When photographer Ponch Hawkes went looking for images of naked older women on the internet, she found acres of blank space, then a rich vein of what’s termed “granny porn”.
“The whole panorama, from the 50s onwards – there wasn’t anything,” she says. “The odd life model. You are more likely to find a drawing. Then you look more, and you find 500,000 images of ‘Young man f…ing old woman’.”
Hawkes hit on this surprising corner of the internet when she was commissioned to take 500 portraits of women over the age of 50 – an act she didn’t recognise as radical until she realised how few such images existed. For a society preoccupied with the female body, interest drops off precipitously after 50. “For every woman, it’s on your mind, the question of body image and body hatred, and there isn’t any material about that for older women.”
The project began as a health initiative, the brainchild of Martha Hickey, a professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Melbourne and Royal Women’s Hospital. Hickey’s clinical area is menopause, and many of her patients are women facing early menopause.
“I have been struck over the years by how much their fear of becoming an ‘old woman’ added to the distress of the experience,” Hickey says. “Those two words in combination; there is nothing good about them. We really needed to change the message for younger women about what it is to become an older woman.”
Hickey noted that older women “play a hugely important role in society but are largely invisible in art”. So she came up with the idea of Flesh After Fifty, a program of exhibitions, talks, workshops, dinners and films to run over five weeks in Melbourne and, hopefully, later tour regionally and nationally.
The program was so named after a quote from the famous Magnum agency photographer Eve Arnold, who wrote about photographing actress Joan Crawford in New York in the 1950s: “There she was nude – but sadly, something happens to flesh after 50.”
Set in the broader Flesh After Fifty program, the idea for Hawkes’ exhibition, 500 Strong, was to take nude portraits of 500 women. The final count ended up at about 420 after the project took longer than expected and the budget ran out.
The models were volunteers who came forward after a media call-out; the Country Women’s Association enthusiastically embraced the idea, and Hawkes and her team travelled to Shepparton and Bendigo to photograph residents there.
Women were invited to bring a prop to pose with, and each was given the option of having her face obscured.
“The women who seemed very relaxed talked about how nudity was not an issue in their house when growing up,” Hawkes observes. “Some other women said they hadn’t taken their clothes off in front of anyone for a long time.”
Says Hickey, who posed for Hawkes herself: “We are hoping an exhibition like this will further reassure and empower women to know there are all kinds of variations of normal.”
Flesh After Fifty runs from March 28 to May 3 at the Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne.
Jacqueline Maley is a senior journalist, columnist and former Canberra press gallery sketch writer for The Sydney Morning Herald. In 2017 she won the Peter Ruehl Award for Outstanding Columnist at the Kennedy Awards