Silver Lining, review by Elsa Dorfman
Photographs by Ann Noggle.
Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1984, 195 pp., $60.00 hardcover
I photograph people, most often older women, focusing on the tension between the iron determinant of age and the individual character of the subject. I try for images that go beneath the surface into that unchanging arena of the human psyche, formed in early life, which grows into maturity but does not relinquish its basic character throughout one's life. That deepest self, discernible only to one who is patient, watchful, and perhaps older oneself. The image I seek is of youth betrayed by age, of spirit strong but fragile with time. I want to show who the people in my pictures are, and how damned difficult it is as each of us in our time becomes them. (p. 32)
Anne Noggle, the 64-year-old portrait photographer, has lived in New Mexico since 1959. Silver Lining, her first book, includes 77 images, a representative selection of her work since 1969. The book is designed by Barbara Jellow, printed by the Meriden Gravure Company and bound by Stinehour Press. The photographic reproduction is first-class and the University of New Mexico Press should be applauded. The images are complemented by a foreword by Van Deren Coke, curator of photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, an essay, "Saga of the Fallen Flesh," by Janice Zita Grover, and a shorter essay, "Seeing Ourselves," by the photographer. The latter is quintessential Noggle; she explains her work and the roots of her intention better than anyone else does.
Noggle's interest in people over 50 or 60 began with a series of portraits of her mother Agnes, her friend Yolanda, and the friends of both women. The core of Silver Lining is a series of portraits of Agnes and Yolanda taken over the final thirteen years of their lives. Over time, both women grow more frail; yet the strength of personality in the earlier images continues to show through. Yolanda in particular lends herself to Noggle's camera with generosity and a sense of play. You get the sense of the force of her personality and although she naturally changes over time, you can see that her character remains unchanged - or, at most, softens around the edges. It is that constancy of character, not the outward changes of her friends' appearance, that holds Noggle's attention.
The cover of Silver Lining is a self-portrait of Noggle in the cockpit of a plane, the vast New Mexico space behind her. The picture, which recalls her first career as an airplane pilot in World War II, is one of a series of self-portraits which form the best work in the book. These self-portraits (of which seventeen are published here) have an interesting history. In 1975 Noggle decided to have her first face-lift; she also decided to photograph herself before and during the surgery. The seventies were a decade in which self-portraits were a form many photographers explored and Noggle's determination to document herself and the procedures she was experiencing was not unusual. What Noggle didn't expect was that she enjoyed being her own subject and that she was stimulated by doing things with herself as subject that she couldn't or wouldn't do with someone who was posing for her. The self-portraits exemplify the Noggle eye and intention: they are unwavering, occasionally humorous and sometimes unsparing. Noggle lets her camera examine her with a penetrating gaze. She is willing to expose herself naked at 60 as well as immediately after the face-lift; she is willing to share the badges of her experience and even seems to enjoy it. She is inventing herself, imposing herself on the landscape in nude portraits, she is conquering machines - she takes her own picture while driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, the only car on the flat road. She is aware of the irony of obsessively having face-lifts to hide life's wrinkles, but photographing the procedures so that everyone knows she has had the face-life; she is aware that she camouflages herself with surgery while she has an obsession with documenting the aging process as experienced by others.
Noggle is mining her own experience of aging, reflecting on her reaction to the process and curious about how other people are doing it. She sees her face-lifts as a way of keeping herself from being isolated. She is a warm, giving, gregarious person who fears that wrinkles are a barrier to people's response to her. In a comment quoted in the Introduction, she explains that as she got older, how she looked at herself affected how she felt about herself and the limits she put upon herself. She would look at her face in the mirror, beginning to wrinkle, and think "I don't feel old, but I'm beginning to look old, I better act old..." And acting old is what she is trying to avoid. To Noggle being treated as old is anathema. In our society, she writes, people automatically see wrinkles and think "addled."
Response to aging is a daily concern and the source of the energy in Noggle's work. While many photographers would be interested in the wrinkles per se, she is more interested, indeed only interested, in seeing between the wrinkles and behind them. She wants to see the character that has been evolving for seventy years; she looks for the soft edges that presumably come with age - but, in fact, looking at the pictures of Agnes and Yolanda, the most immediate feature is the amazing network of wrinkles.
In her self-portraits Noggle's behavior is the antithesis of what she allows in her subjects. She camps, vamps, plays, at the same time revealing and withholding. The self-portraits don't extend or evolve in the way the portraits of Agnes and Yolanda do. Noggle physically doesn't change in ways that we expect. You couldn't put the pictures in a series by date and get a chronicle of her face or character, the way you can with Agnes and Yolanda. Unlike the portraits of her subjects, the self-portraits aren't meant to reveal character. They are celebratory bits of theater. Nor do they reveal Noggle's environment or how she lives. There is no accumulating of belongings or memorabilia. The only hints at her world are a rose trellis, her dog, and her car.
