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Artists reflect on aging, bringing a typically private topic into public view

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2009 - This is a young person's game...This is a young person's game.

The thought ran through photographer Joel Meyerowitz's mind over and over as he tiptoed across the ruins of Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11, 2001.

"Walking over hot, smoking, sharp steel, one little fall and you're lacerated in ways you don't want to think about," Meyerowitz said. "It was so violent down there, and I was running, carrying a camera around my neck for 14 hours a day."

It was an assignment that any up-and-coming photographer craving recognition would savor -- even with the inherent risks. But Meyerowitz, known especially in St. Louis for a project photographing the Arch, was already a well-established artist in his early 60s.

Meyerowitz's photographs from the former World Trade Center site would eventually win him international acclaim. But cutting through the red tape just to have the chance to snap those dramatic shots wasn't easy. He encountered resistance from New York's mayor, the city's police commissioner and cops at Ground Zero. He was thrown out of the site three or four times a day before finally getting permission to chronicle the aftermath of the attacks.

"Thirty-five years ago I would have said, 'Who needs this?'" Meyerowitz said. "But I was determined in a way that I hardly remember being determined when I was younger. That was a signal for me that my sense of what's important had changed."

The New York-based photographer is among the presenters at a conference Tuesday that looks at just that theme: How artists experience the aging process, and how it affects their creativity and expression.

Here's a preview of what three of the invited guests plan to bring to the conversation.

A Photographer's Journey

Speaking from his home in Manhattan, Meyerowitz said that being asked to take part in the Friedman symposium has enabled him to reflect on a topic that typically is thought of as private. He doesn't even discuss aging with his wife.

"It's probably a sign of aging -- the willingness to step into unknown and precarious territory," he said. "People don't like to talk about aging. They talk about aching joints but not about spiritual growth or creative challenges. I thought it would be a challenge to confront this subject in public."

Meyerowitz started by thinking about the arc of his career. As a photographer in the 1960s and early 1970s, he said he was focused primarily on documenting social movements in America. But in the ensuing decades, as Meyerowitz recalls, a sense of social mission didn't drive his career.

As a native New Yorker, Meyerowitz said 9/11 left him with a feeling that he needed to be useful. "That feeling, it seems, was a product of my age," he said. "I felt like I couldn't sit on the sidelines."

Having spent weeks in a four-acre zone of nothing but steel and concrete at Ground Zero, Meyerowitz spent his next large assignment working on completely opposite terrain. He took on a project photographing city parks across New York city, and said he had a chance to reconnect with nature.

Last year, Meyerowitz began a body of work called the Elements, looking at air, water, fire and earth.

"You realize you've been living with these pure forms all your life, but you take them for granted," he said. "Maybe what I'm seeing as a 70 year old, there's only so many more years of experiencing these things. To engage this is what I'm capable of only now. I wouldn't have been ready to do this 10 or 15 years ago."

Meyerowitz said keeping busy helps him stay intellectually engaged and physically active. After months of shooting at Ground Zero, he said he felt in tremendous shape. Yet he sometimes can't help but feel his age on a photo shoot. Being an aging photographer, he said, is like being a boxer in the twilight of his career who relies on his savvy to make up for diminishing speed.

Coming back to St. Louis also brings back memories for Meyerowitz, who spent time here in the late 1970s shooting urban scenes. "The state the city was in at that time, the kind of hollowing out of the downtown area, it was poignant and tragic and beautiful and uplifting," he recalls.

The book he released with photos of the Arch and other landmarks remains one of his favorites.

Concurrent with the symposium, Meyerowitz is exhibiting his works at the city's Greenberg Van Doren Gallery through May 30.

A Veteran Conductor's New Role

Amy Kaiser had spent 18 years as a freelance conductor in New York before coming to St. Louis at age 50. A lifestyle that had been workable at age 35 and 45 was taking its toll on her.

"I'd been working like a crazy person running around from one place to another," Kaiser said. "There was a tremendous amount of stress and not much in the way of security and benefits, and I was forced to think of an alternative."

Kaiser traded her position as conductor for a position as director of the St. Louis Symphony Chorus. She's been here for 14 years now, working with the orchestra and chorus. The behind-the-scenes life suits her well at this point of her career, she said.

"Because I'm not up there in front of everyone, it's much less stressful and still very rewarding," Kaiser said. "I couldn't have anticipated when I made the move how I'd feel 14 years later."

Kaiser said she now spends more time playing piano in her spare time. She's also more involved in other creative pursuits such as gardening and cooking. And like Meyerowitz, she finds that she now has a deeper appreciation for the art of her craft.

"To have live music in front of you all the time is the most wonderful thing," she said. "That's something that I really treasure more and more."

An Author Rethinks Her Goals

Jan Greenberg, a noted St. Louis author, isn't afraid to admit it: "I'm past 60 and have in a conscious way noticed a change in my work habits and ambitions over the last 10-15 years."

The way Greenberg puts it, she's less ambitious now. But as others might see it, her ambitions have just changed.

During the years when her young daughters were at home, Greenberg devotedly worked in her study from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the week. In that time, she wrote seven novels. As her children aged, she shifted to writing about teenagers, sibling rivalries and coming-of-age stories. Teaching art also gave structure to her days.

When her children left for college, however, writing about adolescents no longer seemed as interesting to Greenberg. She immediately had more free time. Her options for travel weren't limited to school vacations. Greenberg began to spend less time in her study and more time on the road.

"I was thinking more about looking at art, talking to artists, going to places I wanted to explore in the world," she said.

Through her travels, Greenberg noticed that there was a shortage of books that looked at contemporary art for young people. She had found her new nonfiction subject. In recent years, she's written about aging artists and continues to collect art.

As she sits down to work these days, she notices a change. "I have no discipline whatsoever unless a project is due," Greenberg said.

She tries to structure her days, but her plan doesn't always work. She tells herself she's going to soon return to writing novels, but when? Unlike some of her peers, Greenberg said she doesn't feel that her time is running out.

"I differ from artists who have a grand vision of themselves," she said. "I've come to realize that writing is just one aspect of my life along with family, exercise and travel. My ambitions were a little grander when I was younger, and so staying in that study was for me totally absorbing. Now I don't stay in that room as much."

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