Life after 70, going on a hundred

Talking with Ari Seth Cohen, founder of Advanced Style.


INTERVIEW  SAM L. MARCELO | PHOTOGRAPHY  ARI SETH COHEN

Ari Seth Cohen, founder of Advanced Style, a blog dedicated to fashionable seniors, grew up in California with his best friend and grandmother, Bluma. “We would spend afternoons drawing pictures, making collages, and watching old movies together. She always encouraged me to be creative and curious about the world around me,” he told High Life in an e-mail interview. “My visual references for culture and fashion were all based on her old photographs, old movies and the scrapbooks she kept from when she was a child. There was a sense of elegance and originality about how everyone put themselves together in the ’30s and ’40s,” Cohen said. “I always had an affinity for older people and felt that there was much to learn from people’s life stories. I never understood why older people were made to feel invisible.”

Colleen Heidemann, Suzi Click, Gretchen Schields, and Irene Coyazo, LA. All photographs courtesy of Advanced Style: Older & Wiser by Ari Seth Cohen, published by powerHouse Books.

Documenting “the invisibility of the aged,” which began as a personal project for Cohen, has given rise to a blog with a global audience, two books, and a documentary. In this Q and A, the Advanced Style founder talks about the blog’s beginnings and what he plans to do next.

You started your blog in 2008. Could you talk about its origins and how it grew?

After graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in art history, my grandma became ill. She was in her 90s and needed care. I moved to San Diego to help my mom take care of her for many years and when she passed away in 2008 I was filled with a deep sense of loss. As a child my grandma always told me that I should move to New York if I wanted to be creative. She had gone to grad school at Barnard and recounted stories about the elegance and creative spirit of NYC. Shortly after my grandma’s passing I moved to NYC in search of regaining a connection to her. The first person I became friends with was 92-year-old model and actress Mimi Weddell. One day while I was sitting in her apartment filled with hat boxes from floor to ceiling I began to wonder why people like Mimi weren’t being celebrated in the media. Everything about aging was negative or clinical. One day I picked up my roommate’s camera, without ever having taking photos before, and I started to photograph and interview creative, stylish, vibrant and elegant older men and women on the streets of NYC. I wanted to show a positive and inspiring picture of aging. I started my blog Advanced Style in 2008 and published my first book of photos in 2012. A coloring book, documentary and second book, just released in April following. I am now hired to photograph the women I discovered for brands and magazines all over the world.

How do you feel about the public’s response to your project?

From the beginning I was thrilled with how people started to see aging differently. Younger people tell me all the time how they are no longer afraid of getting older, in fact they are looking forward to the freedom and confidence that come with age. Older women have told me that the women I photograph have made them feel hopeful and given them the permission to dress up, be creative, vital and vibrant.

What was your grandmother Bluma like?

She was creative, kind, generous, selfless and very wise. She always had the answer to any problem and she made the best spaghetti! My favorite memories are sitting on her bed while she clicked her heels together while telling me stories from her childhood.

What’s changed since you talked about the “invisibility of the aged” a couple of years ago?

Advanced Style has become a movement. Older men and women are being celebrated in the news, on the runways, in advertisements and people are starting to realize that there is life after 70, 80, 90 and 100.

Has Advanced Style affected the way you personally think about aging?

Yes, I realize I have to start taking good care of myself now in order to be a healthy older person. A lot of my worries and anxieties have lessened too because I see the paths these women have taken and realize that life is a constant journey of learning and self discovery.

What do you look for when you’re photographing for Advanced Style?

Originality, spirit. There is just a feeling I get, a connection, when someone passes that I want to photograph. It can be a colorful hat, gorgeous silver hair, a shock of red lipstick. More than style, it’s about how they carry themselves.

Have you become close friends with the women you’ve photographed?

Yes, I have hundreds of older ladies who have become my friends all around the world. The women in the Advanced Style documentary have become a big part of my life. We traveled the world together and they are like family. Ilona Royce Smithkin, an artist living in the the West Village known for her colorful clothing, and long red eyelashes made from her own hair is the resident fairy godmother of Advanced Style. She just turned 97, released a book on her life philosophy and continues to do cabaret, swim, paint and teach. She has become an inspiration to so many.

What’s the most common reaction when you approach women to take their photograph?

They are usually surprised. I have been rejected and my heart has been broken several times. Most of the time they are grateful and tell me that I have made their day, but they really made mine.

Over the course of shooting around the world for Advanced Style: Older and Wiser, what differences did you observe in how the West/America views aging versus, say, an Asian country like Japan?

It’s surprisingly very similar. Many women in Japan told me that while there is a respect for older people inherent in Japanese culture, most media and advertising are focused on youth culture and older people are often forgotten. The culture of ageism and the fear of aging often propagated by companies promoting “anti aging” is a global problem.

A lady photographed in Ginza, Tokyo.

What’s been the most satisfying thing so far about this journey?

The most exciting thing is the daily hunt for someone new who will inspire people to look at life and aging differently. I am working on a new project about Advanced Love — telling stories about love between older couples.

Care to share the best piece of advice you’ve gotten from a subject?

From Ilona: “When you pass a rose or a beautiful flower don’t forget to stop and take a whiff of its perfume. You don’t know when you will get another chance.”