First published on The Cut, 13 February 2015
Today most people are so blasé about what our grandparents called “courting” that we flick through potential mates on our iPhones like we’re playing cards. But for all that, I don’t believe that anyone, of any generation, could look at Lauren Fleishman’s new book, The Lovers, and not find it moving. It's a book filled with portraits of lovers — long-term, romantic, hold-my-hand, in-sickness-and-in-health love.
The book is a celebration of couples who’ve been together for more than 50 years — Fleishman found more than 50 of them to photograph and interview. “The first couple was my friend’s grandparents,” she explains. “Then I started going to dances for seniors and looking in the crowd for couples I found interesting. I met others at the supermarket, and as the project became more and more popular, I started getting emails from people inviting me to photograph their grandparents.” The Cut spoke to Fleishman about confronting the loss of her own grandparents and what these long-term lovers taught her about relationships.
How did you get started with the project?
It was inspired by a series of love letters that I found in a book next to my grandfather’s bed — he’d written them to my grandmother in the early months of their marriage. At the beginning of the book, you’ll see a copy of one of the letters. It says, “Dearest wife — When it comes to expressing my feelings for you, there is nothing more that I can say. I love you with all my heart and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.”
Were you able to talk to him about it?
No, I found the letters after he passed away. I started to think about these relationships and what it must mean for you to spend the majority of your life with someone, and I felt inspired to seek out and record other couples who had been long married. The other thing is that after my grandfather passed away, I realized I was no longer a granddaughter — he had been my last living grandparent — and I think there was definitely a sense of loss in that. So when I first began the project, I would seek out couples that had similar facial features and ages as my grandparents.
Was that comforting?
Yes, I loved their company. I would go to their homes and photograph them and record their love stories, and a lot of times they’d bake me cakes! We enjoyed spending time together. I worked as the photographer, but the couples would write their own love story through the recorded interview. I didn’t like to ask a lot of questions, because I think the things that people choose to tell you are more interesting.
This kind of work must have a personal impact on you. How did it affect your feelings about relationships?
It definitely did. In the beginning of the project, I didn’t know what it must be like to be married to someone for so long, and I guess what I learned is that it always takes work, whether you’ve been married for 20, 30, 40, or 50 years. And the other thing I realized is that each couple is so different. They all came from such different backgrounds and experiences, but they all offered advice on what worked for them. Over this past year, when I was really going through the interviews and looking at the photographs, I could sometimes hear them in the back of my mind.
The first couple I ever photographed were Mo and Tessie, who are on the cover of the book. To me, there was something so interesting about them. Mo says that every day, his wife tells him that she loves him. And she takes care of him. She told me, “Whenever we decide to do anything, we always discuss it beforehand. … We always discuss things from positive and from negative, and we decide which way we should go, which way would be the best for us. Then you don’t argue, and you don’t use bad language, and you don’t annoy each other, but you’re kind to one another … I even ask him what he would like to eat, and I give him a choice so that he can have what he likes.” They were married so young — I think, if I remember correctly, they were 20 or 21, and they’d known each other in college. These were lifelong loves.
Have you stayed in touch with the couples?
Yes, a lot of them, because they’re curious about the book. They want to know if it’s been mentioned in a magazine, so I’ll tell them or their children or grandchildren, who also get very excited about it. I sent each couple prints and a thank-you note, because I appreciate their letting me do this. It’s been the most incredible experience — I can’t tell you how exciting it’s been. I hope they’ve enjoyed it as much as I have, because I consider it a collaboration.