Grandmothers of America
By Anna Faller | Jan. 29, 2022
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, or so the old adage goes. But for Michigan-based photography duo John Hanson and Joey Schultz, beauty lives in the eye of the camera. “I’m a street photographer,” says Schultz. “I find beauty in everybody.”
Contemporary culture, however, often disagrees. But what society would have us believe is beautiful — especially in how we conceptualize women — Schultz says “can be reprogrammed in our subconscious."
And that begins with how we see age.
“I was once asked what the most powerful image I could take would be,” says Schultz. “Without question, [that image] would be of my grandmothers. I remember them walking hand-in-hand at my brother’s wedding; it felt like you could get radiation poisoning from how radiant they were.”
Though he didn’t snap the shot at the time, it’s an image Schultz could never quite shake. “I kept on thinking about it,” he says, “and I thought I could make a book of strangers that focused on the profoundness — and the beauty and diversity — of our nation’s matriarchs.”
From there, he proposed the project to Hanson. “I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and he presented this idea to me when we were working on a [film] crew together,” Hanson says. “I have a really close relationship with my own grandmother, so my logistical brain started assembling how we could make this project real.”
The result is Grandmothers of America. Released in January, the book compiles nearly five years of travel, and more than 200 American matriarchs, in an effort to remind our current generation that beauty — and the wisdom it contains — is ageless. “We just felt this cultural disconnect,” Hanson says, “and a generational gap, especially in the age of social media. We thought that this was a way for us to use our tools to shorten that gap.”
One of those tools was old-school portraiture. “Part of the reason John and I connected in the first place is our love of analog photography,” says Schultz. As such, they scrapped digital gear from the get-go. “[There’s] that screen on a digital camera that can distract someone who might be a little uncomfortable,” says Schultz. “Just the act of taking [each] photograph where [the women] had no way of seeing it was a way of honoring them.”
The pair applied this same authenticity to their search for the women the project would feature. “When John and I first came up with the idea, I thought that meeting the grandmothers at random was the only way to make a book with real integrity,” says Schultz.
So, armed with a car and some filming equipment, the pair set out in 2017, “all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” he says, “to learn how to convince these ladies to let us photograph and speak with them, and sometimes interrupt their day.”
Not surprisingly, their first few attempts were a bust. “We didn’t know how to do it,” says Schultz. “It took about three days to figure it out.” In the end, it came down to human interaction. “We’d introduce ourselves,” says Hanson, “and enter into a conversation about what advice [they] would you give to [their] younger selves.”
It was only after that sense of trust had developed that the pair would then broach the photography topic. “Even then, sometimes we’d still get a no,” says Hanson. But they couldn’t let a grandma go unrepresented. “We interviewed around 263 grandmothers,” he says, “and those who declined the portrait [have] their advice included in the back [of the book.]”
With each corner of the country accounted for, the tips that Schultz and Hanson received are just as diverse as the grannies that gave them. “The beauty of [the project] was that it was ever-evolving,” says Hanson.
From the ‘quintessential American image’ that often left the pair lost for words — “just the kinetic power, you’d almost collapse!” says Schultz — to the grannies who gunned for the hardest truths, “you never knew what to expect,” says Hanson.
But one fire-cracker chili empress might just take the cake: “She looked like David Bowie, with these giant sunglasses on,” says Hanson. “She [ran] a multi-million-dollar chili business and had these wrinkly hands from [working] so hard her entire life. We never expected to meet a chili-pepper baron, but we did!”
The skepticism they often met with, however, was — unfortunately — no surprise. “It’s a unique and unusual project,” says Schultz, “so especially in conservative areas, people [would ask], ‘What are you doing? Is this a liberal-arts project?’”
Of course, celebrating our Omas, Abuelas, and Bubbies is about as far from political as it gets. “Everyone has a grandmother,” says Hanson, “and everyone knows that nurturing kind of love.”
It’s this inherent ubiquity of the project that Schultz and Hanson most hope to honor. “It doesn’t matter where you’re at on the political spectrum,” says Hanson. “That’s part of why we knew we needed to do this: It’s part of healing, and something that brings people together.”
To learn more or purchase the book, check out grandmothersofamerica.com