Photographer Sky Bergman sets out to marry photography and the life stories of senior citizens with the launch of Lives Well Lived. The project is inspired by her 100-year-old Italian grandmother, Evelyn Ricciuti. Her wise and witty "rockin" grandma cracks people up wherever she goes with her unique and well-earned perspective on health and happiness: "Live life to the limits, be kind, have younger friends, and learn something new every day."
Traveling the world to chronicle septuagenarians, octogenarians, and even a few centenarians, photographer Sky Bergman is in pursuit of standard-bearers who are living life to the fullest. Bergman aims to marry photography and the life stories of everyday senior citizens with the launch of her project, Lives Well Lived. The project is inspired by her 100-year-old Italian grandmother, Evelyn Ricciuti. "My grandma cracks people up wherever she goes with her unique and well-earned perspective on health and happiness," described Bergman. Her grandmother's sage advice? "Live life to the limits, be kind, have younger friends, and learn something new every day."
Finance to Photography
Undergraduate studies in finance took a different path for Sky Bergman, when her passion for the arts was sparked by a photography class taken for fun during her last semester of college. Bergman instantly fell in love with photography and sought the advice of her art professor in making a monumental career change into the world of art. Her professor steered her toward teaching at a university level and encouraged her to spend a year honing her photography and building a portfolio. Landing at the University of California, Santa Barbara for graduate school, Bergman turned her camera toward the human body. Her thesis work centered around the concept of sensuality and sexuality that is depicted in photography versus painting. "If you take a photograph of a [nude] model it can be considered pornographic even if it's not," explained Bergman. "But if you create a drawing or painting of that same model it can be considered sensual and acceptable. I was trying to push the boundaries with that concept and never considered my work as anything but beautiful. One image in my thesis show was a mural about 10 feet by 34 feet and another image, which was 1 inch x 3 inches. I was really dealing with this issue of how do we view the body when it changes with scale when it is more intimate and small and you have to walk up to it, versus something so large you have to stand back from it. We know what size a body is so when that becomes altered there is a different sense of things," said Bergman.
Bergman came to San Luis Obispo to teach photography in 1995. "I absolutely love San Luis Obispo. When I first moved here I thought I had died and gone to heaven it was so beautiful. I travel all over the world and when it comes time to return home to San Luis I have to say out loud 'I am so lucky to be back here!' As my grandmother often says, you have the mountains on one side and the ocean on the other. No other place can top that." Bergman asserts that San Luis Obispo is special because of the people. "I can honestly say that this is a better if not the best community I have lived. I am a musician as well, and you can easily get hooked into a group of kindred, like-minded interesting people if you want to. Also there is a community of artists who are very willing to share ideas-- and that doesn't always happen everywhere. People here want to work together to make things happen," said Bergman.
Her world travels led to photographing exotic locales such as Burma (Myanmar), Cuba, and Japanese subway culture. The latter subway series was one of her first forays into digital photography after a long career in film. Early themes catching senior citizens in everyday occurrences and intergenerational interactions eked into this series. "The young, the old, the rich, and the poor, sit next to each other, share each other's space, and occasionally glimpse into each other's lives. In this series I was captivated by the seemingly silent clash of culture within the Japanese society that is evident when riding the subway." Bergman she was able to shoot from the hip so to speak with the camera placed waist-high and her viewpoint being inconspicuous making the subjects relaxed and in their own day-dreamy gazes.
The Lives Well Lived project will culminate into a collection of photographs and interviews celebrating everyday people over the age of 75 who are living life to the limits. The anchoring story is of course Evelyn Ricciuti, Berman's grandmother. Marking the start of the project will be a 21-day cruise to Italy that Bergman, her mother, and her grandmother will be taking in September. Whether in her travels or in her own neighborhood in San Luis Obispo, Bergman often finds herself seated next to people who have remarkable stories to tell. Sitting at the kitchen table in Sky Bergman's home in San Luis Obispo, is Evelyn Ricciuti whose method of unfolding her own life story is humble yet lively. Born in the Bronx in 1912 to Italian immigrants from Castrovillari and Casacalenda, Ricciuti pumps iron at the gym twice a week, cooks authentic homemade Italian dinners for friends and family, and is the subject of Bergman's award-winning video.
What is a life well-lived?
Sky Bergman: "I think a life well-lived is when you can look back with no regrets and that you let yourself look forward. One of the stories or idioms that my grandmother always shares with me is: The old lady didn't want to die because she needed to learn something new every day. With that attitude and always wanting to look forward and staying active, I think is a life well-lived. Being able to share that with other people and have gratitude too." One of the reasons Bergman wanted to launch Lives Well Lived is her feeling that the younger generation doesn't pay as close attention to the older generation. Yet she believes elders have such a wealth of information to offer like with her grandmother who Bergman speaks with almost every day to seek her sage advice. "If I have a problem I am trying to work out I call her. She has lived 100 years and she has probably already dealt with the problem I am experiencing and can give me advice-- and her advice really helps and makes a difference for me. Elderly are not really valued the same way they used to be valued. They are more often now tucked away in a nursing home. That is a marked change from how it used to be-- your elders lived with you. I grew up with my grandmother and my great-grandmother close by -- you grew up with those generations and that is really being lost today."
