Fake tattoo. Real fruit.
97-year-old Marie Ulmer still owns a self-portrait she made nine decades ago, when she was a quiet, reserved child who used her own face in teaching herself how to draw. Over the years, the artist has not wed or had children; instead, she has pledged a lifetime to her artwork, amassing a collection of hundreds of self-portraits. Philadelphia-based photographer Candace Karch was drawn to Ms. Ulmer for the woman’s exceptional lack of vanity or self-consciousness, and over the their eight year friendship, the younger artist has spent five photographing private, wordless moments in the life of the elder.
Karch first encountered Ms. Ulmer in 2007, when she represented her work at Bambi Gallery in Philadelphia. When she began photographing Marie, she explains, the woman’s playful side immediately emerged; she alternately feigned exasperation and strutted for the camera, transforming their collaboration into the sort of game that can only unfold between two people who trust each other entirely. All the images, notes Karch, stand at the juncture between what is staged and candid; through Ms. Ulmer’s various theatricalities, moments of honesty and authenticity take shape.
Ms. Ulmer’s house, says Karch, has been her home for her entire life, and she strives to find the everyday moments that are born from the woman’s familiarity with her home. Here, Marie has on view family heirlooms and random knick-knacks collected along the way. Last year, Ms. Ulmer relocated into an assisted living facility, but the photographer continues to make trips to see her and to photograph her. At times, Karch is asked to remind Ms. Ulmer of the reason she’s snapping so many portraits. They chat on the phone, assisted by Ms. Ulmer’s hearing aid, and ultimately Karch hopes to produce a documentary on Marie’s life.
When Ms. Ulmer passes away, she will leave her life’s work to Karch, a woman she has come to call a best friend. She holds onto the dream the photographer might someday buy her house, and Karch in turn imagines trying on some of Ms. Ulmers old clothes, salvaged from the 1940s. Remarking that she too is unmarried and without children, she jokes that she will someday create a series called Becoming Ms. Ulmer, adding the disclaimer, “I’m only kidding, but it could happen…”
Marie’s hairdryer is practically a third her weight.
I asked Marie who her “ideal” man would be. In her childhood bedroom, she opened up her college yearbook and pointed to “Bruce Adams.” She could not stop smiling.
Marie always wanted to visit some place tropical.
On any given day, it’s 85 degrees in Marie’s house. Her bathroom is like a sauna
Much too agreeable sometimes.
Ms. Ulmer is counting the days until she can go home and open up the mail.
All images © Candace Karch