Photographer Tirzah Brott has been fascinated with elegant older women since she saw Sunset Boulevard as a child. As an adult walking around Manhattan, Brott — who is also assistant photo editor at New York — started shooting those who caught her eye. Sometimes she asked for their stories, but mostly she preferred to keep their pasts a fantasy. The Cut spoke with Brott about the resultant collection of photos, called Pentimento.
How did you come to start shooting these women?
I don’t really know how the obsession developed, but it’s always been there. These are the women that I look at on the street and follow: older women who, to me, seem like they’ve been directly transported from some other era. Even if no one’s noticing them, they’re still dressing to the nines and in the same things that they wore when they were 25.
You took almost all of these photos in New York, but you grew up in California. Did you see these types of women there, too?
It’s funny: not really. I lived in Los Angeles for a year and I definitely saw them there — I mean, Sunset Boulevard is set in Beverly Hills. But I started this project in New York. I went to school upstate at Bard, and came down to the city to shoot every weekend for four or five months. I’d go to this one building at 57th and Second where a ton of older women live, and probably don’t go much farther than the Duane Reade half a block away.
Right outside Bergdorf Goodman, tourists are always taking pictures of these over-the-top women who dress in super-bright colors. But the kind of women I’m looking for aren’t quite as much of a spectacle. I don’t think many of them realize how they appear — that’s just how they dress, that’s just what they do, and they don’t think it seems out of the ordinary. There’s this element of, I’m just walking through the streets and this is how I am.
How much time did you spend with each woman?
Most of them weren’t interested in talking a whole lot. They were flattered, but I don’t think they wanted to go beyond Oh, you want to take my picture! and share their life story. That was fine with me — I was seeing them in this sort of fantasy world, anyway, so I didn’t really totally need the truth. Some of them were definitely chatterboxes, and invited me over for tea and to look at photos of them when they were younger. I did it with a couple, but I was conflicted sometimes about whether I wanted to know more, or to keep my imagination of all the amazing things they’d done in their lives, whether true or not. It definitely became sort of my own fantasy about what it means to be an older woman. Which may not be as great as I make it out to be in the pictures, but I think that’s okay.
What’s the meaning behind the title?
I took a painting class to get some space from this project, and the teacher told us that when you scrape away a painting to see the revisions underneath, that’s called pentimento. I thought that was such a great name for a portrait, especially of an older person who has layers beneath them, but which you still see all at the same time.
Why did you make sure to ask each woman to pose, as opposed to capturing them candidly?
It seemed unfair to assume everything, to simply see them in passing and take their picture, because I don’t actually know anything about these people and I’m projecting onto them whatever I think it means to be an older woman. To me, in order to establish some element of truthfulness, you have to actually engage with your subject. Part of the point of this was for them to know that I was noticing them. Like I said, I don’t think that they always know how they appear, and I think that an older woman might assume a younger woman is looking at her with judgment. But I didn’t want to judge and I didn’t want them to think that I was judging them. I was genuinely approaching them because I think they’re incredible, and I felt like I needed to say that, not only verbally, but by showing them the respect of asking for permission. Even if I was making assumptions, but that’s unavoidable I guess.
That’s kind of the fun part.
Yeah. I want to leave something open to interpretation.
Click through the slideshow to see Brott’s portraits.