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50 Up: The Power of Jana Marcus’ ‘50 Over 50’ Portrait Project

Project provides representation for women over age 50

Paula Berman, age 59, says the best thing about her age is, “The wisdom to be fearless in my choices.” PHOTO: JANA MARCUS

Jana Marcus has made a lot of women cry—in a good way. And all she had to do was show them what they look like.

When she started doing her “50 Over 50” project—portraits of 50 women over the age of 50—out of her photography studio in Santa Cruz this year, she quickly got into a pre-Covid rhythm: consult with each woman to design the shoot; bring them into the studio for makeup, hair and wardrobe; and then take the pictures.

But that isn’t the end of the process, and the most powerful moments inevitably come afterward.

“What I usually do in non-pandemic times is I invite them back to the studio about a week after our shoot, and I put 20 of the best images up on the wall for them to look at,” says Marcus. “And most women come in and start crying. They can’t believe it’s them. They’re like, ‘Oh my god, it’s me! I look good!’”

Now, of course, she’s doing the unveiling process on Zoom rather than in person—but that doesn’t stop many of the women from shedding tears when they see the images.

Marcus isn’t really surprised. It’s a reaction she first got a few years ago when doing portraits of transgendered women for her photography book Transfigurations.

“It was while I was shooting that that I realized the power of photography,” she says. “It’s not that I didn’t know that before, but I had these transgendered women who, when they went to the exhibit and saw the pictures of themselves on the wall, would start to cry. And they were like, ‘Oh my god, you captured the way I feel inside that I never thought I looked like on the outside.’ I realized how transformational photography can be in a person’s life.”

After that project, she took her studio full time and was trying to think of a portrait project that would get it noticed and bring people in, but that she also felt a personal connection to.

“I started thinking about how all of us women in our late 50s are in the second half of our lives—and we’re probably at our best,” says Marcus, who is 58. “We’re fully conscious and aware of our power, what we’ve lived through. But a lot of us don’t like how we look, because we don’t look like we did when we were in our 30s and 40s. I thought, ‘You know what, I want to do this for women. I want to photograph women. I want to give them a day where they can feel like a rock star and come to the studio and have a makeover and a fabulous photo session totally designed around them. Whatever they want represented of themselves—have them celebrate exactly who they are right now, whether they’re 50, 60, 70, 80, whatever they are.”

Once she started offering the 50 Over 50 package, she quickly had three times that number of women wanting to be a part of it. She planned to have finished the project by now, but thanks to Covid-19 she has only done about half. Her studio is currently closed, but she plans to open in September and is booked through November.

She has also been asking each of her subjects to write a few words about aging, or advice they would give their younger selves.

“Women are so all over this, because there is no representation in the media of women over 50. We’re invisible, like we don’t exist anymore. So they are loving this opportunity to be seen and to say a few words.”

Most of her subjects have never been professionally photographed, Marcus says, and while there’s a strength and confidence that shines through in the photos, it’s often her job to bring that out.

“Every single one of them is nervous before they come in,” she says. “I have a Zoom consultation with them before they come, and we talk in detail about how they want to be photographed, what they’re going to wear, and they’re all nervous, and they all are like, ‘Oh my god, get rid of this, and this, and this, and this.’ I’m like, ‘OK, I can airbrush whatever you want, but this is about photographing you right now, as you are.”

As the shoot goes on, the women being photographed inevitably get more comfortable, and Marcus says most of the best shots come near the end. The project itself seems to be gaining swagger as it goes on, too.

“They’ve started to bring props with them. People are wanting to say something about what they do in their life with the pictures,” says Marcus. “I had a florist who brought in flowers, and we photographed her with all these flowers. I had one woman who brought everything but the kitchen sink—she brought a bicycle and a fly-fishing rod and life-saving equipment! She had all this outdoor stuff that represented her life as an active person. And then when we were shooting in the studio, she said, ‘I also have these gowns from the 1940s that were my grandma’s.’ So I said to her, ‘Put the gown on.’ We made her all glamorous, and then we put her with all her outdoor stuff around her. It sounds crazy, but it’s the coolest picture, and she actually looks like a warrior woman holding the staff of the fishing rod.”

Currently, Marcus is planning her latest round of 50 Over 50 shoots, which will include Santa Cruz’s Ethel Lewis, the 90-year-old great-grandniece of Harriet Tubman. She hopes someone in the community will host an exhibit of the project in January, health orders permitting.

Marcus has always embraced the unusual and countercultural—from her 1997 book In the Shadow of the Vampire, about Anne Rice fan culture, to her award-winning 2004-2005 photo series “After Midnight: Youth Subcultures of New York City” to Tranfigurations (which won an Independent Publishers Book Award for Best LGBT Non-Fiction Book of 2012) to this summer’s Line of Blood: Uncovering a Secret Legacy of Mobsters, Money and Murder. With this project, too, she’s ready for anything.

“I had my first senior tell me she wanted a nude,” she says. “I hadn’t shot any nudes! So I said, ‘Well, what do you want?’ and she said, ‘I’m a free spirit, and I think everybody should love their body.’ I was like, ‘Ok!’”

Jana Marcus Photography can be found at janamarcus.com.

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