These Portraits Of A 97-Year-Old Woman At Home Will Make You Rethink Growing Old Alone

Seeing a person in their home — their chair choice, the books on their shelves, the brand of dish soap on their kitchen countertop — can allow for a level of intimacy we take for granted in this age of instant image sharing. Photographer Candace Karch's striking portraits of 97-year-old artist Marie Ulmer at home don't allow for that, conveying the apparent mundanity of everyday life with a humor and grace doubly rich for the slowness and simplicity at the core of each image.

Ulmer lived and created in her studio as a commercial illustrator for the Free Library of Philadelphia for 35 years. Her works cover all mediums, but Karch was struck by Ulmer's self-portraits — she was often her own best, readily available model. Over the span of five years, Karch captured the rhythm of Ulmer's daily habits, from hanging the laundry to washing the dishes.

Although Ulmer recently moved to an assisted living facility, Karch still visits her weekly, documenting her life for a book that will include candid shots of the spirited artist, as well as her early work. Ahead, the two friends share their thoughts on the curious lifestyle of working and living in the same space.
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"I can't see where [the house has] changed at all. It's been the same for 50 years and it was routine for me living in the same space," said Ulmer. "I didn't know any other place or space."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"My studio was just another room, I never even called it my studio," said Ulmer. "It was just a working place. I worked on my dining room table because it was big and I could spread my work out there and in my kitchen also."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"I have a picture collection I use as reference material, but other than that, I collect most everything," said Ulmer. "Any knickknack [I collect] just because I like looking at them."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"Her house has never changed! It's like walking into a time capsule," said the photographer, Karch. "She doesn't throw anything away, but is very organized with everything labeled. Her basement has a lifetime supply of canned goods in case of a nuclear attack."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"She spent most of her time at the dining room table going through mail," said Karch. "When I would visit, we would sit at that table first and look at what she had been working on, then head into the kitchen for tea. Every time. She had her breakfast at 10 a.m., lunch around noon and supper around 5 p.m. Where she lives now (in the assisted living center), fortunately, they are on the same schedule."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"[This] little shy lady could be so dramatic! She loves the attention, and I wish that this would have happened sooner for her," said Karch. "I tapped into something she never revealed. She probably was not aware of it either. We both have a sense of humor and she likes showing off for the camera."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"Marie has loved having a routine, where I thrive on spontaneity," Karch says. "She is a great organizer. I'm an organized mess. I have told her on many occasions that she has helped me reduce the amount of clutter in my space because I don't want to end up with piles of stuff. She would feather dust everything."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"Because I am so dependent on Marie in order to make a good image, I am less anxious about this work," said Karch. "I can rely more on what naturally happens between us instead of putting all the pressure on myself."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"We have both lived our lives much like the lyrics of The Pussycat dolls' song 'I Don't Need A Man,'" Karch says. "Though I admit, I have let men distract me. Marie has gone about her business as if they don't exist for anything other than to fix a roof."
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Photo: Courtesy of Candace Karch.
"One [memory] really stands out the most for me would be when I asked her about her ideal man. It was Bruce Adams, her college crush. She told me he was nice to her. She smiled for so long it seemed as if he was standing in the room with us."
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