In January 2019, Maine-based photographer Michael David Wilson went to Down East magazine and pitched the idea of photographing people over 100 years old who live in Maine for the state’s bicentennial of statehood in 2020. Down East loved the idea, and the magazine ran his photos with accompanying stories in their January 2020 issue. Yet what started out as a simple idea for an assignment has developed into a larger, more challenging project for Michael.
It took a while to find anybody who was 100, but once you find one, they know everybody else who’s 100. So, it sort of like snowballed into having all of these connections.
Michael’s original idea was to capture the centenarians in black and white film, using a Sinar Norma 8×10 view camera given to him by a former boss, Martin Schoeller. After just a couple of shoots, Michael realized that his plan to shoot in black and white was, ironically, aging his subjects.
I was hesitant about the black and white 8×10. The [Down East] issue was a retrospective issue of Maine in general, so they had a lot of historic black and white images in there, and I felt like it would’ve really been almost a disservice to the intention of the project to be like ‘hey look these people are really old and we shot them on black and white because they’re old.’ That was what I wanted to avoid.
Luckily, Michael had also captured digital color photographs of the subjects. The centenarians’ personalities shone through in the digital images in a way that they hadn’t in the black and white photos, and in the end, Down East ran the color images in their publication.
In particular, the one of the guy on the exercise bike, and that bike must be from like the mid-1960s. He still had shag carpeting, and the place that he lived hadn’t been updated in many years. To me, that was almost as compelling as he was and his stories that he had to tell. I really wanted that color to come through.
Alongside the centenarians’ portraits, Down East teamed up with Maine Public Radio to interview the centenarians about their lives and what it was like to live in Maine for so many years.
It ended up being a lot more involved than I originally anticipated, but I realized after the first shoot that it was more valuable than just one-off portraits. It’s always neat as a photographer to see an idea turn into something much bigger.
The assignment for Down East took about 10 months to complete, which, as the centenarians could attest, was not really that long. Michael’s work was published on the magazine’s website in December 2019 and in the January 2020 print issue. Since then, Michael has turned the centenarians into a personal project. Though he is currently maintaining social distancing norms, the photographer has compiled the photos he shot of centenarians for exhibit on his Instagram feed, and he plans to meet more 100-year-olds to capture their stories in the future.
The Centenarians project is the biggest one I’ve undertaken from an editorial standpoint. From a business standpoint, it was basically a loss leader. Between all the driving and processing of 8×10 film, the money was gone before it even started, but I’m so happy I went through with that project because it turned into a much bigger thing than I thought it was going to. I felt it was a cool way to honor people who have done absolutely incredible things in their lives.
Special thanks to all the subjects and their families!
See more of Michael’s work at michaelwilsonphoto.com.
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