From the February 2006 issue of New York Cool

New York Cool

As Long As We Both Shall Live : Long-Married Couples in America

A Photographic Exhibition by Robert Fass

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 this fall. was able to spend a few minutes catching up with the photographer between his travels.

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 always been.

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?

Fass: Yes, 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 Street Y?

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 to photograph?

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 marriage dynamic.

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 slides.

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 (

For further information or to schedule an appointment, please contact Holly Pericoli at 212-415-5749. The catalog is available for purchase online at

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