Even the most humorous images are narcissistic, hermetic and isolated. Some refer to her history as an airplane pilot and lover of space. One, "Myself as a Guggenheim Fellow," is a jubilant hurray. Two of the most straightforward are among my favorites: "The Late Great Me" and "Self Portrait Before Surgery."
Noggle has said of the face-life series:
For someone who's so interested in aging, it's hard for me to explain about my face-lift...I've always been fascinated by something about my face, and it's interesting to see the changes and reverse them but at the same time see that they're taking place anyway...If I am shown in my face-lift as attempting to stave off the visible aging process, it is also an indication of what an exercise in futility that is (p. 16)
Perversely, Noggle refuses to present these three series as cohesive units; instead she disperses the images throughout her book. She mixes them in with other more miscellaneous groups of portraits - of couples whom she knew, other friends in Albuquerque, and patrons of the Seattle Art Museum whom she photographed on commission. But each series cries out to be viewed as a whole; I instinctively put them together in my mind as I encounter each one.
In the Seattle series, particularly, the people are well-placed, self-satisfied, a little boring. They are not inviting or special in any way and it seems more like an exercise in expert portraiture than the photographer's instinctive choice of subject. One of the primary decisions a portrait photographer makes is whom to photograph. There has to be a special something about the person to make the portrait work. The subject has to be a star in some way: there has to be a specialness conveyed by the person, either who they are or what they are doing, that instantly explains itself to the viewer. Though age, which is Noggle's special interest, could provide the aura of a person, in the series of portraits taken in Seattle it fails as often as it succeeds.
There is a handful of portraits of men in the book, but clearly what moves Noggle is her own circle, herself, her sister, close friends, and beyond them an array of women. Noggle explains that the reason she photographs mostly women is that after women reach 60, they are for the most part alone. In pursuing people over 60, she simply comes across few men. She is making no political statement, she insists, by photographing women primarily, nor does she feel she is making a political statement by photographing people in early old age. This woman, who was determined to learn to fly a plane when she was eighteen, does not see herself as a trailblazer or as a feminist. She merely "did what she wanted to do." She is, of course, for equal pay for equal work and for legalized abortions, but she does not identify at all with women's issues or describe herself as a feminist. She rejects the suggestion that a collection of images is inherently political.
There is a sheltered quality about Noggle's work. None of the women are photographed out in the hustle and bustle of the real world. There is no clue about their involvement with their work, their families or with what matters to them. There is nothing to anchor them in their decade; but they are not timeless in the sense of being eternal, they are timeless in the sense of being outside of time, isolated and protected.
In a way, so is Noggle. Born in 1921, she grew up in Evanston, Illinois, in a roominghouse with her sister and her mother, a bookshop clerk. Her father had abandoned the family early on. Ambitious and spirited, Noggle was determined to learn to be an airplane pilot when she graduated from high school, and she did. At the end of her eleven-year career, when she retired on a disability pension, she was 38 and a captain in the Air Force. She had flown 6,000 hours in various capacities - stunt pilot, crop duster, intercept controller. At 43, by the time she picked up a camera as a college student in art history at the University of New Mexico, she had had a successful first unusual career which gave her strength and confidence to pursue the idea of photography as a second career. Her approach was no-nonsense, matter of act; she had no fear of equipment, chemical formulas, procedures. Unencumbered by the demands of a family and a partner, and cushioned by her government assistance because of her military disability, she has been able, for the past twenty years, to concentrate on her craft and to develop her approach to portraiture. The result is work that is incurious about the strains women have to live with, a lack of familiarity with the tensions in women's lives, the juggling and interruptions that give the form to a woman's day. She has been able to be self-involved, enjoying the shelter first of a military life and then of her pension.
Noggle has included a prose-poem, "Sketch for a Self Portrait," in which she explains what she believes her photography is about. There she reflects on being alone without the loves and promises of her 60 years.
Where did all the promise go where did all the friends go. Have we dissolved into the past, are we granny or auntie or that old lady down the street. I have lost my way and my face reminds me of that. Every stop and start, love and loss legible A whole individual story and who will read it. Who will look at my face and find me there? (p.32)
It is a naked lament, made all the more poignant by the erasures and revelations of face-lifts, the giving, the withholding and the facades of the self-portraits. But Noggle needn't worry about being left alone. She is well on her way on becoming the Grand Old Lady of photography.