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July 20th, 2010

Photography and the Image of Aging

Posted by Jeffrey Levine

Editor’s Note: Dr. Jeffery M. Levine was recently featured in the New York Times article, “The Elderly, Through the Eyes of a Geriatrician.” Levine (a liveBooks customer) discusses geriatrics and the combination of art and medicine on his healthcare blog,

As a young doctor starting out in my profession I wanted to stake a claim in academia – doing research and teaching about human aging.  What I achieved is something different from what I originally intended when I began my project of visually documenting the process of growing old.

Initially I tried to catalog the physical manifestations of aging.  Using Kodachrome slide film and flash, I captured changes of the skin and musculoskeletal system, supplementing my portfolio with x-rays that enhanced understanding of the physiology of growing old.  One day out of curiosity I switched to black and white film, turned off the flash, and stepped back to photograph my patients in their natural environment and captured the interactions between me and my subject.

To my surprise I discovered an entirely new landscape, the complex psychological and essentially human process of life in old age.  My camera helped me to see my aging patients in an entirely new way – one that was not taught in medical school – viewing my patients not as illnesses but as people.

I began photographing elderly people in nursing homes in New York City where I worked.  To contrast illness with robust, healthy aging, I sought out older individuals in different environments including motorcycle rallys, tattoo contests, rodeos, Native American reservations, and tennis courts.

I used a variety of film cameras, starting with an Olympus OM2S, and moving to a Nikon FE.  When my uncle died I inherited his Leica M4 with an array of fixed focal-length lenses.  The first time I handled it I thought I never saw a camera so ungainly.  It was completely manual and needed a separate light meter.  But once I started to use it, I appreciated its quiet elegance and incredible sharpness.

By the time I converted to digital image capture in 2008 with a Canon 5D, I amassed over 12,000 negatives.  I picked the best which presented the emotion, power, and diversity of old age, scanned and printed them and assembled a show entitled “Aging Through a Physician’s Lens.”   My show has had some success traveling around the country, appearing in healthcare facilities and medical schools.  Other photos have appeared in dozens of medical journals.  There are links to some published photos as well as samples from my aging portfolios in my website,

Despite the fact that the aging demographic is the most rapidly growing sector of American society, honest, sympathetic and realistic images of aging are hard to find.  We are conditioned by our media to view aging in a negative light, and the images that are out there reinforce our stereotypes.  Despite the demographics, of great concern is that the specialty of geriatrics finds few candidates among graduating medical students.  Medical care for a 90 year-old is much different from a 50 year-old, and the medical profession still has some way to go toward accepting this concept.

Old age is a time of growth and change, and I am continually fascinated learning how people cope with the enormous challenge on so many levels.  As a physician who specializes in geriatrics, I have cared for many older people.  As a photographer, my images show a side of human life that our culture has conditioned us to turn away from.  In my photos I try to show not just the pain and wrinkles, but the inner spirit that has enabled and resulted in longevity.  I hope that my images will bend society’s views of growing old and open our eyes to new possibilities as we age.

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