Facing a century: 100 German portraits

Facing a century: 100 German portraits
Erich Walde. Photo: Andreas Labes
A new book of portraits features the storied faces and fascinating tales of 100 German centenarians who participated in a genetics study. Kristen Allen spoke with photographer Andreas Labes about putting a human face on science.

Erich Walde kissed only one woman in his lifetime. The two were married for 70 years, separated only once for three years while he was a prisoner of war in Siberia.

When Thea Breckerbaum was a young girl, her teacher announced that World War I had broken out, causing the other pupils to tease her because her father, a military officer, would be first to the front. The little girl came home the same day to watch her father, “my whole love,” ride away on a horse. She never saw him again.

Edith Wolffberg and her Jewish family fled Nazi Germany in 1939 to live in Texas. She did not return until she was 102-years-old to show her two daughters her birthplace in Berlin.

Those three and 97 others posed for portraits in a new book by photographer Andreas Labes. His subjects all have two things in common: They lived to be more than 100-years-old and they recently participated in a genetics study on longevity.

“One naturally sees the signs of time, the lived-life that has carved itself into their faces,” the Berlin-based photographer told The Local. “You can see very clearly in such old people what kind of life they’ve lead, the attitude they had towards the world. And they are wonderful landscapes.”

For five years Labes – who has also snapped prominent German politicians and businessmen for national newspapers – travelled across the country to photograph 100 men and women who had lived to see their 100th birthdays. His book, “100 Jahre Leben,” or “100 Years of Life,” was published last month by DVA and features arresting, reverent black-and-white portraits accompanied by short texts of the subjects’ memories.


The project is the artistic extension of a study by the University of Kiel’s Institute of Clinical Molecular Biology, which collected DNA samples from hundreds of German centenarians to prove the existence of a “longevity gene.” In February 2009, scientists there published the results of the study, saying they believed that a variation on the FOXO3A gene had a direct connection to reaching a ripe old age in subjects worldwide.

“Along the way, the scientists at the university decided they wanted to give a face to those who were giving their blood to research,” Labes told The Local.

While it turns out the study participants all had genetics on their side in the battle against time, the 45-year-old photographer, who developed a special relationship with several of his subjects, said many also shared another secret for long life.

“They would pass on grandmotherly nuggets of wisdom like, ‘eat barley soup each day,’ or ‘do lots of sport,’ but during the journey it became clear that they all exhibited a highly-developed ability to adapt. They were realistic,” he said, explaining that all of them lived through the 20th century’s two world wars, the first as children, and the second as young adults.

One photograph shows a healthy-looking man called Hugo Schwarz, born in 1905, taking a deep drag off a cigarette. The photo not only throws the modern view of tobacco’s health effects into question, it also highlights another lesson Labes took from the project.

“He had lived enjoying what he wanted, when he wanted it, and he was still old as stone,” Labes said with a laugh. “It was a reminder that one should also make sure they are just simply happy.”

When Labes asked his subjects what had mattered most in their lives, most often they cited love – among family, between friends, and, of course, romantic love. Stories included secret elopements, love found late in life, loves lost too soon in battle, and love that lasted a lifetime like that of Erich Walde.

“He was so very sad about the loss of his wife after 70 years together,” Labes said. “I found it stunning that one could travel through life together for so long, but is shows how important it was to him.”

But many of those Labes photographed were living alone or in retirement homes in their old age. Some were lonely, others seemed bored. Occasionally, and mainly in rural areas, he would visit one who lived in a multi-generational family.

“For these people who all lived under one roof together things seemed to be going much better. But things have developed so it doesn’t happen much anymore. Old people are pushed aside,” he said.

The book, already in its second printing following its mid-March debut, also includes snapshots of the 100-year-olds in their youth. Accompanied by their stories, it offers a unique chance for a glimpse into the physical journey of their lives.

Labes said none of them seemed to fear their inevitable death.

“It was so near for them, some even longed for it. One woman asked how the others I’d visited were doing – if they still wanted to live,” he said. “For her, it had been enough. But others said, ‘I want to make it to 105.’”

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