Photographer Ella Dreyfus doesn't want to shock people, she says. But she expects some will feel confronted by her work. Even before the opening of her photographic exhibition, Age and Consent, at the Stills Gallery in Paddington, Sydney, next week a few acquaintances offered a peek at the pictures firmly said no, they didn't want to see them.
Indeed the show will drive some people from the gallery fighting down a sense of disgust. The images of the broken bodies we see on the television news practically every night aren't nearly as disconcerting as images of ordinary old nude bodies.
"We should be so proud people have lived to this age. But people are frightened of it. It's a horror and revulsion of an older body - especially an older woman's body," she says.
Dreyfus, 38, a vibrant woman with short, dark hair radiates a strong sense of purpose. Interested in rendering people who have become invisible - just have because they're old - visible again, she dares to say that her exhibition celebrates the "diversity and sensuality of the aged body".
And improbable as it may sound, anyone who sees her photographs of the mischievous looking 77-year-old woman who turned up for the modelling session with her old Christian Dior underwear (but didn't hesitate to shed it) will understand what Dreyfus means. The body belies the decades. The eyes still have a speculative sparkle.
Though intent on provoking us to think about a subject most would rather avoid, she isn't on some kind of crusade. "My aim isn't to break the taboo. To me it's about showing myself - it's about being a woman," she says. A featured event of Senior's Week 1999, Age and Consent is sponsored by The Body Shop with the idea of promoting more positive images of old age.
Since Dreyfus was an art school student she's been interested in photographing the body - particularly the female body. In fact she made her reputation in the early 90s with her Pregnancy Series - images of naked pregnant women widely praised for the unexpectedness of their beauty and eroticism. The critics suggested the work was powerful enough to affect the way women are seen in society. Following the show at Stills Gallery, which drew its biggest crowds ever, says Dreyfus, McPhee Gribble published her book The Body pregnant.
In 1994 Dreyfus was invited to be artis-in-residence at the Caroline Chisholm Centre for Women and Babies at Liverpool Hospital in Western Sydney. A fraction of the money for the hospital's redevelopment had been put aside for the creation of new art works - and in 1996 Dreyfus was again asked to be artis-in-residence, this time in the hospital's Aged Care Unit.
"From being surrounded by new life I was suddenly confronted by illness and death", she writes in the catalogue of her forthcoming show. Rather over-idealising the situation beforehand she ad imagined making photographs that captured the essence of the healing process with images of "touch, skin and affection".
The hospital's regimen - and the patients' own understandable reluctance to be pictured naked, at their most vulnerable and feeble - forced her to rethink her project.
When hospital staff reacted with dismay to the resulting photographs, Dreyfus realised that they had wanted images of benign and dignified old age, not images of illness and mortality, she tells me.
We have met at the house in Balmain she shares with her husband and two children. Upstairs in her attic studio where the windows from the view of the harbour bridge, she unfurls large prints of the work.
The photographs hospital staff found difficult to deal with form part of Age and Consent. The inexpressibly moving images show old people with degrees of dementia. Whatever consenting to have their photographs taken may have meant to them, they took great pride in signing their names, says Dreyfus, whose warmth shines through her work.
In her everyday life, Dreyfus lectures in photography at the national Art School. A male student once told her he was outraged she would dare to photograph a woman who wasn't gorgeous. "It was almost like I'd broken some rule that sys "when you photograph a women, you put make-up on her, you do her hair and you make her look beautiful." Not Dreyfus.
If she looked for anything, she looked for perfectly ordinary bodies. "Don't give me someone gorgeous and perfect, because I won't know what to do with them".
A couple of years ago she started asking older women she knew if she could photograph them. The first was an elderly relative who agreed "because she loves me". Perhaps because the woman was a relative, Dreyfus herself found the proof sheet so disturbing that it was a year before she printed the pictures, nerved herself up to show them to people, and finally went further, asking other relatives, neighbours and friends to participate.
She explained that the photographs were destined for an exhibition open to the public that they could choose whether or not to have their faces in them. One in four declined outright.
"But I would say that 75 per cent of the people I ask say "oh, you wouldn't want me, I'm too fat," says Dreyfus, a good-looking woman who admits to sharing something of the same pre-occupation. "Why do you think I'm doing this work?"
The obsession with fat goes right through society, of course. "I met a woman recently who was an alcoholic and a drug addict and she told me that when she gave up the drugs and alcohol, no one said a word, but when she lost the weigh, it was as if she had walked across the Sahara or something."
Once Dreyfus had photographed older women and showed friends, the prints, she noticed that the most flattering remarks were made about the body of a sixtyish woman who isn't just thin, but almost androgynous. It seems the inescapable imagery of stick-thin models so shape our conceptions of beauty that people are less likely to recoil from the image of a stick-thin older body. Not that the woman was particularly happy with her own body.
"Women of all ages feel whatever their body is - its wrong." If her work has the desired effect it will break through the sense of shame, she says. Dreyfus likes to think the images will prompt people to say to themselves "Well, if that woman looks like that and she's prepared to strip off, maybe I'm okay..."
It has happened already. Some women who saw photographs of perfectly ordinary older bodies said they felt a sense of relief. "I think women really suffer a lot," says Dreyfus. "When you're younger, you rely on your looks to get you by. We've all been trained to spend a lot of effort and energy on being sexually attractive. But there comes a time when you cross over some line and it doesn't work anymore...then you have to confront your worth as a woman. "What am I if I'm not sexually attractive - am I anything?"
By no means all her models had allowed their sense of themselves to be extinguished, however. One woman, an 83-year-old with an active mind and an almost unlined face said "look at my gorgeous body; see how smooth my skin is..." Dreyfus thought it was wonderful.
"I've had the most fascination conversations with all these women." says Dreyfus, who relishes the intimacy of those experiences. "They often talk to me about their bodies. They tell me which bits they like or don't like, which bits their husbands liked or didn't like."
Naturally some were heartened by the positive attention - something they had to get used to doing without. "All your life you've been noticed - women grow up being looked at," says Dreyfus. "No matter whether you're attractive or not, you're still the object of people's viewing and commentary, all of your life.
"But I think older women get ignored. You walk down the street, you pass a dozen old ladies and you wouldn't even see them, your eyes go right through them.
"After all these years of being looked at and performing to that, suddenly there's no audience, no one's interested anymore.
"And I reckon that's partly why I'm doing this," says Dreyfus. "Let them have a look."