Even if you don’t know a Geraldine, no doubt you have seen one. She’s the solitary elderly lady riding the subway with a passel of shopping bags at her feet, or camped out at the Waffle House nursing a bottomless cup of coffee and leafing through the PennySaver.
You’ll know her by the rouged cheeks and Mardi Gras piles of costume jewelry, and the fact that she’s always dressed to the nines, never mind the season or the occasion. Longtime Atlanta and now Birmingham-based photographer Jerry Siegel surveyed his Geraldine, an 82 year-old Birmingham, Alabama resident, from a distance at her favorite cafe perch, where she went every morning at 6:30. Unlike most of us, Siegel had the gumption (and the camera) to approach his Geraldine and make her the subject of his layered, tender photo essay on what it means to be 82 and fierce.
In some ways the portraits in Jerry Siegel: GERALDINE, composed of 23 portraits at Barbara Archer Gallery through October 29, recall Scott Schuman’s The Sartorialist website in which the blogger immortalizes personality-defining get-ups of both the young and sexy, the old and elegant, and every permutation in between.
For GERALDINE, Siegel has documented the wild style of this singular, chameleonlike woman whose mix of bright colors, patterns, costume jewelry, headbands, fanciful wigs, and hats set off by a consistent, practical wardrobe of comfortable sneakers can often suggest both a little girl playing dress up or the ugly-chic of the Terry Richardson and Vice magazine crowd.
Catalogued according to her fashion choices, in Plastic Headband and Red Scarf Geraldine wears all-American chic: a polka dot red scarf, a necklace of red beads, a navy dress flecked with makeup, lint, or dandruff, and a gold headband set upon her skull like a princess’s crown. Ever attentive to color, Geraldine has rouged her cheeks and lips a happy pink, simulating the come-hither flush of sexual availability. Geraldine’s varying costumes suggest a sense of humor, from her glittery T-shirt proclaiming “Hottie” to the red velvet cake wig in shades of black bleeding into violent red. This is not the perfectionism of old-lady fashion, with everything just so, but something far more playful, a Russian roulette of costume more typically seen on women in their teens and twenties. Geraldine is the epitome of dressing for yourself.
Perhaps. You wonder too, if Siegel’s regular photo ops weren’t an opportunity for Geraldine to vamp a little and show the full flower of her sartorial creativity. In Blonde and Jewels a dignified Geraldine sports sedate gold earrings, an Angie Dickinson circa Point Blank wig, and a whimsical navy pouf on her frosted blonde head. In Blonde Hair Gaze she has replaced her store-bought hair with her short, ragged sandy-colored cheveux paired with a pom pom-festooned sweater with a faux-fur collar. In Pearls and Bandaid she’s wearing the kind of cotton jumper with an elastic top sported by little girls.
In his mostly 20 x 20 images printed on 28 x 30 paper, unframed and clamped at the top, Siegel alternates between close-ups of Geraldine and full-body shots which allow us to take in the complexity of her wardrobe and poignant details like the reoccurring Band-Aid on her ankle, or her easy-fasten velcro sneakers.
Siegel’s images can feel superficial in some regards, because his focus is essentially on the same sort of fashiony moments captured on copious street photography blogs. If you judge it by the standards of Diane Arbus-style documentary photography, the Geraldine series might seem a little one note because it is so cut off from context. But Siegel’s work has its own merits of tone. Defined by a Southern compassion and tolerance for eccentricity, Geraldine is mercifully free of the edge of cruelty that can define work like Katy Grannan’s Boulevard series—a fascinating collection of photographs depicting the epic failure of Hollywood Boulevard and San Francisco’s elderly denizens. Unlike Grannan’s work, Siegel’s work feels more celebratory than surgically anxious to chronicle each mercilessly illuminated liver spot and varicose vein in the probing California sunshine.
By the standards of street fashion photography, however, GERALDINE is exceptionally subversive. Siegel’s work documents a woman who is supposed to be too old to look this way. Most women—and perhaps some men too—are aware that dressing in a carefree, expressive, wild, flirtatious, or silly fashion beyond a certain age is courting not just disaster but social scorn. Elderly women are supposed to let go of their sunny Zooey Deschanel side and go gently into tasteful, invisibility-inducing garb. Little old ladies are meant to be unseen and unheard. We’d prefer, as a society, to pretend they don’t exist.
So to see Geraldine rocking an Obama t-shirt and skull cap one day, and a church lady hat the next, is to witness not just an eccentric soul, but a convention-busting one. Geraldine wants you to look at her, or at least doesn’t care if you do. She makes us question how people like her are supposed to behave and for that insight Siegel is certainly to be applauded. The assumption that with age we must relinquish our sense of vanity and fun is certainly part of Geraldine’s attraction for Siegel.
The Geraldine of Siegel’s project has something to say, too, about the essence of fashion. She serves as a reminder of the creativity and magic of clothing, how it can shape our day and the people around us. Her wardrobe of Hawaiian prints, club wear, and costume jewelry shows the propensity of many Americans—not just Geraldine—to sport an aspirational dress-up of exotic travel, an excitement-filled downtown life, and ersatz wealth, all available at the local thrift store, Wal-Mart, or Kohl’s. If Siegel’s medium is photographic, then Geraldine’s is sartorial: With an equally colorful and expressive floral polyester skirt, Pledge-yellow tank top, bejeweled necklace, and hair dyed a Sixties-era Priscilla Presley jet, she veers from matronly to rapper chic to girlish, illustrating the mood-ring nature of fashion where one can try on utterly different personas on a daily basis. You. Go. Geraldine.
But a question mark remains around Siegel’s survey of Geraldine’s peacockery. As he has proven in his compelling documents of the Southern landscape and in his heart-wrenching still life images of his own elderly parents home in Selma, Alabama Rt. 2 Box 348E, or in Ten Jews Left, there are myriad details about human experience revealed in context. Posed against a concrete wall, cut off from her surroundings, Geraldine becomes a bit of an abstraction: a symbolically defiant granny who doesn’t appear to give a wit what you think of her tiny broken boxer’s nose and rivulets of wrinkles.
Green Shower Scrunchy, is the one image of Geraldine offering up a missing-teeth smile (tellingly hidden in the other portraits) that gives a hint of tragedy beneath the plumage. In this image we see a woman who doesn’t have the money or the wherewithal for dentures but perhaps self-medicates with her mood-lifting fashion. The lack of context provokes endless speculation.
What GERALDINE inspires is a craving to know more about this woman. What does Geraldine think of her get-ups and of a photographer recording them? Has she always been a dandy? What does her home look like? How does she survive? How does she arrange her collection of hats? And her jewelry? What does she eat at that cafe every morning? You can’t fault a photographer for failing to fill in all the gaps. But it’s possible to both feel slighted by, and also admire, a body of work that inspires so much curiosity and provokes so many questions.