Women of an Uncertain Age

The work shown here represents an ongoing investigation into ageing and ‘femininity’ through photographic portraiture which began in the mid-noughties.


‘Sukey Parnell’s photographic project, Women of an Uncertain Age, looks at the transitional period where so many women start to lose their visibility in society. Sukey’s pictures cut across class boundaries and capture the cusp between ages, revealing how we deal with what can seem like a precipice.’ 

Anna Chen
Writer, Performer & Broadcaster

Through a Glass Darkly, a triptych of lightboxes, features three women who have been near death at some point in their lives. The pictures explore a changed relation to a sense of being in the world and a personal relation to mortality.

A play on art historical variants of 'feminine' beauty with women supposedly 'invisible'.

Taken backstage at a gig in London just before the Hot Flushers were about to perform, these pictures investigate the heightened moment of encounter with the camera.

‘Much of my work is involved in rites of passage of women and the photography of transition. I am concerned with beauty, the “feminine”, the gaze of modern society and the journey of age. I saw my mother, a TV star in the fifties and much photographed in her youth, almost completely disappear from view in her middle years. I have wondered about this. Do women choose to become invisible? Or is invisibility thrust upon them? How do women navigate their ageing appearance in a society that privileges youth? A society governed by what femininist commentator, Kathleen Woodward, terms ‘the youthful structure of the gaze’ (2006). I am so often struck by how women of age are overlooked; positioned in relation to their youth, their work, their family, but not in their own right. There are enormous consequences to social invisibility: loss of cultural power, denial of care and intimacy. This bothers me. My photography is concerned with how to represent the complexity, diversity and quietnesses of my subjects. How to bring out other ideas of “worthy of view”, question the privileges and norms of beauty as synonymous with youthful sexuality—I don’t want to deny youth its beauty—I want to extend the categories, find other aesthetics that are not youth relative, that can contain the ageing subject without denying the unavoidable conflicts inherent in growing old—the conflicts I feel inside myself about ageing and the dance of appearances. This is what I am trying to articulate in my photography—a dialectic of age.’

Sukey comes from a performing background and has spent time in front of the camera. Now behind it, she comments on the complex notions of beauty and status and how they shape our cultural identity, especially as women. ‘That training in gesture, empathy, how to carry a message and express emotion, how we communicate ourselves through our presence in the world—how much is at stake in a portrait—all of this is very important in my photography,’ she says. Her work reflects a concern with gesture—and lack of it—small nuances in a gaze to camera, the individual adrift in the drama of life. ‘I don’t see myself as removed from the dialogue but a part of it, exploring the conflicts and schism that I experience from being visually caught 

up in the world, as an onlooker and as a participant. The difficulty with expressing and creating beauty in images that are ot easily dismissable or objectified. The double-entanglement of the “feminine”. My work is a conversation with myself as well as with the women I photograph and the viewers of the pictures.’ 

This conversation is played out in words and pictures in her book Women of an Uncertain Age. Women between 40-65 years of age comment on how they feel at this stage in their lives accompanied by their photographic portraits. Sukey says: ‘I think this cohort of women are approaching age differently. I see on the one hand a desire to be transgressively “feminine”, to assert an appearance as a sign of our individuality, and, on the other hand, increasing social pressure to insist that we maintain an attractive appearance or be denied social power and approval. The instruction “to look good at any age” implies that we must “pass” for younger, dress and appear “age appropriate” (whatever that may be) or be mocked and denied. I think this pressure to appear young and push female old age further away represents a real fear of what it means to be an old woman today. The narratives of decline and social exclusion, loss of earning potential, vulnerability, dependency. There are very few viable visual narratives of old age and that worries me. Physical beauty is a “thing”. Having grown up with a Dad in Hollywood, I am sensitive to the power of that beauty. It’s effect and its ephemerality. But it isn’t the only thing. There’s a scene in Terms of Endearment that I remember. Shirley Maclaine is watching her precocious granddaughter playing at dress-up. In a wry throwaway, she says, “Beautiful isnt everything.” That has stayed with me. Beauty is definitely a something, and to me as  insecure young woman—une jolie laide—it felt like everything. But it’s so important that it isn’t all there is or all we see. Growing up in the shadow of celebrity culture in its infancy, I think I may have something to say about our modern obsession with appearances ...”’