Who We Are
Who They Are
Who You Are
b. March 2, 1891
Latrobe, Pennsylvania. USA
Mrs. Smith was the first person I photographed for this project. I realize in hindsight that my long journey began with her and that what she taught me that crisp morning in Manchester-by-the-Sea would ultimately change all of my preconceived ideas about this project. I started by approaching the interview as I had done countless other photographic advertising assignments, with a carload of equipment, an assistant, and a shooting schedule, trying to impose order on the individual and framing the final image in my mind before the first photograph was taken. What was I thinking? I learned a lot that day about needing to travel light, and more important, that I tended to come up short in the sensitivity department. I, like most, had never spent much time around "old people," perhaps out of a fear that mortality might be catching. All that changed with time. Mrs. Ann Smith was my first test.
She was living in a retirement home on the north shore of Massachusetts, an imposing old house overlooking the sea. I set up a backdrop in a grand living room of the facility and waited for her to finish eating before starting to take her portrait. The sounds, the smells, the pace of the retirement home were all new to me. As I began to photograph her, I realized how ill-prepared I was to talk with her. My own fumbling for words and not knowing what questions to ask or how to ask them embarrassed me. Mrs. Smith (I couldn't call her by her first name because she was twice my age and it made me feel uncomfortable), sensed this and didn't make things easier. The result was a set of good contact sheets and very little information. I had to turn to her daughter Helen to learn about the life of Ann Smith. Mrs. Smith was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, one of four children whose family moved frequently as her father traveled to different cities to set up steel mills. When she was small her family moved to Chicago. She somehow spent a few years "back East" with her two aunts on Cape Cod who had no children. The family moved to New Jersey later and Mrs. Smith went on to Teachers college in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. She taught most of her life. When she was in her seventies she volunteered at a Civilian Conservation Camp, teaching basic skills to undereducated men. Giving to others was a way of life for her.
One of Ann Smith's clearest early recollections was of being a young girl and seeing Teddy Roosevelt campaigning from the back of a train. She lived through World War I and then the flu pandemic of 1918. She volunteered to work in the flu wards, as she didn't seem to be susceptible to the disease. In fact, throughout her life she was basically free of sickness until the age of 105 when she fell and broke her hip.
Ann shouldered a lot of responsibility, often acting as head of the household when the men were at war. She had a burning Protestant faith that guided her, a faith that directed her to work hard and give to others. She always took in other members of her family and made room for them at the dinner table. During the Depression the family was never in need of food, as she grew lettuces, peas, beans and potatoes in her vegetable garden; had access to fish from the ocean; and made sure that healthy food was served. Her daughter said that Ann prayed every night before bed, her coping mechanism for the next day.
I looked at the images a few days after the shooting and hadn't yet realized what I had stumbled upon. Underneath the façade of this frail woman in a wheelchair were three centuries of history; a teacher, literally, waiting with her lesson plan to begin my life studies; like any archeologist, I had just begun to scratch the surface.Click here to view the next supercentenarian's story.
© 2009 Earth's Elders