NEW YORK — They say we become invisible with age. But when photographer Ari Seth Cohen scours the streets of New York for stylish subjects, he specifically seeks out older men and women. Scrolling through his popular street-style blog, Advanced Style, it’s easy to see why: Some of the city’s most creative dressers are surprisingly in their eighties, nineties, and beyond. Now, thanks to Cohen, they’re getting the attention they deserve.
Inspired by his late grandmother, Cohen began photographing “stylish and creative older folks” as a way to connect with them and shine a positive light on aging. Since launching in 2008, his Advanced Style blog attracts roughly 150,000 visitors a month, and his photography book of the same name, published in 2012, is in its sixth printing.
For his forthcoming book, Advanced Style The Coloring Book, Cohen literally took the pages from Advanced Style and turned them into original drawings for coloring. He’s also finishing post–production on the Advanced Style Film, which follows the lives of several of his muses like Israeli-born fashionista Tziporah Salamon.
Cohen spoke recently with The Times of Israel about his grandmother’s influence on his work and how her stylish, vibrant peers continue to inspire him.
When and how did you become interested in older folks?
It really began growing up in San Diego with my grandparents. My [maternal] grandmother, Bluma, was my best friend and encouraged my creativity. I spent almost every day with her watching old movies and looking through her scrapbooks. My other grandmother, Helen, was also very stylish and we’d go shopping together. So, I’ve always had a very positive view of aging because of these two very strong, vibrant older women in my life.
So was it your grandmothers who inspired your love of fashion?
I’d say it started with them. I remember at age 7 or 8 sitting with my grandma [Bluma] and making a scrapbook of older fashionable ladies, which I still have today. She was also a librarian, so we’d go to the library every day and pick out fashion and photography books and look through them together.
What made you to move to New York and create Advanced Style?
My grandmother [Bluma] went to Columbia University and always wanted me to go to New York. A year or two after she passed away, I knew it was time to make the move. One of my personal goals was to see the city as she saw it, so, I started approaching really lively, creative older people in the street and began talking with them.
And then I thought, ‘Why aren’t their stories being told? Why aren’t they being featured in campaigns? And why is everything in the media so negative [about aging]?’ So, I started talking to older people and taking their pictures. It really started out as a personal project, and I hoped that these images would inspire my friends and colleagues to look at aging more positively.
How and where do you find your subjects?
Some people think that I style these women, but I meet them all on the street — this is how they dress themselves. I’ve now become friends with some of them and sometimes we’ll set up a shoot. But really I’m going out on the street every week.
New York has been the best city for me because it’s a fashion hub and there’s a pedestrian culture. The streets are like a runway. But I’ve found people all over: London, California, Stockholm. It’s easiest to be in a place where people are walking around.
Are there any memorable anecdotes from interactions with your subjects?
Everyday brings anecdotes — some funny ones and some inspiring. In London, I spotted a woman with a very elegant turban stepping into a taxi. So, I knocked on the taxi door to ask for her photo and she responded, “Sure darling, I’m just on my way to chemo — my friend makes these wonderful turbans.” That was very inspiring to see this woman who looked incredible and was keeping a very positive attitude through a difficult time.
Have you formed friendships with any of these women?
So many of them have become friends. They helped me in my projects, and I help them start their projects. Some of them have become sought-after models and TV personalities [due to the blog]. Two of them are going to be on a Discovery Channel show.
The women and men you photograph have very individual styles. But what motivates them to dress as they do?
It’s instinct. They wouldn’t feel comfortable any other way. In the [Advanced Style Film], we did this experiment where we had one of the women, Debra Rapoport, who dresses very creatively, wear a white T-shirt, and she felt very uncomfortable. People have said they feel invisible when they get older. But dressing up is the opposite of being invisible. It’s being present in the world.
Are there any common misconceptions people have about these stylish seniors?
Yes, that they spend a lot of money. A lot of these women shop on a budget; it’s not about money. They are just very creative about how they put things together and where they find things. Also they’ve collected things throughout the years.
Several of your Advanced Style muses come from vibrant cultural Jewish backgrounds: Tziporah Salamon, Bel Kaufman, Malcah Zeldis, and the late Zelda Kaplan. Why do you think that is?
Well, for one thing, there are a lot of Jewish women on the block — New York has a huge Jewish population. And because my grandmother was Jewish, I’m definitely drawn to Jewish women. I can’t speak for others, but in my household, education, culture, and art were very highly valued. So, I definitely think there’s a link [between Judaism and art]. We’re an expressive culture in general.
Can you talk about your upcoming projects?
I wanted to connect younger people to older people, so I have a children’s coloring book featuring the men and women from Advanced Style coming out in September.
The Advanced Style documentary should be finished by the end of summer, and then we’re entering it into the 2014 film festival circuit. The film follows 6 or 7 women I’ve photographed since I started the blog, our journeys together, and how they’ve confronted getting older. You definitely get some insight into who they are, why they dress up, and what drives them.
Tel Aviv is quite a fashionable city. Would you visit Israel for a photo shoot?
People in Israel have actually sent me photos of their grandmothers and said, “Come to Israel, there are so many great women here!” I visited once as a child and would love to go again. But I’d have to be offered a project in order to make it work!
What’s your message to younger folks who fear aging?
Look at these women! They’re in their eighties, nineties, and hundreds and are still active. The most important thing is to stay inspired, stay passionate, stay healthy, and never stop creating. You can’t just give up.