Remember the Nineties

Connie Springer photo show focuses on illuminating portraits of ninetysomethings

“I laughed and cried — what a wonderful group of stories!” says a note in the exhibition comments book for Positively Ninety at the Sharonville Fine Arts Center, which runs through May 21. Someone else writes, “A wonderful collection of interesting faces!”

The faces belong to people who are 90 years old or more, going about their lives with zest and relish. Photographer Connie Springer's nonagenarian portraits, completed under the now discontinued (as part of budget cutbacks) city of Cincinnati Individual Artists Grant Program, were first shown at the Kennedy Heights Arts Center in January 2009. The exhibition has had an unexpected continuing existence. Sharonville is the show’s seventh venue (it’s been exhibited at the Hyde Park Health Center, Anderson Center, Clifton Cultural Arts Center, Oxford Community Arts Center and the Centennial Barn near Wyoming). The portraits also appear in a book of the same name, created due to popular demand.

Nonagenarians are sometimes overlooked, she feels.

“We see stories about people who are 100 or more, and those in their eighties, but 90-year-olds are under-studied,” Springer says.

Her own discovery of 90-year-olds came in response to her mother's decline and eventual death in a nursing home.

“I had a jaded view of age,” she says. “I wondered, ‘Is that my destiny?’ ”

A friend suggested that Springer, then a writer for the publication Hyde Park Living, interview Hyde Park resident June Edwards, who, at 91, was a committed gardener leading an active life. “There's never been a boring day in my life,” Edwards would tell her. “I try to accomplish something every day.” The picture of Edwards in Springer's book shows her on her knees in a flowerbed, spade in hand.

Recognizing that 90-year-olds might be a rewarding subject, Springer “put out feelers” and the Individual Artist Grant materialized. With a multifaceted background admirably suited to the project, she interviewed and photographed subjects over much of two years, discovering affirmative lives quite different from the wind-down scenarios she had envisioned.

Florence Heater Wesley of Twin Lakes Retirement Community is the book's attention-grabbing cover girl — she is smiling behind a spectacular Mardi Gras mask she had made the morning the photograph was taken.

With the life expectancy of women known to be longer, the number of men in the book is a surprise. Clearly attitude — Springer's book lists shared personality traits of her subjects — plays a huge role. Henry Winkler, former University of Cincinnati president, is in the exhibit, as well as Gordon Maham, a lifetime “peaceful protestor” who calls Springer now and then “just to talk.” There are 28 portraits and interviews in all.

A young-looking 61-year-old, Springer has shoulder-length, dark hair, blue eyes behind lightly rimmed glasses and wears long earrings. She and her architect husband, Steve Kosztala, moved to Cincinnati in 1985.

“I cried all the way here,” she says, because, although her husband's new job with a Cincinnati firm was the reason for the move, she didn’t have anything lined up in town. Not that she wasn’t well prepared to work — Springer has a degree from Oberlin College (sociology), training in photography and a master's degree in library science from Boston's Simmons College.

But Springer did find work eventually. Over the years she has been a freelance photographer for the Business Courier (among other freelance work), a photo archivist for the Cincinnati Art Museum and she’s on the local public library's staff in the films and recordings department. Her book has been acquired by the library and soon can be checked out — very satisfying to someone who once worked there.

Springer has also “created a niche,” she says, by helping institutions (like Children's Hospital, Kroger and others) and individuals organize and archive their collections of information and possessions.

Meanwhile, raising three children puts its own claims on available time. The three are adopted, two from Vietnam and the third from Korea. In 2000, Springer created the exhibition Our Families: A Celebration of Adoption, in a format similar to Positively Ninety, for the WCET Gallery.

Springer was born in New Jersey to parents who had fled Hitler's Germany and abandoned their Jewish heritage to become Quakers, a circumstance that leaves Springer drawn to Judaism and Holocaust literature.

Her eclectic career includes a Chicago job as fact checker for the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was ultimately unsatisfying “because I didn't feel I was helping anyone,” Springer says. After a stint as a social worker in Louisville, a change in direction took her to studies in Boston. “Library science united my aesthetic and practical sides,” she says. She met her husband there and eventually the couple moved to Cincinnati.

Asked about the initial response to Positively Ninety, Kennedy Heights Arts Center Director Ellen Muse-Lindeman says people were immediately attracted to the show.

“It draws the viewer in; it's inspiring,” she says. “Some of the subjects themselves came to the opening — they're as dynamic in person as they are in the exhibition!”

Perhaps, with the media's rush of information on ills of the old and regularly invoked threats of Alzheimer's, people are hungry for positive information on aging.

They’ll certainly find it in Positively Ninety.

POSITIVELY NINETY is on view through May 21 at Sharonville Fine Arts Center (11165 Reading Road, Sharonville, 513-554-1014). Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.