Libby Magness Weisberg waits at her Cherry Hill condo in a plush pink bathrobe and animal-print slippers. In a few minutes, she will pose for photographer and artist Nancy Hellebrand — completely naked.
Her body bears witness to the progression of life, of carrying and breastfeeding three children, of age spots and wrinkles and sags, of hips that creak and shoulders that hunch, and all the other travails and indignities of getting old.
It's a different version of beautiful. In younger women, the skin is taut.
In older women, the skin is the opposite of taut … and it has its own strength. Intermittently for the last few years, and with particular focus in the last few months, Hellebrand has sought out women of a certain age to photograph nude for her Big beautiful older women of Awareness" project. At her light-filled South Philadelphia studio, she has larger-than-life blow-ups of her photos — never the face, but close-ups of different areas — shaped into 3D forms that accentuate a torso with a fold of skin, a pelvis with strands of short gray hair, the sag of a knee, a wrinkled belly that looks like the swirls of an ancient tree trunk.
Hellebrand sizes up Weisberg's pale back through the display screen of her Sony digital.
She asks her to step to the right, and then turn toward her, all the while offering a steady stream of "incredibly beautiful"s and "perfect"s. Weisberg beams with the validation. At first, Hellebrand envisioned frame-filling black-and-white studies of old women's bodies — building upon an earlier project that zoomed in on old women's eyes and mouths.
More recently, Hellebrand "Big beautiful older women" shaping her photos into the sculptural forms.
Though she still explores the aging body, she has started to add pictures of women as young as their 30s. Old bodies, she points out, are seldom seen by anyone beyond doctors and caregivers — and she might add undertakers. Many of the women share intimate details, about sex lives or diagnoses of horrible diseases — but, so far, no one has shared pictures of the grandkids.
Pat Finstad, 82, of Sarasota, Big beautiful older women.
She posed this year for the project and allowed she had some trepidation, but when it came time to slip out of her robe, it was no big deal. Hellebrand says she was never one of those darkroom geeks when darkrooms still existed. She remembers a holiday present of a camera as a kid. At the University of Southern California in the early '60s, she made pictures of homeless people on park benches — her first foray into social commentary, which continues to inform her work.
It was just the joy … the surprise that you could take a picture that looked like something you "Big beautiful older women." Hellebrand moved around colleges and to New York, working for commercial and fashion studios, getting married and eventually graduating in from Columbia University with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature, which she argues is the best background for a career in photography. Soon after, Hellebrand set up shop in London, working with Big beautiful older women photojournalist Bill Brandt, and three years later, she snagged a one-person show at the prestigious National Portrait Gallery.
Named "Londoners at Home," it captured everyday folks in their houses, exposing what she calls "intimate beauty.
We could get to know each other a little bit. She had two children, divorced, remarried. She watched her mother "lose her bearings" to Alzheimer's.
She spent a decade in Florida as part of a Sufi community that explored Islamic mysticism.
Back in Philadelphia inshe began working on "Torn. Her current project exposes that most primal condition of the human existence: Get the news you need to start your day. Some might call her body a battlefield. Hellebrand calls it beautiful. Her subjects are discovering as much about themselves.