Recent times have seen us separated from loved ones further afield, yet – because we've been forced to stay put – more deeply embedded in our local communities and closer to our neighbours. In her new book, photographer Jenny Lewis celebrates her own locality of Hackney. Titled One Hundreds Years: Portraits of a community aged 0-100 and published by Hoxton Mini Press, the book does more or less what it says on the tin: compiles portraits and stories of her Hackney neighbours across life's span.
Not only has Jenny lived in Hackney for the last 25 years, she’s also become known for her inimitable style of portrait photography. She’s published multiple books, including her debut publication One Day Young – a celebration of women transitioning into motherhood, capturing 150 women in their homes within the first 24 hours of having a baby. The second, Hackney Studios, saw the photographer explore the creative network, where each artist she’d lens would nominate the next person to sit in front of the camera. One Hundred Years, on the other hand, was borne out of an idea to find 100 characters that she had no control over photographing; a contrast to the more formulaic approach to the books preceding it. “This time, I would find people to photograph, asking people in the street, going to social clubs and parks, as well as schools and events around the community to find the 100,” she tells It’s Nice That. “Very quickly I realised the conversations were important, and I interviewed everyone so I could share a quote from each person. Not a life story, but an extra layer to help gain a little insight into the portraits.”
Of how the project first came about, Jenny tells us that it all started out with a portrait of her neighbour Nellie, who she’d photographed for her grandson for Mother’s Day. Nellie was 105 years old, and Jenny was fascinated by her. At the time of photographing, Jenny realised she didn’t have many people in her life who were older or younger than her, and noticed how she’d surround herself with people only of a similar age (plus her children). So in meeting Nellie, this sparked a curiosity and encouraged her to spend more time with her – “it gave me a rush of energy as she challenged all my pre-conceived ideas of what it is to be over 100,” she adds. “She was sharp, funny, stylish, interested and independent; living on her own and still out and about. She’s very much the head of her large family. She wasn’t isolated, wasn’t fading away and she was extremely vital. I think meeting her was the starting point or at least encouraged me to get on with an idea that was forming.” That idea, of course, was to start work on One Hundred Years.
This meeting is just a small example of Jenny’s devotion to the process. Her book twists the stereotypes often associated with age, especially when it comes to the older generation who are often depicted in the media as being frail or immobile. But it’s not just the elders that Jenny found interesting; she’d also met a seven-year-old boy named Jack, while wearing his hair in bunches with clips in the playground. “Of course I was interested in his appearance and gender fluidity at such a young age, but I also wanted to find out what he was thinking,” she says. “He could wear whatever he wanted for the portrait and represent himself in the way that felt most him. As I remember, there were quite a few costume changes and I could see how much he was enjoying putting these versions of himself together. We ended up having a discussion about identity for over two hours while we took pictures; the whole process felt extremely collaborative as I showed him the images and explained how his face or body language could read.”
Another character was Rosy, age 36, who featured on the cover of Jenny’s second book Hackney Studios. After photographing her previously, Rosy had undergone a few traumatic changes in her life; seven months into her pregnancy, her baby leaned on a tumour and she discovered she had stage four bowel cancer. “When she told me what was going on I was horrified,” says Jenny. “To think of her life moving along in one direction and then the tracks are literally blown up.” They’d arranged to style the portrait for this project in a similar vein to One Day Young, Jenny’s first book, shortly after a long visit to the hospital after an emergency C-section. Meanwhile she’d had an operation to remove the tumour and her premature baby was put in an incubator. “The scars were nearly healed and she would be starting chemo in a few days. I wanted to capture this moment for her, to celebrate her as a mother and the love she had for her baby… Pure joy, love and unimaginable trauma. Life out of your control.”
Observing Jenny’s book is like stepping into the lives of 100 people, where each and every photo reveals an honest and compelling narrative of the people you may not expect to meet. It’s a wonderful publication and something we all need in our lives right now; the stories of 100 people placed in the palm of your hands.
GalleryJenny Lewis: One Hundreds Years: Portraits of a community aged 0-100. Published by Hoxton Mini Press (Copyright © Jenny Lewis, 2021)
Jenny Lewis: One Hundreds Years: Portraits of a community aged 0-100. Renee, 100. Published by Hoxton Mini Press (Copyright © Jenny Lewis, 2021)
About the Author
Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.