As Long As We Both Shall
Live : Long-Married Couples in America
A Photographic Exhibition by
Written by Elias Stimac
Photographs courtesy of Robert Fass
“As Long As We Both Shall Live:
Long-Married Couples in America” is the first major
showing in New York City of Manhattan-based photographer
Robert Fass' black and white portrait series examining
the many faces of long-term American marriages. The
images will be exhibited at the 92nd Street Y
through February 23.
An exploration of the changing
institution of American marriage in words and images,
the project began in 1997 in response to a series of
intensely personal events. Since then Fass has
traveled across the country, documenting what many
people feel is a vanishing segment of the American
population: couples who have been married for forty
years or more.
Over three dozen selenium-toned prints
will be on display, accompanied by excerpts from
in-depth interviews he conducted with each couple. As
Long As We Both Shall Live will be featured in a
new PBS documentary, "The Mystery of Love," coming
NewYorkCool.com was able to spend a
few minutes catching up with the photographer between
NYCool: This project took almost a
decade to complete, why is the time right to present it
to the public?
Fass: First of all, because it finally
HAS reached this stage of completion. I.e., it has
achieved a fullness, a maturity that comes from my
having now amassed a wide variety of couples, reflecting
a diverse range of viewpoints and lifestyles, across
lines of ethnicity, temperament, spirituality,
geography, wealth, politics, and more.
Secondly, in the current
sociopolitical climate, the question of "What is a
marriage?" has become an incredible hot button.
With the debate over same-sex marriages inflaming the
nation and sparking demonstrations and legislation at
multiple levels of government, the couples in “As Long
As We Both Shall Live” serve as living reminders of how
drastically marriage has changed in the past
half-century and how richly varied the institution has
Lastly, these couples are something of
an endangered species, and it's important to me to bring
their fantastic stories and insights to the
public. The social and cultural value that they
possess is something that ought to be appreciated,
talked about, and learned from.
NYCool: Is it true your parents were
the inspiration for the project?
absolutely. The portrait series I made
of them in 1997, a few months before my father's sudden
death, formed the initial launchpad for the project
(although I didn't have the project specifically in
mind at the time). Their marriage was a
remarkable one, recognized by their many friends as
a rare union imbued with deep love, respect and
understanding. I think it was because I captured
some of that connection in the portraits that their
lifelong friends, Herb & Gay, asked me to make THEIR
portrait the following spring, which was when the seed
was really planted to make long-married couples the
subject for a photo essay.
NYCool: How is it to exhibit at the 92
Fass: Bob Gilson, the Director, liked
the project from start; he was the one who suggested a
Valentine's Day event. He was also generous enough
to contribute an essay to the exhibition catalog,
despite a very busy schedule as he prepared for the
School's 75th Anniversary celebrations.
The gallery has been recently
remodeled, and it's an extremely nice,
large venue. It serves as the intermission
space for the Kaufmann Concert Hall, so everyone who
attends the world-famous concert and lecture series at
the Y passes through it. In addition, since the Y is an
active community center, the gallery is a multi-use
room. As a result, many events are scheduled there
and that necessarily restricts the public access to
specific days and hours. But they are quite
accommodating for people who want to come look at the
artwork outside of those designated days/times; you just
need to call ahead.
NYCool: From your research, how has
the American marriage changed?
Fass: I'll preface my answer with a
reminder that I'm no cultural anthropologist, and my
findings are purely anecdotal; but, of course, I do
have some observations.
When the majority of my couples got
married, between the 1930s and the 1950s, the cultural
climate regarding marriage in America was very
different. Marriage was an expected thing; as many
of my couples say, "it's what you did."
Pre-marital sex and divorce were stigmatized, sources of
great shame. You got married expecting to stay
together until death. When the civil rights
movement and the sexual revolution hit, American
society, including marriage, underwent major
changes. Interracial marriages were made legal by
the US Supreme Court in 1967. Many women left
their traditional roles as homemakers and entered the
workplace, forever changing the dynamic between husbands
and wives. No-fault divorce made it easy for
couples to walk away from each other. Marital
problems have gone from being private matters, dealt
with (for better or worse) behind closed doors,
to a cottage industry of magazine and
talk-show fodder. Pre-marital sex and divorce are
now anticipated, even expected, bookends to the
contemporary marriage experience.
Marriage is no longer the only option
for couples today, merely one of many widely accepted
lifestyle choices. And while the expectation that
a marriage will last "till death do us part" surely
still exists in many young couples today, it no longer
appears to be the norm. As one of my couples said,
"they're planning their divorce at the same time they're
planning the wedding."
NYCool: What makes selenium-toned
prints ideal for exhibition?
Fass: It's a subjective thing,
really. Selenium toning primarily achieves two
things: it stabilizes the image -- making it
archival, so it lasts for decades; and it produces a
color shift which the photographer can control during
the toning process, particularly enriching the shadow
detail of the print. Some people prefer a plain
gelatin silver print; others like different toners such
as sepia or poly; I like selenium.
NYCool: What was your favorite couple
Fass: My parents.
NYCool: Are you yourself married and
did that influence your work?
Fass: I'm single -- I've got my nose
pressed to the glass. Initially it wasn't a factor
at all, but as I got drawn into this special community,
I became fascinated by the never-ending variety of the
NYCool: How do you like being a
NYC-based artist, and what are the advantages?
Fass: I love it! For the
unlimited number of resources available to the artist
here, the richness and variety of the NYC arts
community, the sheer concentration of people here in the
city who are devoted to pursuing their vision. I
don't know anywhere else where I could simultaneously
maintain my acting career, my writing career, my
photography, and play in a rock band to boot. I
wouldn't mind some affordable studio space, though,
and the competition for grants is fuhgeddaboutit.
NYCool: Is having a website essential
for a photographer these days?
Fass: It depends on what sort of
photographer you are. For a project like mine,
since I don't have a gallery, I think it's essential as
a way to share my work, expose people to what I'm
doing. It also allows me to receive correspondence
from people all over the world who've visited the
website and been moved to share their thoughts and
personal experiences. It's so easy to be so
focused on creating the work and not deal with promoting
it. If I want to show a potential publisher,
curator, or funder my work, sending them to the website
is often a much simpler first step than scheduling a
portfolio review or putting together a packet of
Of course, nothing can compare with
seeing the actual prints. So I hope people will
come to the 92nd Street Y exhibition and experience my
work for themselves!
A special Valentine's Day reception
and catalog signing will take place on Tuesday, February
14, from 5:00 to 6:45pm, with gourmet chocolates
provided by Scharffen Berger (www.scharffenberger.com).
For further information or to schedule
an appointment, please contact Holly Pericoli at
212-415-5749. The catalog is available for purchase
online at www.longmarriedcouples.com)