space is there for older women in our world when even the luminously beautiful Olivia Wilde is losing out on film roles (she was passed over for the lead in The Wolf of Wall Street) at the grand old age of 28?

Where we do celebrate the beauty of older women – laughter lines, wrinkles and all – it’s often a cynical marketing move from advertisers wanting to tap into the lucrative ‘grey pound’, rather than a genuine attempt at diversity. And while women like Meryl Streep continue to kill it, for every Meryl there’s a thousand overlooked, talented women being shunted to the sidelines or made to play roles (in films, or in life) that aren’t worthy of their gifts.

Photographer Emily Stein wants to challenge this. Her photography celebrates the beauty and vitality of older women – women such as Nora, the subject of a recent photography series. After meeting Nora by chance one afternoon in a Hackney street (the pair are neighbours), Stein set out to photograph her in an ongoing photography project which is set to evolve over time. This isn’t Stein’s first photography project which focuses on older women: her Portraits: I’m Older series depicted women at the beach or men unrolling neat stacks of dollar bills from crisp plaid shirts. A fine art graduate and London native, Stein cites major female photographers as her main inspirations: “Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Eve Arnold, Rineke Dijkstra, Katy Grannan, Vivien Sassen, Harley Wier, to name a few.”

Dazed caught up with Stein to find out why she’s drawn to work that celebrates the beauty of older generations – and what we can learn by working with people with years of life experience we’ve yet to gain.

Hi Emily. Why are you drawn to photographing older people?

Emily Stein: I am really drawn to photographing both the young and the old. I find both groups have an honesty and an openness to them – maybe the young haven't built up their barriers yet or become hardened to the world and the old have learned to let things go and let their barriers down again. 

How did you meet Nora?

Emily Stein: By chance! She lives one street away from me, I literally met her walking down the road one day.

Why Nora?

Emily Stein: Shooting Nora is an ongoing project. I am learning so much from her over time, the more we meet. She is an exceptionally beautiful woman who has no idea of her own beauty, but she wants to see it. I think thats why she lets me take her photographs.  She thinks young people view older people in a tangled way...As she says, most people don't even think old people still have sex!

What has shooting Nora made you appreciate about how our society views older women in particular?

Emily Stein: I think that in this day and age we are so bombarded with ideals which makes us as all perhaps overanalyse how we should look, as well as how we should live and how we should be behave. It's scary. Our society places such an importance on age. We all think we 'should' have become certain things by certain ages and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves.

Has the process of shooting Nora made you evaluate your own relationship with ageing?

Emily Stein: Well, I am 36 and I have a 2-year-old son. I am not young anymore, but I do think that all the women I know are happier in their own skin than they were in their 20's.  Shooting the older women that I have has taught me a lot about getting older. Photographing Nora has felt liberating, optimistic and very youthful. She seems to come alive in front of the camera. I think she enjoys being recognised and maybe being seen again, something that seems to get lost as we age.

What do you think about how older generations are depicted in the media?

Emily Stein: Occasionally a magazine or brand will make a point of doing an 'older issue', but then things go back to how they are and the models' ages drop back down. I think of us all need to become more content with our ages. We need to celebrate the beauty of people of all ages.

What are your plans for the future? 

Emily Stein: I would really like to continue shooting Nora and then make a book with the photographs. I think she would get a kick out of a book being made about her!