Evelyn Ricciuti: "A life well-lived for me is trying to be nice to everybody as well as you can; trying to help people in any way you can, all my life I was that way; get as much education as you can; and keep your family at arm's length. I came from a large family so we were always together. We were always a very close-knit family and just growing up helping my brothers and sisters is where it comes from-- I was one of the older ones and I was in a position to help, that was my way of life."
"It is great to be around someone who is still looking towards the future and has a list of everything she is still going to do in life," shared Bergman about her grandmother. "I have this skewed idea of what aging really is, neither one of the matriarchs in my life are slowing down and I am 47 and I still feel like a kid."
"Well you are a kid," interrupted Ricciuti. Bergman laughed and said "My mother is seventy and beautiful and does yoga daily and my grandmother is a hundred and so incredible and active and well I am lucky that I can legitimately still be a kid when my grandmother is around me! "
Ricciuti chimes in, "I don't let my pain stop me. I exercise twice a week on the stationary bike and lift weights the other days, and I have an extra leg," as she points to her walker. "I never think of age as a number. I just have to keep my bones working!" Bergman began documenting her grandmother with a video camera about four years ago. She has documented and shared online her grandmother's exercise regime and her grandmother's recipes for cooking Italian cuisine. "My grandmother puts so much joy into what she does-- In her sewing and also in her cooking -- which tastes better because of the love she puts into it. Really, it tastes better more so than anything you or I can cook because of the joy she exudes." said Bergman.
When asked about how she first began to use her grandmother as a model, Bergman turned to her grandmother and politely inquired for permission, "Can I tell the story?" After several seconds of laughter and debate Bergman shared the story. "I was photographing sculptures for my book The Naked and the Nude and wanting to photograph real women in similar poses as the sculptures. I asked my grandmother who I think was in her 80s at the time, if I could photograph her for the project and she said, 'Sure of course' and I said 'Well, um can I tell you about the project first so you know what I have in mind? I want to photograph you nude.' She just started laughing and questioned why anyone would want to see photos of her nude. I told her that I would love to have the body that she has at her age. She told me she would think about it. A few days later we were sitting around the table having lunch with lots of the relatives around; it must have been some big family event because all of my aunts, uncles, and cousins were there. They all knew I had asked my grandmother to do this nude photo. We were sitting there at lunch when my grandmother out of the blue says 'Well if you want to do that photograph let's get it done,' and she gets up from the table and we go and take the photo. It is one of my most treasured and beautiful photographs I have of her and I have been photographing her ever since."
"But with my clothes on!" added Ricciuti.
Bergman has been approached by dozens of people volunteering to be photographed for the Lives Well Lived project. Others who will take seat in front of the camera are seniors from nearby cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and as far away as Burma. Their bylines are extraordinary: Elaine, a 85-year-old psychoanalyst who still works full-time as the Executive and Founding Director of TeenLine, in Los Angeles; Ms Kha Nau, age 85, a Burmese woman who studied at Baptist Missionary boarding schools, attended Rangoon University and Keuka College, in the USA with a scholarship, majored in Biology, graduated in 1953 and returned to Burma. Her professional career is a teacher and she was elected twice as a President of National YWCA in Burma; and Veronica, who will be 86 in January and is the last of 17 children in her family, all born in the poor part of London. She was recently "discovered" by a few casting agents, modeling for a Heavy Metal Magazine and landed in parts in television sitcoms such as The Office and Glee.
"I have received the most remarkable emails from so many. The nominations have energy and honesty and a willingness to share a narrative that in combination with photography will help to interpret their life story and the world around us," said Bergman. The project will culminate in a website, coffee table book, video documentary, and a photographic exhibition that will be shown at California Polytechnic State University where Bergman serves as Chair of the Department of Art & Design as well as a number of gallery shows throughout the United States. Bergman is continuing to seek nominations for seniors to interview, which can be made by emailing her, email@example.com
The idea of a well-lived life is often characterized in obituaries or the past tense, but this project is current and forward thinking, serving as an opportunity to inspire the younger generation with older generations who have found the fountain of youth and want to share their discovery. Grandmother and granddaughter embark soon on the cruise to help celebrate Ricciuti's 100th birthday. They are building an almanac of the extraordinary lives of the people they meet along the way with a simple strategy: Live life well.
Top image: Pwa Saw Village, Bagan, Myanmar (Burma) | Photo: Courtesy of Sky Bergman
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